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The article below has been republished in full courtesy of Law360, written by Juan Carlos Rodriguez.
Aspiring and newly minted environmental attorneys have a wealth of career options, whether they pursue employment with a law firm, government agency or nonprofit advocacy group.
From homing in on important administrative law classes to networking with industry associations, an environmental law student or practitioner's job can lead down some unexpected paths, according to Marc Campopiano, a partner in Latham & Watkins LLP's environment, land and resources department and a member of the firm's training and career enhancement committee.
"I think the environmental law field is really exciting and fast-moving. It's at the intersection of the traditional legal practices of litigation and regulatory, and science and political involvement," Campopiano said. "The practice involves cutting-edge questions of climate change, water regulation or hazardous waste sites that require constantly understanding the development of the regulatory and case law framework. And it requires community outreach, public communication as well as brief writing and submitting applications."
1. Take Administrative Law Classes
While it's obvious that law school students interested in environmental law careers should take classes like basic environmental law, international environmental law and toxic torts, it's also important to focus on administrative law classes, according to Aaron Flynn, a partner at Hunton & Williams LLP.
"Those are incredibly useful, and whenever I'm interviewing somebody, if they have no idea what administrative law is or have no interest in taking those types of courses, that's always a signal to me that maybe the type of law they want to practice is different from what I do," Flynn said.
That advice is the same for those law students who have an eye on a nonprofit career, said Tamara Zakim, an attorney at Earthjustice. Typically, environmental lawyers argue in front of a judge, she said, and there isn't much discovery since the evidence is what was in front of a government agency at the time it made a decision.
"Administrative law is really the art of arguing around agency decision-making, advocacy around what government agencies do, what their powers are, what the limits to their powers are, what federal statutes govern agency decision making and other, similar things," Zakim said.
2. Get Government Experience
Coveted jobs in an established environmental practice at a law firm attract loads of applicants, so it's important for candidates to bring as much as possible to the table, such as past experience at government agencies, Flynn said.
"I really encourage second-year law students, younger people who are practitioners, to think about government service. It's something that differentiates you, it makes you an incredibly strong candidate. Obviously it's a fantastic career as well and a pathway in and of itself," he said.
That could mean working on Capitol Hill for a member of Congress or taking positions in representatives' field offices or any of the numerous agencies that handle environmental issues, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Management and Budget or White House Council on Environmental Quality.
"When you're representing private companies, they are so often dealing with the regulatory experience, with interacting with government agencies, with navigating what are often very complex procedures in order to get a permit. These procedures are incredibly nuanced. And the best way to understand them is to be within the agency and to understand how the agency thinks about those issues," Flynn said.
3. Demonstrate Commitment to the Field
Employers in any sector want to see a demonstrated commitment to the nature of the work in addition to good lawyering skills, according to David Mears, a professor at Vermont Law School.
"Sometimes students make the mistake of thinking that if they bring the right amount of passion and commitment that they'll be able to overcome the fact that they didn't study administrative law or didn't take corporate law," Mears said. "And, vice versa, sometimes students will think that if they're a good lawyer, it doesn't matter if they don't care about the subject, it's just another job."
And Flynn said anything applicants can do that shows a real, demonstrated interest in environmental law should be pursued.
"Whenever I'm interviewing law students or reviewing resumes, if I see in a cover letter, 'I want to join your environmental law practice,' and then I see absolutely nothing in their background that seems to suggest environmental law is something they've had any exposure to or any real interest in, that’s always a signal to me that they looked at the website and just chose a practice area," he said. "And that's not the best approach."
4. Find a Mentor and Start Networking
It's key for aspiring environmental attorneys to find mentors and learn the ins and outs of networking, according to experts.
Good mentors might be found at a law school clinic, firm, nonprofit or government agency, and should be willing to take the time to help show aspiring attorneys the ropes and offer feedback, Flynn said.
"Not everybody wants to take the time to do that, simply because people are busy. But there are those people out there, and they are incredibly helpful and incredibly important to developing your career," Flynn said.
Grant Gilezan, a member at Dykema Gossett PLLC and leader of the firm's environmental law practice group, said networking outside of work is extremely important for continuing educational opportunities, making contacts and meeting potential clients.
He said that a new lawyer should recognize that often the client contacts they will have on a project are not strictly in-house counsel, and could include a combination of corporate counsel, corporate environmental health safety managers, technical consultants and contract employees that are already part of the project.
"Working with those nonlegal personnel is one thing that can be enhanced not just by having a great rapport and pursuing as many networking opportunities as you can, but also showing the initiative to get lunch, do a training session or some other kind of reaching out," Gilezan said.
He also said it's important to make an effort to become involved with professional associations, trade associations and environmental policy committees that are part of chambers of commerce or other industry groups.
5. Develop a Niche
Environmental attorneys who are just starting out will have to be general enough to be flexible, so that as junior associates, they can be helpful on a range of cases and matters, Campopiano said. But it's important to look for opportunities to gain expertise.
"Almost universally, environmental attorneys have some area of expertise. Even if they have a general practice, they might be known as a water quality expert, air quality expert, power expert or [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act] expert," he said.
Flynn said those opportunities may be hidden in matters that aren't the most high-profile ones that employers are handling. While those niche issues may not be headline news, they are very important to the parties involved.
And by finding something relatively obscure and taking the initiative to write an article or blog post about it, a new attorney can relatively quickly became the person who knows about the regulation of that industry.
"That’s a way you can become known for something and have a practice that will be your own practice area and make you really valuable to whatever organization you're working for," Flynn said. "I think that advice applies to everybody."
This aricle has been republished in full and is courtesy of Law360. For the latest breaking news and analysis on energy industry legal news, visit Law360 today.