Environmental law: area of practice

As an environmental solicitor you will be dealing with multiple layers of law, policy and guidance.

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The best aspect of environmental law is the chance to make a difference. You can shine a light on environmental risks and responsibilities.

Environmental lawyers advise on the requirements of environmental law for the protection of air, soil and the water environment, flora and fauna and habitats, management of waste and the possible liabilities that may flow where regulations aren’t complied with or harm is caused as a result of pollution. It sometimes includes liability for nuclear waste, regulation of novel materials such as genetically modified crops and nanomaterials, and the product safety of chemicals, drinking water, food and medicines. Many environmental lawyers also advise on health and safety.

There are overlaps with other practice areas too, such as energy law, and this means that the boundaries of environmental law are ambiguous. It is a niche practice. I have previously been involved in offshore oil decommissioning, onshore shale gas exploration, real estate developments, wind and biomass power projects and Court of Appeal litigation, among other things. Versatility and a working knowledge of multiple practice areas is a distinct advantage.

You will be dealing with multiple layers of law, policy and guidance. The role requires a commercial understanding of how risk is managed by organisations. Typical transactions for environmental lawyers are M&As (mergers and acquisitions) where lawyers raise questions to the seller, liaise with environmental consultants, attend meetings to advise the client on liability concerns, review the purchase and sale agreements, and negotiate warranties and indemnities.

Making a difference through environmental law

The best aspect of environmental law is the chance to make a difference. You can shine a light on environmental risks and responsibilities – and this is the case whether you are acting for or against the potential polluter. We work in an area that has an interdisciplinary nature where environmental lawyers are connected to a network of other environmental professionals and academics.

How recession-proof is the area of practice?

In recent years, environmental law has suffered because some clients have regarded environmental input to M&A transactions as non-critical. However, there has been a growing counter trend against this swelled by the Financial Stability Board recommendations on the disclosure of climate change risk and by the activities of some public interest groups. Class action litigation against large UK-based companies in relation to their activities overseas that are alleged to have damaged the environment is an area in which you might get involved. Also, the fines levied for breaching environmental regulation have risen, which focuses corporate minds on the need for compliance to avoid upset shareholders.

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Environmental law as a trainee

Trainees’ tasks are varied; however, they involve more legal and policy research than is generally included in other seats. The work is often topical and it may encompass EU and international law. Trainees may also assist with environmental due diligence on corporate transactions. Environmental teams in larger law firms are usually small so there are typically more opportunities to take on higher levels of responsibility than in other training contract seats.

Overall, environmental law is intellectually rewarding. However, if you are driven by achieving partnership, you may need to add complementary strings to your bow, such as planning law or renewables projects.

Types of law practised by enviromental solicitors

  • Statutory regulation.
  • Tort.
  • Contract.
  • Criminal.
  • Public administrative

Good environmental solicitors have…

  • Analytical skills and are good at managing change.
  • The ability to adapt to a constantly shifting legal landscape and are comfortable working on numerous and varied matters.
  • A deeply held belief in the importance of protecting the environment.

JULIE VAUGHAN is a senior associate within the planning and environment group in HERBERT SMITH FREEHILLS LLP’s London real estate division. She graduated from the University of Nottingham with a degree in law.

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