Dear Law Graduates: Why Not Become Environmental Lawyers?

Over the coming weeks, law schools all across the country are holding their commencement exercises. On Friday, for instance, I had the privilege to address the graduating class of the New York City Environmental Law Leadership Institute. By the beginning of summer, or more likely after taking the bar exam, thousands of lawyers will be at the start of their careers.

For those still considering where they should focus in the coming years, I have one completely unsolicited piece of advice: Now is an exceptionally good time to become an environmental lawyer.
Think about it. We’re facing challenges of a magnitude that, frankly, environmental law hasn’t had to face before. They weren’t really in the eyes of environmental lawyers when most environmental laws were passed.

I’m talking about the effects of global warming – about exotic species invasions, icebergs calving and salmon species collapsing – but I’m also talking about the challenges involved in transitioning to a low carbon economy, a transition this country is about to make.

The Lieberman-Warner Bill, set for a vote on the Senate floor on June 2nd, calls for a 70% reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Getting there will require answering a number of difficult legal questions. For instance:

  • How do you change the zoning rules to create more livable cities and towns with more mixed uses? We have to think about changing our building codes to create credits for green buildings, and to think about buildings and transportation at the same time.
  • How can you capture CO2 from coal emissions? Leaving aside the technology issues, think about the legal issues that we have to get resolved, and we have to get resolved fast. When you start pumping in the carbon dioxide, it goes into cracks in the ground – we don’t know where it goes. Who owns that area under ground? What happens if it leaks? Those are all rules that haven’t been written and that you’ll get to think about.
  • And how do we change our utility rate structures to provide incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy? How do you change the system to encourage clean energy citing, like wind farms or solar farms and discourages dirty energy?

These are some of the issues you’ll get to think about – there are many others.  As lawyers, it will be your task to create laws that bridge the gap between environmental theory and reality. This makes for some of the most intellectually challenging work facing us in the coming years.

And so, as you study for the bar over the next couple of weeks, think about what you could do in environmental law. It makes for an exciting, and rewarding, career.