Environmental law attorneys are attorneys who specialize in legal matters that concern the environment. These include lawsuits related to water pollution, climate change, clean technology, and matters that involve the regulation of any land subject to native title and other public lands. In 2019, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated 170 criminal cases and charged 137 criminal defendants in these cases. Over 1,900 facilities also voluntarily self-disclose violations to the agency during this period. Similarly, in 2020, the agency also recorded more than 35 settlements in civil cases that it initiated.
Environmental law attorneys are typically hired by individuals, corporations, community groups, organizations, and government agencies to provide counsel on how to comply with environmental laws or navigate through sensitive environment-related matters. These environmental law attorneys also represent their clients during litigations on issues concerning the violation of environmental laws. An environmental law attorney's job description typically includes the following responsibilities:
- Analyzing data from findings, cases, trials, and other sources
- Advocating for environmental regulations and protections
- Creating legal correspondence and other documentation
- Making recommendations about corrective actions and fines for offenders
- Effectively communicating to the society or community of persons about how an event or plan may negatively impact humans or wildlife
- Providing counsel to clients on environment-related issues
- Determining whether there is enough evidence to represent a business, individual, or government agency in legal proceedings dealing with environmental impact
- Assessing damages and environmental impacts from an event
- Interviewing clients and other people of interest to compile enough evidence to develop a case
- Effectively and persuasively presenting evidence and other findings at trial proceedings in courts of competent jurisdiction
Because environmental law cases require a lot of skill and expertise, it is important to ensure that the environmental law attorney near you you intend to hire has the required qualifications to handle your case effectively. To do this, you need to ask the following key questions:
Where are You Licensed to Practice Environmental Law in the State You are?
Whether you are involved in a local, state, or federal environmental matter, it is important to make sure that your environmental law attorney is licensed to practice in your state of residence. Most environmental lawsuits are filed in the federal courts that are located where the alleged environmental violation occurred. However, some environmental matters like air pollution cases and land development issues may be filed in the state trial courts. Additionally, some states like Hawaii and Vermont have specialized environmental courts that have jurisdiction over environmental cases that involve water, forests, streams, beaches, air, and mountains, as well as terrestrial and marine life.
Before an environmental law attorney can appear in either a federal or state court, the attorney must have completed all the relevant steps necessary for licensing for practicing before that court. These steps include earning a bachelor's degree through an undergraduate program at a college or university, taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and completing a law school program that will lead to the award of a Juris Doctor degree (J.D.). An additional step includes taking the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). This exam is required to gain admission to the bar in all US jurisdictions except Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. It ensures that the aspiring attorney's conduct and professionalism meet the American Bar Association (ABA) standards of professional conduct. The final step is sitting for and passing the bar exam in the state where the attorney intends to practice. Note that while this final step enables the attorney to practice in the state's trial courts, additional steps are usually required for practicing in federal courts. The requirements for practicing in a federal court vary by location. Some courts like the U.S District Court, Southern District of Texas require environmental law attorneys to be licensed to practice law in at least one state in the country. Other courts, like the United States District Court, Northern District of California, require these attorneys to be licensed to practice in the particular state where the federal court is located.
Before you hire an environmental law attorney near you, make sure to find out if your intended attorney is allowed to practice in your state's trial courts or federal district court. Visit the American Bar Association's lawyer licensing page or contact the federal court in question to find out your attorney's licensing status.
What Kind of Environmental Law Work Do You Handle?
Environmental law is a very broad area of law. It is therefore important to find out the exact aspect of environmental law that the environmental law attorney near you you intend to hire specializes in. Some common environmental law practice areas include:
Water Discharge and Contamination - Industries that release waste into stormwater are required to obtain permits that regulate the volume of pollutants they can release into water bodies. The permits may also authorize a facility to incinerate, landfill, process, or beneficially use sewage grunge. Federal law also requires industries to pre-treat the pollutants in their wastes to protect wastewater treatment plants and local private citizens or the state can file an action against a company that fails to follow these guidelines. Environmental attorneys that specialize in this area assist these facilities obtain the required permits and also represent industries that face civil or criminal charges for violating the laws on water discharge and contamination.
