Stepping into the wild...

Environmental law may have been invisible on the legal radar a few years ago; however, today it is very much in the limelight as a growing, lucrative and incredibly interesting area of law. The subject covers both contentious and non-contentious practice and involves matters such as: health and safety, resource contamination, dumping of waste, recycling of material, disaster management, climate change and alternative energy resources.

What does environmental law involve?

The enactment of the Environmental Protection Act in 1990 marked the UK’s first step towards a growing focus on environmental law. Still considered a niche practice area, it is very difficult to find practices that focus purely on environmental law. In most firms, lawyers specialising in environmental issues are usually seconded from property and construction or project finance departments.

Solicitors who are interested in private practice and want to specialize in environmental law will usually work in-house or as an external consultant to other companies. The completion of due diligence in large corporate, property and project deals is an important part of these job roles. Due diligence activity can include anything from checking on waste disposal methods and illegal dumping, to scoping out past histories of environmental protection and wildlife conservation.

Other tasks include: providing necessary advice to clients on compliance with regulatory requirements; pre-empting investigations by authorities; and defending clients against claims on pollution, conservation methods, emissions, criminal negligence and general health and safety.

Many claims involve considerable potential damage to reputation and huge pecuniary losses by way of penalties and compensation. Consequently, environmental lawyers play a critical role in these sensitive matters and are needed throughout the entire process.

You might be assigned work that relates to matters such as pollution levels, emission control, planning and infrastructure needs versus environmental concerns, alternate and renewable energy resources, maintenance of health and sanitation, and clean water supply. Contentious work might involve prosecuting organisations that have flouted environmental regulations or committed environmental crimes.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in environmental law, opportunities are available to work in-house for big corporations and NGOs. If you pursue an environmental law career in the public law domain, you could be working for government authorities, such as the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, or regulatory agencies such as the Environment Agency.

What makes a good environmental lawyer?

The desirable qualities for an environment lawyer are flexibility, an ability to multitask, an excellent academic background, strong reasoning and analytical skills, and a keen awareness of the commercial process.

Reasonable working hours and interesting prospects for progression are available. You will get the chance to participate in a huge range of work in this field. This will require you to be up-to-date with corporate and transactional law, public health and safety, financial resourcefulness and current industrial, business and regulatory norms.

A lot of the technology and resources used in environmental law today are very cutting-edge, so it definitely helps if you’ve got a fair bit of scientific knowledge and you are familiar with environmental jargon and terminology.

Alex Round is a first year trainee solicitor at Mills & Reeve. Currently in a Planning seat, Alex details his day-to-day work, client and colleague relationships and his previous seats…

What’s the first thing you do when you get into the office?

I turn on my computer, hang up my coat and make a very large mug of coffee.

Could you give us a quick breakdown of how you spend the average day in this seat?

The work in the Planning team is quite varied. I usually try to get more urgent client related tasks completed before lunch and if I have a clearer afternoon, I attend to non-matter tasks. For example, the Planning team runs a law blog that trainees are regularly invited to contribute to. I always try to get internal admin done first thing in the morning and in the last 30 minutes of the day. The reality is that stuff comes in all the time so often I just respond to things as and when they come in. I like to leave the office in the middle of the day for lunch if I can but sometimes I eat at my desk if I need to.

In just a few words, could you explain the sort of work you do in planning law?

The Planning team helps clients with a wide range of issues including managing the legal risk on planning applications, advising on s106 agreements, handling appeals and legal challenges and (increasingly) advising on Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) issues.

How much do you correspond with senior colleagues and clients on a daily basis?

Client correspondence is almost always by email but I am responsible for a fair amount of that and I get very good contact with more senior colleagues. Everyone is very friendly and approachable and I certainly feel comfortable approaching senior colleagues if I need guidance or advice on a piece of work. I recently attended a consultation with leading counsel with clients and other professionals which was a fantastic learning opportunity.

What sort of responsibilities do you have as a trainee in planning law? Are you tackling hands-on project work or undertaking more general research?

A lot of the work that the Planning team does and which I get involved in revolves around negotiating s106 agreements between developers and local planning authorities. The drafting and preparation that goes into these agreements accounts for quite a lot of the time that the team spends on a day to day basis. Some larger s106 agreements that we are working on which are slow to turn around because of the number of interested parties and the number of developer covenants that need to be negotiated.

However, the work is very varied so I have plenty of opportunities to see interesting research tasks. I have recently spent a lot of time working on a large development proposal that includes the building of over 3000 homes as well as commercial units and other infrastructure. This particular project has led me down a number of interesting avenues – both legally and commercially - and has really enhanced my understanding of and appreciation for this area of law and the work the team does.

We also often support the wider Real Estate team on planning matters so sometimes internal notes are prepared and I have been to internal meetings with senior Real Estate/Construction colleagues to take them through the answers to planning queries that they have had in relation to their client matters.

How does this seat compare with others you have completed?

My previous seat was with the Family team so I have enjoyed quite a change of scenery. A lot of the family work that I was involved in was highly contentious and the work could come in at any time, sometimes with significant time pressures. There is definitely more breathing space in the Planning team which is just as well because some of the planning legislation takes a bit of time to get your head around!