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ClientEarth Communications

22 November 2019

How to become an environmental lawyer in the UK

At ClientEarth, environmental lawyers use the law to fight for justice for people and planet. As the threat from climate change and the destruction of nature grows, more and more people want to gain legal expertise and to join our movement – and we increasingly get questions about how to become an environmental lawyer in the UK.

If you’re thinking about gaining legal skills to play your part in the climate crisis, here’s our guide on how to become an environmental lawyer in the UK. We outline the different stages and offer some useful links to help you progress.

What is environmental law?

A relatively new area, environmental law has developed and evolved since the late 70s and early 80s. It began as a form of law tackling nuisance and issues impacting on human health. Since then the repertoire of environmental laws has expanded to cover a wide range of topics. ClientEarth has legal programmes in climate, energy, pollution, rule of law, forests, oceans and wildlife, among others. Other organisations specialise in still more areas.

What do you need to study to get into environmental law in the UK?

In the UK, there are typically two routes you can follow to study to become an environmental lawyer.  One option is to read a full law degree (LLB) as an undergraduate degree. In doing so you learn about the ‘core’ components of the law and legal system as well as electives of a range of legal topics, one or many of which could be environmental law or similar disciplines.

Alternatively, you could pursue an undergraduate degree of a different discipline and, after graduating, undertake a one-year ‘law conversion’. This is formally known as a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) or a Common Professional Examination (CPE) which focuses on teaching the core components of the law and legal system in a year.

What kind of lawyer do you want to be?

Environmental laws are in place to protect the environment and human health as well as manage how natural resources are used.

After completing your studies, you will need to complete professional education. In England and Wales the legal profession is divided into two: solicitors and barristers. There are distinct courses depending on which path you wish to follow. The barrister profession is regulated by the Bar Standards Board. Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Learn more about the difference between the two.

Where does an environmental lawyer work?

Once you complete your studies, you will be ready to look for training. To get into environmental law, the options vary.

Most lawyers at ClientEarth trained in private practice. After qualifying they worked in private firms for some years on a range of legal topics – including environmental law – before moving in to ClientEarth to work exclusively on environmental  cases and issues. They were able to bring to ClientEarth broad experience and expertise to the work that they do. It’s important to consider what training you might be able to gain in private practice to support and underpin your future career.

Increasingly other routes are available to you, such as completing the academic and vocational stages of legal training; or possibly pursuing further studies (an environmental Law Masters or other post-graduate degree) and going to work in the public sector. Some legal experts at ClientEarth worked for environmental charities and NGOs using their legal skills for the benefit of the organisation but not necessarily as a practising lawyer. Their roles at ClientEarth are wide-ranging and include working as policy or legal experts in a broader team of lawyers who still hold a practising certificate.

Useful environmental law organisations to get involved with…

If you’re looking to begin or enhance your career in environmental law, the UK Environmental Law Association (UKELA) is the membership organisation for environmental law professionals in the UK. UKELA provides the platforms and opportunities for environmental law professions to connect and collaborate on a range of environmental law topics, providing opportunities for you to write, speak or collaborate on the environmental law issue that you really care about.

If you’re looking to increase your experience in environmental law: The Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) supports members of the public by providing free environmental law advice on a range of matters. It also runs a series of University law clinics where law students can – under supervision – work on real-life environmental law cases for communities.

Potential environmental law opportunities:

  • Friends of the Earth offers a one-year legal internship and will provide you with the opportunity to work on a range of cases.
  • Greenpeace International offers a paid internship which will also provide you with a chance to work on lots of different environmental law issues:
  • WWF-UK has a legal department so keep an eye on its vacancies website
  • The Environment Agency has career opportunities for those of you looking for a career with the country’s environmental regulator.
  • There is also the option of training and working with the Government Environment Department, DEFRA through the Government Legal Department.
  • Of course, ClientEarth regularly has new roles for environmental lawyers and legal staff with different levels of experience.

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