Hazardous Materials - Permits and licenses are required to transport, store, treat, handle, or dispose of hazardous waste. Failure to get these permits may result in a lawsuit. The EPA, authorized state agencies, and private citizens may also file civil or criminal actions against violators of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. This Act regulates the detection, prevention, and cleaning up of hazardous releases. In any of these instances, an environmental law attorney assists in obtaining the necessary permits, filing any actions, and representing people alleged to have violated the laws regulating hazardous waste.
- Air Pollution and Emissions - This practice area of environmental law involves air quality and pollution. Large industrial companies are typically required to install air pollution controls when building new facilities or making modifications to existing ones. Failure to do so may result in the institution of a civil action by the EPA. In such cases, an environmental law attorney represents the company sued for violating air pollution and emission regulations.
- Mining and mineral processing - The EPA may bring civil actions to protect the environment from high-risk or illegal hazardous waste operations at high-risk mineral processing facilities. An environmental law attorney represents the defendants of such civil actions.
Asbestos cases - The EPA may file a civil lawsuit to enforce the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act regulations on how to react to asbestos in schools. The EPA also takes action to enforce worker protection standards for some local and state government employees who are not protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Act's asbestos standards. An environmental law attorney specializing in this area represents schools or employers in asbestos cases.
- Environmental criminal cases - The EPA and state governments can institute a criminal case against any person whose conduct threatens the environment and people's health. In this instance, an environmental law attorney acts in the capacity of a criminal defense attorney, defending anyone facing environment-related criminal charges.
These different areas of environmental law are completely distinct and require different sets of skills and expertise. This is why it is of utmost importance that you find out what area of environmental law your attorney specializes in. This way, you can hire an environmental law attorney with expertise in the area that suits your particular case.
How Long Have You Been in Practice?
It is not enough to just hire an environmental law attorney near you that specializes in the area of environmental law that is relevant to your case. You should also make sure that this attorney has enough experience handling these types of cases. You can find out an attorney's level of experience by simply them. Many attorneys and law firms also state the number of years that they have been practicing law on their websites, and you can confirm this information through your state's bar association. However, it is important to note that an environmental law attorney with more experience will generally be of more value to you. These types of attorneys typically charge higher legal fees.
Do You Charge Fixed or Hourly Fees?
Before you hire an environmental law attorney near you, you should get clarity on the attorney's fees and billing system. Not every environmental law attorney bills the same way. Some of the different ways that environmental law attorneys bill their clients are:
- Hourly Rates - Most environmental law attorneys charge an hourly rate for their services. This hourly fee ranges from $45 to $100 depending on the expertise and experience of the attorney.
- Flat Rates - An environmental law attorney may charge a fixed fee for some cases based on the kind of work involved. Services like reviewing documents or performing an assessment usually have a flat rate of $300 to $500.
- Contingency fee - A contingency fee arrangement is a billing system where the environmental law attorney is paid an agreed percentage of the awarded damages or settlement. This percentage is generally 30% to 35%. Under this kind of arrangement, your attorney does not get paid unless your case is successful. However, you may still be responsible for other costs such as court filing fees, expert witness fees, and other overhead fees.
Make sure to discuss the fees and billing system of the environmental law attorney you intend to hire so that there are no surprises or misunderstandings at the conclusion of your case.
Do You Charge for an Initial Consultant?
An initial consultation is important when hiring an environmental law attorney near you. It is at this meeting that you share the information about your case and build a rapport with your attorney. Some environmental law attorneys charge a fee for this initial consultation, while others do not. As such, always make sure to find out from the environmental attorney that you intend to hire if you will be charged for the initial consultation before going for the meeting. You can do this when scheduling your appointment with the attorney.
How Do You Keep Clients Informed About Their Case?
