Go Green- Environmental law prospects on the rise

By Tom Gantert

Legal News


In an industry lacking much positive hiring news, there is one field in the legal profession that many experts say is growing: environmental law.

With more and more state and federal legislation addressing the environment, the demand is increasing for lawyers with "green" legal experience. That can mean anything from air and water quality to climate change to protection of wildlife.

"We are looking at overall trend of the energy sector growing and the environmental sector becoming more robust," said Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center as well as an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School. "All that creates more work and business for lawyers. The environment and energy law fields are growing."

In the 2010 Michigan State Bar salary survey, the average pay for an attorney practicing environmental law was $153,250, among the highest average of any field. The State Bar of Michigan estimates that 590 of its 41,800 members are environmental lawyers. By comparison, about 2,463 state bar members practice family law.

The State Bar of Michigan will address Michigan's environmental laws in an environmental regulatory conference Nov. 14 in Lansing that is put on by its Environmental Law Section and the east and west Michigan chapters of the Air & Waste Management Association.

In addition to panels on the role of courts in state decision making involving the environment, Valerie Brader, deputy legal counsel to Gov. Rick Snyder, will give a speech titled, "The View from Lansing: Objectives and Priorities for the Direction of Michigan Environmental Policy."

In the fall issue of the University of Michigan Law Quadrangle, David Uhlmann, the Jeffrey F. Liss Professor from Practice at the law school, writes that the environment is taking center stage in this state.

"It's hard to think of a time when partisan differences were greater," Uhlmann wrote. "But it's also hard to think of a time when environmental issues loomed larger."

Uhlmann is also founding director of the five-year-old Environmental Law and Policy Program (ELPP) at Michigan that offers environmental and natural resources law curriculums and has grown from about six courses a year to 25.

"That reflects growing student interest and growing activity in the field," Learner said. "It's becoming a larger part of the practice and students are recognizing those opportunities."

The legal profession has become a major player in the national debate over environmental issues. The Sierra Club, for example, has an Environmental Law Program that has filed dozens of lawsuits in its battle to shut down coal plants.

Cooley Law School offers not only the traditional environmental law course, but environmental law externships and advanced courses in climate change law, energy law, sustainable development law and policy, water law, coastal and great lakes law, oil and gas law, real estate transactions, and zoning and land use planning law.

"Growth in the field of environmental law flows from increased public awareness of the importance of protecting the air, water, and other natural resources," said James Robb, Associate Dean for Development and Alumni Relations and Senior Counsel for Thomas M. Cooley Law School. "This has resulted in the increased scope and depth of environmental regulation. But at the same time, the corporate sector has become more aware of the business advantages to promoting a cleaner environment. "

"Certainly, any constitutional or legislative changes that mandate increased environmental protections will tend to require more lawyers to handle the associated administrative and business burdens," Robb said.

The growing need for environmental lawyers is linked to a greater awareness of how society interacts with the environment.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was started in 1998 as a rating system for the design and construction of buildings so they are more environmentally friendly.

"One of the newer areas in which we are seeing growth involves green projects aimed at protecting natural resources and public health," Robb said. "For example, lawyers are beginning to develop specialties in assisting with the certification of buildings and processes as environmentally efficient by organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Association, which offers LEED certification, and the Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities, which offers SERF certification."

Robb said Cooley's Auburn Hills campus is LEED certified and equipped with low-energy lighting, other energy saving devices, and a grass roof that keeps the building cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter and diminishes storm water runoff. Michigan Law's new South Hall was awarded a LEED gold certification rating for its sustainability features.

For information on registering for SBM environmental regulatory conference on Nov. 14, go to www.emawma.org .

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