Job description of an Environmental Lawyer:
I'm a solo practitioner, specializing primarily in land use and environmental law. I do everything: client intake, interviewing, and screening; case analysis; representation during administrative processes; litigation (trial court & appellate); legal research, drafting, oral argument, settlement negotiations, etc.; clerical work (e.g., answering phone, typing, filing, billing, etc.)
PayScale: How did you get started as an environmental lawyer?
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I spent ten years as a Biotech Researcher, first in academia, then in industry. Then I got laid off and realized that my particular sub-specialty had become somewhat of a dead-end. After spending a year or so as a consultant, I decided to make a career change.
I'd gotten involved politically in my city of residence, ending up serving a short term on the city council. After that, my continuing involvement led me to learn some municipal law and then some environmental law as I followed what the city was doing. At one point, I decided the city was violating state environmental laws, and spoke up in front of the city council. One council member looked down at me from the dais and said, "What do you know? You're not an attorney." After I was laid off, those words got me thinking maybe I should become an attorney. So, I took the LSAT, scored well, applied to a local law school, got my degree, and passed the bar.
I had thought that after earning my law degree, I'd go to work for a public interest environmental group. However, when I finally got out, I found there were no jobs, so I decided to just "hang out my shingle." The first couple of years were tough, and I was lucky that my wife had a decent job. (My first year, I made about $15K.) A lot of my work initially was contract employment -- working for other attorneys. As time went on, some of those attorneys' clients became mine, and eventually my practice got established, mostly by word-of-mouth.
PayScale: What do you like best about being an environmental lawyer?
I like the fact that I get to choose my clients and my cases. If I don’t like a particular case or client, I can tell that client that I don't want their case. I can set my own work schedule (for the most part). I can work from home, I get to do work I find interesting, and work on things that feel like they're making a difference in the world. (Even if I do lose a case, I can still feel pride in having fought the battle.)
One of my most exciting moments came with a case I took on for a community environmental group, trying to stop a freeway project. After six years and two trips to the Court of Appeal (including a published decision), I was successful. Now instead of a freeway, a much more environmentally benign project is being built with respect to the community. Every time I feel discouraged, I look at that case and can feel like it's possible to make a difference.
PayScale: What are the biggest challenges you face as an environmental lawyer?
Perhaps the biggest challenge is struggling through the first two or three years of working solo, when you have only a few clients and not much income. I think it's important to learn how to operate your practice on a shoestring. You have to constantly be asking yourself whether this or that expense is really necessary, and often times you have to substitute labor for money. For example, rather than purchase expensive law books, I'd go down to the county law library to do my research. I got cheap, but serviceable equipment (e.g., a cheap printer, copier, & fax machine), but splurged on a good quality computer. Of course, now almost any cheap computer will do what needs to be done in a law office. I didn't hire help unless I really needed it. I sometimes used student interns to do research and "grunt" work for relatively low pay. I could then pass those savings on to my clients, who generally didn't have much money, and appreciated my frugality.
PayScale: What advice would you give to those interested in becoming an environmental lawyer?
You really need to be motivated to break into law as a solo practitioner. It's much easier (and more lucrative) to go into a large corporate practice. However, if you really believe in what you're doing, it’s worth the effort to have a solo practice you control.
Once you've gotten yourself established, things get easier. It certainly helps to have a partner with a well-paying job for the first couple of years; otherwise you're going to be buying peanut butter with food stamps. It's also worth it to save up for school beforehand, rather than taking out a lot of loans to get through school. I know too many people who started off in a corporate firm "for just a couple of years" to pay back their loans. They then got hooked on the high salaries and associated lifestyle and stayed there, well-off, but unhappy.
PayScale: What's the most exciting thing that’s happened to you as an environmental lawyer?
Every once in a while a really weird client walks in the door. More often than not, I don't take their case. But it certainly adds interest. I occasionally have employed homeless people in the neighborhood to do my process service and other clerical work. One guy I hired off and on for a year or two eventually went back to school, learned to drive trucks, and now has a steady job. I like to think I helped get him back on his feet.