Environmental Lawyer

What does an environmental lawyer do? An environmental lawyer works to represent clients in legal issues such as with clean technology, water pollution, climate change, the management of land subject to Indigenous communities and other public lands.

Other areas of focus include environmental rights, international environmental law, the law of the sea and international resources law.

Environmental lawyers advocate for balanced regulations regarding pollution and the handling of materials, fight to protect biodiversity, agriculture, and ecosystems and confront issues of waste management.

At a Glance

Imagine you are in a quiet corner of the Province’s law library researching legal briefs and court transcripts.

You are an environmental lawyer working for the Crown and you are looking for legal precedents to use at an upcoming hearing.

The Province has brought charges against a chemical processing plant for alleged violations of its environmental operating approval licence. The Province granted the company an operating licence that allowed the plant to discharge treated effluent at a specific quantity into the river.

Recent evidence shows the plant was discharging more effluent than its licence allowed. Now, the Province wants to revoke the licence and fine the company to cover the cost of cleanup.

Your job at the hearing will be to present the case to the court in a fair and impartial manner so the judge can decide if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with prosecution.

As an environmental lawyer, you specialize in legal issues regarding provincial and federal environmental regulations.

You have spent weeks preparing this case: gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, and researching past court decisions.

Because environmental law is such a new specialty, there aren’t many precedents or textbooks you can go to for help. But that just makes the job more interesting because you know that each case you try will be ground-breaking.

At this hearing, you will have to show the judge that the defendant was discharging more effluent than its license allowed. You will introduce testimony from the provincial regulator who first discovered the offence, as well as company employees who will say they were instructed to discharge more effluent, even though it was above the legal limit.

You will also call several investigators to the stand and present physical evidence to refute the company’s claim that it wasn’t discharging more than its limit.

To demonstrate the seriousness of the transgression, there will also be testimony from an environmental toxicologist, an analytical chemist, and a fisheries biologist, who will all tell the court the damage that’s been done to the river ecosystem and how critical a thorough cleanup is.

There’s a huge amount of information to consider in a case like this and it is your job to pull it all together and present it to the court as you work to protect the environment.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties that an environmental lawyer might encounter:

  • Assist investigators in the early stages of investigations where infractions are suspected
  • Prepare disclosures and participate in pre-trial negotiations
  • Draft pleadings and correspondence
  • Act as a mediator, conciliator, or arbitrator
  • Research changes in legislation, legal precedents, and case law
  • Assemble and analyze evidence gathered by clients, witnesses, and persons of interest to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with the prosecution and if the proposed prosecution is in public interest
  • Provide legal and policy advice to regulatory and investigating agencies
  • Negotiate agreements with landowners and governments and between industry participants
  • Identify the areas of stresses or issues causing environmental concern
  • Review incident reports regarding environmental spills or incidents that may occur at facilities, client sites or during transport of material
  • Ensure regulatory and corporate compliance for all facilities through daily, weekly, or monthly, facility inspections and environmental audits, and take responsible action when required

Work Environment

Environmental lawyers work in a variety of locations, including:

The office:

  • Researching legal precedents and legislation
  • Preparing briefs and trial documentation
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, government officials, colleagues, and experts in the field
  • Maintaining contact with all environmental regulating bodies, such as Environment Canada, Ministry of Environment & Energy, regional, municipal and industry associations

The court:

  • Meeting with clients to discuss cases
  • Carrying out research and visiting sites
  • Presenting at trials and hearings
  • Negotiating settlements

Where to Work

There are several places environmental lawyers can find employment. They include:

  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal governments
  • Private law firms
  • Environmental consulting firms
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Large firms in other industries, for example, oil and gas, mining, and manufacturing
  • Insurance companies
  • Not-for-profit, non-governmental, and international organizations

Search for jobs on the ECO Canada Job Boad

Education and Skills

If you are considering a career as an environmental lawyer, you should have an interest in:

  • Social Studies
  • Legal Studies
  • English
  • Biology

If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an environmental lawyer, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Juris Doctor
  • Environmental Science
  • Business and Commerce
  • Resource Management
  • Philosophy

In order to work as a lawyer in Canada, you must successfully complete an LL.B. (Common Law) or B.C.L (Civil Law) program at a recognized institution.

