Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Across the country, law students are registering for their fall courses, and some of them are choosing whether or not to take environmental law. This, then, is a good time to make the case for enrolling in the course. The target of my argument isn’t the student who is determined to make a career in environmental law (and, therefore, the kind of student who actually might read this blog, but never mind that). I’m assuming those students will take a basic environmental law class, and several other related courses as well. Instead, it’s the student with a passing or uncertain interest in the subject.
I think there really are three primary reasons why environmental law remains a course well worth taking.
The continued importance of environmental law practice. A few years ago, many people thought that the environmental law field was primed for expansion, with new climate change laws likely serving as the key driver of the change. That hasn’t happened. On the whole the field doesn’t seem to be growing, and the economic downturn’s impacts on development activity translated into less work for environmental lawyers. But the field also isn’t going away. Environmental due diligence remains a crucial part of almost every commercial real estate transaction and or corporate merger; Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act compliance still generate lots of work; and both governmental and non-governmental enforcement still generate many cases. The environmental law boom of the 1980s will probably never recur, but there still will be work.
The continued relevance of environmental law has implications for students who intend to focus primarily in this area, and it also matters to students who intend to enter other fields. For example, future real estate lawyers, corporate transactional lawyers, energy lawyers, and state or local government lawyers all are likely to encounter environmental law over the course of their careers, and they’ll be stronger within their core practice areas if they have some prior understanding about how environmental law works.
The skills. Among many students, I suspect there’s a belief that environmental law is something of a warm, fuzzy, and esoteric subject—fun to study, but not particularly practical. The reality is nearly the opposite. Environmental law is in large part a course about statutory and regulatory interpretation, and interpreting dense, somewhat technical statutes and rules isn’t warm and fuzzy at all. The course is actually pretty hard work, even though most of us who teach it work hard to make it interesting. But interpreting statutes and regulations forms the core of modern legal practice, and a student who takes environmental law therefore will develop and refine skills that will be useful in fields ranging from tax to immigration.
The importance of the subject matter. One reason that environmental practice isn’t going away is that environmental issues aren’t going away. They might not rise to the top of the general public’s list of concerns. But we breathe air, drink water, and consume natural resources constantly, and all of those activities make us both beneficiaries of environmental protection and contributors to environmental degradation. And if anyone doubts the importance of law to environmental protection, a quick review of this remarkable series of posts ought to provide a compelling reminder that we are surrounded by experiments in the non-development, or non-implementation, of environmental law, and those experiments generally do not go well. Similarly, the 40-year history of environmental law shows that designing law that effectively responds to these problems is no easy task, even if those laws are backed by the best of intentions. We still need people--lots of them--who understand the intricacies of this field.
- Dave Owen