Environmental Lawyer

Environmental law is a legal specialty that deals specifically with provincial and federal environmental legislation, for example the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. Environmental lawyers act as both advisors and legal advocates in the protection of the environment and natural resources. As advisors, they counsel clients on their legal rights and obligations with respect to the environment. As legal advocates, environmental lawyers can work for the prosecutor’s office or in private practice representing clients in criminal cases where charges have been laid as a result of environmental infractions.

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 groundbreaking. 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. In order 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.

Job duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an environmental lawyer:
  • Assist investigators in the early stages of investigations where infractions are suspected.
  • Review files to determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with prosecution and if the proposed prosecution is in public interest.
  • Prepare disclosures and participate in pre-trial negotiations.
  • Review operative and applicable legislation to determine the client’s/defendant’s rights, obligations, and duties.
  • Draft pleadings and correspondence.
  • Compile evidence and interview clients, witnesses, and persons of interest.
  • Research legislation and court decisions.
  • Develop cases and present them at trial.
  • Provide legal and policy advice to regulatory and investigating agencies.
  • Negotiate agreements with landowners and governments and between industry participants.
  • Participate in public-interest lobbying and education campaigns.

Work environment

Environmental lawyers work in a variety of locations, including: In 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
In the field:
  • Meeting with clients to discuss cases
  • Carrying out research and visiting sites
  • Presenting at trials and hearings

Where to work

There are a number of 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

Education & requirements

If you are a high school student considering a career as an environmental lawyer, you should have strong marks or 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:
  • Law
  • Environmental Studies
  • 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 in order to practise law.


Environmental employers look for professionals who can combine technical knowledge with business skills. The ECO Academy can help you build the essential skills needed for a successful environmental career. Learn more raquo


Environmental lawyers who have just passed their bar admission course make between $60,000 and $75,000 per year in Canada. An environmental lawyer with several years of experience and education can make an average of $172,000 per year.

Role Model

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.”