In most cases, acceptance into one of these programs requires completion of an undergraduate degree or a minimum of two years in a program of study leading to a university degree.

Upon graduation, lawyers must complete a period of articling and pass a bar admission course. Environmental lawyers must be licensed by their provincial association to practice law.

General certifications that could be considered an asset includes:


Hard/ Technical Skills (these skills are obtained through formal education and training programs)

  • Corporate law
  • Risk assessment
  • Commercial litigation
  • Legal research
  • Project management
  • Financial literacy
  • Knowledge of substantive law and legal procedure

Soft Skills (personal attributes and characteristics)

  • Oral and written communication
  • Negotiation
  • Public speaking
  • Analytical thinking
  • Time management
  • Tact and patience in dealing with clients
  • Integrity
  • Organizational skills

Environmental employers look for professionals who can combine technical knowledge with soft skills. Look at our free webinar “Essential Not Optional: Skills Needed to Succeed in Canada’s Environmental Industry” or our Essential Skills courses. 

Role Models

Brian Harvey

"I knew I didn’t want to be a scientist!” recalls Brian Harvey when he describes how he felt when he had finished his undergraduate degree in biology. During his four years of scientific study, the biology major spent much of his free time participating in clubs and events associated with law and government. These extracurricular activities led him to enrol in law school. Now, three years later, the young lawyer says his biology background gives him an advantage for practising environmental law. "Having done the theoretical study of ecology and the environment, I can quickly determine if situations are environmentally sound.”

Brian says law school shaped the way he approaches all issues, especially environmental ones. "I started to realize that perhaps just going out…and blazing a path wasn’t the most effective way to get things done. There was a place for those people to do those things, but there was also a need for people to more calmly and rationally analyze the situation.” Brian realized he could effect change by working on the "nuts and bolts of things” while retaining his passion for the environment’s well-being.

As a passionate environmentalist, Brian says it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in and overwhelmed by the "unnavigable maze of [environmental] regulations and legislation,” To find his way, he routinely asks himself three key questions: What is happening? What needs to happen? How do I get there? "If you can boil it down to these simple steps,” he explains, "your life as an environmental lawyer will be a lot easier.”

Your Impact

As an environmental lawyer, you can be proactive by advising businesses and corporations on how to be more environmentally conscious with operational decisions.

You will represent clients in legal issues regarding clean technology, water law, and climate change, amongst others. Environmental law can be complex, so your communication skills are essential to persuade stakeholders and win cases in court.

You can also advocate to develop environmental policies and laws or write on environmental law at an academic level.

In a place like Fort McMurray, Alberta, which could be considered the hub of oil rigs in this province, several firms operate simultaneously. With hundreds of people working at these rigs to ensure the smooth operation of drilling, transportation, and commercialization of oil there may be an incentive to reduce production costs. But at what cost?

It’s in situations like this that environmental lawyers play an important role. They act as both advisors and legal advocates for the protection of the environment and natural resources. As an advisor, you may counsel clients on their legal rights and obligations with respect to the environment.

Occupational Classification

Individuals employed as environmental lawyers may be classified in one of more of the following occupational groupings:

NOC Code: 4112: Lawyers and Quebec Notaries

NOC Code: 1242: Legal Administrative Assistants

NOC Code: 1416: Court Clerks

NOC Code: 4211: Paralegal and Related Occupations

NOC Code: 4161: Natural and Applied Science Policy Researchers, Consultants, and Program Officers

What is a NOC Code?

The National Occupation Classification (NOC) provides a standardized language for describing the work performed by Canadians in the labour market. It gives statisticians, labour market analysts, career counsellors, employers and individual job seekers a consistent way to collect data, describe and understand the nature of work within different occupations.

The NOC is developed and updated in partnership with Statistics Canada to coincide with the 5- year census cycles. It is based on in-depth occupational research and consultations conducted across Canada, to reflect changes in the Canadian labour market.

ECO Canada Logo

Site en cours de développement

Nous travaillons actuellement sur la version française du site que nous espérons lancer très bientôt!

Merci pour votre patience et compréhension pendant que nous finalisons la version améliorée du site.

Website in Development

We are working to launch the French site very soon!

Thank you for your patience while we finalize the new and improved version of our website.