Modern environmental law is a relatively new legal specialty that developed in the 1970s with the passage of the country's first federal environmental statutes and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A wide range of federal environmental statutes have followed, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (the Superfund Program). Modern environmental law, however, has a long history in earlier conservation programs creating national and state forests, parks, and wildlife reserves.
Environmental law practitioners work in a variety of settings. In government, environmental lawyers work for federal, state, and local agencies. These jobs primarily deal with the enforcement and development of environmental regulations. Litigation is sometimes, though not always, involved. For instance, a lawyer at the EPA might draft a regulation to establish pollution control protocols for power plants. Or a lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Environment and Natural Resources Division might have to defend the agency in a case brought by an industry group accusing that EPA regulation of being too burdensome. Environmental lawyers may also work as public interest lawyers or as attorneys for environmental advocacy organizations in a litigation, lobbying, or transactional capacity. Organizations of this sort include the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Sierra Club, Midwest Environmental Advocates, and Clean Wisconsin (formerly Wisconsin's Environmental Decade).
In the private sector, environmental lawyers find jobs in law firms or as in-house attorneys for corporations. A large amount of work in this area concerns the necessary environmental permits that businesses need when they build or expand and involves the application of administrative law to obtain, challenge, or defend permits. Corporate environmental lawyers also counsel their clients on the environmental liabilities associated with purchasing existing real estate. Private practice may also involve efforts to develop or modify agency rules and legislation relating to environmental issues and defending private or municipal parties in enforcement proceedings.
Law students with a strong interest in environmental law can earn either a certificate in environmental studies or a dual degree in environmental studies through the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
These are the basic courses offered at the UW that — at a minimum — employers expect a student interested in this specialty to have.
- Administrative Law
- Introduction to Environmental Law or Environmental Law and Practice
- Land Use Controls
- Natural Resources Law
Students interested in this practice area should consider including one or more of the following courses as electives.
- Advanced Legal Writing
- Agricultural Law and the Environment Seminar
- International Environmental Law
- Federal Law and Indian Tribes
- Local Government Law
- Selected Problems in Environmental Law
- Water Rights Law
- Wisconsin Administrative Law
(Note that whether a particular course is scheduled depends on faculty availability and student demand.)
These courses deepen or broaden the skills and substantive information that a lawyer in this field needs and may also provide advanced courses for students interested in a specialty within this area of practice.
- Administrative Advocacy Clinical
- Business Organizations I
- Law, Science and Biotechnology
- Product Safety Law
- Real Estate Transactions I
- Real Estate Transactions II
- Regulated Industries: Energy
Particular Environmental Law Curriculum questions, contact:
Clinical Programs, Internships, and Externships
This program offers the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in civil litigation and public advocacy as it relates to environmental law at the Department of Natural Resources and Midwest Environmental Advocates.
Midwest Environmental Advocates Externship
Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) is Wisconsin's only nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental law firm. Student externs can earn up to 7 semester credits working up to 21 hours a week at MEA. Students work with MEA lawyers on administrative and judicial litigation, rulemaking, and policy development at the state and local level. Law students get experience researching and writing with feedback and support from MEA lawyers. Students have the opportunity to draft motions, briefs, discovery, memos, and comments to agencies, and may attend hearings and other events. MEA works across many issue areas, including Clean Water Act compliance, frac sand mining and CAFOs. Midwest Environmental Advocates helps citizens to organize and participate in solutions to environmental protection and environmental justice issues, and gives students the opportunity to work with citizens at the grassroots level.
Clean Wisconsin offers law students the opportunity to learn about and practice environmental law. Its clinical program is open to UW-Madison students as a semester-long for-credit externship. Most summer interns receive funding through public interest grants available from their law schools.
Students participating in the clinical program learn valuable practice skills and apply their coursework in administrative law, natural resources law, energy law, political science, and many other areas. Students work side by side with Clean Wisconsin’s in-house attorneys to analyze legislative proposals, participate in administrative proceedings, draft discovery, motions, testimony, and briefs, and participate in hearings. Students are responsible for legal research, writing and drafting memos. Clean Wisconsin aims to provide law students with “hands-on” experience that will prepare them for real world environmental law practice.
Semester externs may register for either a 3- or 4-credit externship. Students earn one credit per 45 hours of work completed. Law students work 40 hours per week during the summer, which provides the opportunity to explore a variety of environmental law topics and practice areas in depth.
If you are interested in applying for the clinical program, please send a cover letter, resume, unofficial transcript, and writing sample to Elizabeth Wheeler, Staff Attorney, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications are due by:
Fall externship: August 1
Spring externship: December 1
Summer program: February 1
UW-Madison and Marquette students who are interested in applying for the summer internship should participate in the Public Interest Interview Program sponsored by those two schools.
Student Organizations and Related Activities
Environmental Law Society
This student organization studies problems related to both environmental preservation and the impact of environmental regulations on businesses and individuals.
There are three student journals — Wisconsin Law Review , Wisconsin International Law Journal , and Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society — that give students an opportunity to assist with and contribute to the Law School's scholarly publications. These publications provide invaluable training in legal research and writing. Published articles sometimes concern environmental law.
Mock Trial provides real trial experience at a competitive
level. Students participate in nationwide competitions that give them
opportunities to give opening and closing statements and direct- and
cross-examine witnesses. For the student interested in litigation it is
an invaluable experience to learn skills you may not get in the
Moot Court is a mock appellate advocacy program that provides invaluable experience for students in brief writing and oral advocacy. In addition, the Environmental Law students have been putting together a Pace Environmental Moot Court team for the last few years. They have also had a team for the Stetson International Environmental Moot Court.
Wisconsin Public Interest Law Foundation (UW-PILF)
This student-run organization is committed to supporting law students who want to work in public interest law. The UW-PILF offers grants to students who pursue public interest work during the summer, including public interest work in environmental law.
Environmental Law Faculty
Here are some of the faculty who teach or have an interest in this subject area: