In its Guide to Careers in Environmental Law, Harvard Law School notes that environmental lawyers regularly go to court at the state and federal levels to represent government agencies, fight for individual citizens’ rights through lawsuits, and challenge the actions of agencies.
In general, environmental lawyers work to establish and defend policies that safeguard the rights of citizens through the protection of environmental resources. The specific approach of an environmental lawyer depends on the type of law they practice. The branches of environmental law involve different aspects of the same common goal of environmental justice (EJ). The American Bar Association defines EJ as a community movement that addresses the burden of pollution and lack of environmental resources that communities of color and people living in poverty suffer disproportionately.
- Regulatory attorneys help draft regulations and laws on environmental issues.
- Settlement attorneys help clients understand the environmental impact of certain money decisions and help them make responsible financial decisions.
- Trial attorneys represent individuals or agencies in enforcing environmental law in civil cases.
- Public policy defense attorneys work to influence policy and legislation related to environmental issues.
Environmental lawyers can use the state and federal statutes they help implement to benefit their clients by bringing about change that advances the health and well-being of all citizens while emphasizing their right to take legal action when an agency violates that right.
The Many Roles of Environmental Lawyers
While it is an essential role in any type of law, going to court represents just one of the many responsibilities of environmental lawyers. His broad area of practice requires a more inclusive set of skills related to activities both inside and outside of the courtroom.
According to the ABA, environmental lawyers once focused on general environmental law when litigating issues related to environmental injustices. However, in the early 1990s, lawyers began using Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to demonstrate the impact of environmental problems on people of color. Today, lawyers often sue government agencies and recipients of government funds on behalf of affected citizens.
Administrative Law Procedures
In addition to civil courts, environmental lawyers also handle cases in administrative law, which oversees the development and operation of government agencies. In administrative court, attorneys can address decisions made by government agencies that affect the safety and well-being of citizens, particularly those of color and those in lower socioeconomic levels.
Other Professional Duties
In addition to bringing cases to civil and administrative courts, many environmental lawyers engage in activities that influence the policies they support. Other duties of environmental lawyers may include:
- Intrigue elected officials who champion environmental causes.
- Advise policymakers on the legal aspects of their proposed regulations.
- Draft new policies and regulations on environmental preservation.
- Develop new approaches to permitting.
- Lend your knowledge to groups of university experts.
- Consult with companies on compliance with environmental laws.
At all levels, environmental advocates work to make changes that protect the planet and, in turn, help improve the lives of people directly affected by ecological decline.
Environmental Justice Principles Affirm Citizen Rights
In October 1991, delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. formulated the Environmental Justice Principles, which affirm the rights of people of color and those living in poverty to enjoy the same access to safe and clean resources as all other citizens. Some of the principles drafted by EJ leaders include:
- The right to be free from ecological destruction
- The demand for a public policy free of discrimination or partiality that respects the justice of all citizens
- The right to clean air, land, water and food
- The right to participate at all levels of the decision-making process
- The right to a safe and healthy work environment
- The need to rebuild communities suffering from JE to ensure access to resources
- Opposition to military occupation as a means to repress and exploit specific groups
Environmental lawyers go to court to hold their clients to uphold these and other EJ principles by upholding private rights and promoting fair regulations and policies.
Compensation in Environmental Justice Cases
The EJ movement also stresses the importance of protecting the rights of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation for their injuries and losses. People in affected communities have the right to hold individuals accountable for exposure to environmental hazards in civil courts, and these cases often escalate into class action lawsuits due to the number of victims experiencing the same injustices.
Victims can take legal action if they suffered injuries and losses as a result of exposure to environmental toxins, such as:
- Lead and other contaminants in drinking water
- asbestos or radiation
- Radon and other dangerous gases
- Harmful chemicals