Communication is very important in the attorney-client relationship. All attorneys, including environmental law attorneys near you, have an ethical duty to keep their clients informed about their cases. However, with meetings, paperwork, and the caseload in general, there may be a tendency to fall out of touch. As such, it is best to establish a communication system with your environmental law attorney from the very beginning. Discuss your preferred form of communication with your attorney and agree on a regular meeting time to get updates and ask questions. It could be daily, weekly, bi-monthly, or monthly.
Because of their busy schedules, some environmental law attorneys may be unable to personally attend to all requests for information from their clients. However, these attorneys typically have junior associates, secretaries, or paralegals that can step in and handle these communications. Considering this, it is also a good idea to get clarification on who you should contact if you have an emergency and not a usual case update or information request.
Who Will Actually Do The Work?
It is common for people other than your environmental law attorney to work on your case. This is even more likely if your attorney owns or works for a big law firm. Attorneys generally have paralegals, secretaries, junior associates, and legal assistants that aid them in handling tasks like gathering evidence, drafting documents, and conducting research. In light of this, it is always a good idea to find out who will actually be working on your case and in what capacity. Ask about the experience and expertise of these individuals, how much of the caseload they would handle, and if your environmental law attorney would be overseeing their activities. Attorneys who employ non-lawyers like paralegals and legal assistants are required by the American Bar Association to supervise the activities of these non-lawyers. As such, you should ensure that your attorney follows this regulation.
Can You Provide References from Former Clients?
Any good environmental law attorney near you should have several satisfied former clients that would be more than happy to share their reviews of the attorney with you. You can ask your attorney for a list of these clients so you can speak to them directly. These references will give you an idea of your attorney's experience and success rates. You can also check sites like Better Business Bureau and Google Review for unbiased reviews of your attorney's law firm. It is also a good idea to find out whether your environmental attorney has violated, or been accused of violating any of your state's court rules and legal ethical codes. You can obtain this information by contacting your state's bar association.
What is Your Success Rate?
You should find out the success rate of your environmental law attorney in handling cases similar to yours. Having this information gives you a broad idea of the probability that the attorney can help to resolve your case successfully. You can find out your attorney's success rate by telling your attorney what your expected outcome is and asking how many times the attorney has been able to achieve this outcome. You can also confirm any information your attorney gives you by contacting former clients for whom the attorney claims to have achieved positive outcomes.
Also, you can access court records of the cases that your environmental law attorney has handled in the past by contacting the court where the attorney has appeared the most in. Reviewing these records will give you a general idea of your environmental attorney's overall court performance. Note that even court records are generally accessible by members of the public, the process for obtaining these varies from court to court. You may be required to present a valid government-issued ID and pay a fee before you can obtain copies of these records.
When Should I Hire an Environmental Law Attorney?
It is not a mandatory requirement to hire an environmental law attorney near you when dealing with environmental law issues. However, because of the vastness and complexities of environmental law, it is always in your best interest to do so. Some instances where you should consider consulting an environmental law attorney include:
- You or your property has been affected or are at risk of being harmed by environmental pollution
- You intend to build private or commercial real estate on protected land
- You are selling or buying contaminated real estate
- You are facing environment-related criminal charges
- Your facility has caused some type of pollution
- You want to dispose of toxic waste
- Your business is very likely to affect the soil quality of your surroundings
- You are facing environment-related civil actions
What are the Typical Qualifications Held by an Environmental Law Attorney?
The requirements to become an environmental law attorney include having a bachelor's degree and a Juris Doctor (JD) law degree. Prospective environmental law attorneys usually acquire a bachelor's degree in environmental policy, environmental science, and climate change, sustainable business management, or environmental policy, law, and society. After obtaining a law degree, environmental law attorneys must also pass the relevant state's bar exam to become licensed to practice within that state. Once licensed, environmental law attorneys are also expected to remain up-to-date on current environmental laws and new case precedents. Some environment law attorneys also get additional educational qualifications by obtaining a Master of Law (LLM) degree in environmental law.