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Environmental and energy law are still in their infancy. The EPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act were all products of the early 1970s, and the movement for stricter regulations to curb fossil fuel emissions is even younger. Fifty years ago, a list of the top environmental law schools would have been impossible.
Now, however, we depend on environmental law programs to save the planet, whether through public interest litigation and regulation enforcement, policymaking, advocacy, or conflict resolution. If you want to become a lawyer on the frontlines in the battle against climate change, study environmental law at one of the schools featured below.
But before breaking down the top environmental law schools, let’s take a brief look at the various degree paths open to students of environmental law.
Types of Environmental Law Degrees
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There’s no question that going to school for environmental law is one of the best ways to enact your vision for a greener and more sustainable future. The professional utility of your knowledge, however, will depend on what kind of degree you get. Students of environmental law have four basic degree options available to them.
- Juris Doctor (JD). A Juris Doctorate is what you need to represent clients as an attorney. Programs last three years, with years two and three devoted to declaring your environmental law specialization, taking environmental law classes, and securing internships and externships related to your specific career goals.
- Master of Law (LLM). The law school equivalent of a master’s degree, an LLM requires an additional year of courses and training. With more experience and knowledge under your belt, you’ll have a better chance of landing your dream job.
- Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD). This is the PhD for law students, which will only be worth it to you if you want to spend between two and four extra years in school, are passionate about legal research, and are willing to write a dissertation.
- Master of Studies in Law (MSL or MLS). Great for careers in environmental advocacy, these are designed for students who seek knowledge of the law but don’t want to be lawyers. They usually take between one and two years to complete, and they’re relatively easy to get online.
Top Environmental Law Schools in the United States
The 10 law schools on this list collectively occupy the intellectual center of environmental policy and regulation in the United States. When change happens in climate, energy, or natural resources law, chances are it was the brainchild of an environmental law center or environmental law clinic at one of the following ten programs.
Lewis & Clark Law School
- Location: Portland, OR
- Program: Environmental, Natural Resources, & Energy Law
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM, two MSL options
- Concentrations: Environmental and Natural Resources Law; Energy, Innovation, and Sustainability Law
If you’re familiar with Portland’s beautiful natural environs, it will make sense to you that the city is home to the best school for studying environmental law in the country. While most law schools offer some semblance of an environmental law program, Lewis & Clark’s staggering array of courses, concentrations, and clinics puts most other programs to shame.
As deep as it is wide, this program’s pool of degree options includes two separate JD curricula, an in-person and online path for both the LLM and the MSL, and a joint JD/LLM. With so many ways to learn environmental law, it’s no wonder that Lewis & Clark attracts the best talent, and then grooms them for vital advocacy work with top law firms.
Vermont Law School
- Location: South Royalton, VT
- Program: Environmental Law Center
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM, four MSL options
- Concentrations: Climate and Energy Law; Food and Agriculture Law; Land Use Law; Water Resources Law; Environmental Tax Law and Policy
For the widest range of degree options, whether or not you intend to become an attorney, Vermont Law School is the place to be. Carve out your own niche with a tailored course of study in one of six concentrations, and take classes on fascinating topics like the benefits of using tax law to address climate change, and comparative US-China environmental law.
But the elaborate curriculum is not merely for show. The faculty of the Environmental Law Center consists of thirty experts from around the world, any of whom a JD would be lucky to have for an adviser. MSL students have similar avenues open to them, with specializations in environment, energy, food and agriculture, or restorative justice to choose from.
Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University
- Location: White Plains, NY
- Program: Environmental Law Program
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM, SJD
- Concentrations: Advanced Certificate in Environmental Law
Some programs put themselves on the map by dedicating resources to studying issues of climate and energy and to practicing environmental law. Other programs are already on the map by virtue of their proximity to centers of power. The Environmental Law Program at Pace University ranks highly for both reasons.
If you want to be near the action in Washington, DC and New York City, you should go to Pace. Your ability to make a difference in the realms of environmental regulation and environmental policy are only as good as your externship opportunities, and Pace sets students up with great ones both inside the Beltway and in the Big Apple.
University of Oregon School of Law
- Location: Eugene, OR
- Program: Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM
- Concentrations: Environmental & Natural Resources; Ocean & Coastal Law; Conflict and Dispute Resolution (CRES)
If you’re keeping track at home, that makes two top environmental law schools for the state of Oregon. The University of Oregon School of Law has almost all of the same academic and professionalization advantages as the other top schools, plus an option for JD students to concentrate on ocean and coastal law, which none of the others have.
Oregon also features a robust graduate program for students interested in conflict resolution, called CRES for short. If you follow one of the CRES degree paths, you can use your budding legal mind to solve disputes in the public sphere, focusing on issues such as climate change, land use, water rights, and international environmental law.
UCLA School of Law
- Location: Los Angeles, CA
- Program: Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM
- Concentrations: Environmental Law
Any environmental law student skeptical of progress at the federal level might feel more hopeful about making a difference in California state law. Were California its own country, after all, it would rank as the fifth-largest economy in the world. You could do a lot worse than studying in Los Angeles, the most populous city in the most progressive state in America.
As you might expect, then, the Emmett Institute leads the way on a number of important environmental issues, especially climate change. Beyond coursework in such topics, JD students can take any number of exciting externships in and around Los Angeles, as well as get hands-on experience in advocacy or policy work with one of the school’s two clinics.
Alexander Blewett III School of Law at University of Montana
- Location: Missoula, MT
- Program: Natural Resources & Environmental Law Program (NREP)
- Featured Degrees: JD, Joint JD/Master’s
- Concentrations: Natural Resources and Environmental Law, Natural Resources Conflict Resolution, Indian Law
One of the cheapest law schools in the country, the University of Montana offers three bargain certificates for JDs interested in practicing environmental law. Each of these tracks includes three required courses, a dozen electives to choose from, and four clinic options.
While not as rich in resources as the other top programs, NREP is perhaps the best place to work on environmental conflicts between the United States and indigenous peoples. The Blewett School of Law also understands the importance of dual degrees in the current job market, and provides a path for JDs to earn a concurrent Master of Environmental Studies.
Harvard Law School
- Location: Cambridge, MA
- Programs: Environmental & Energy Law Program (EELP)
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM, SJD
- Concentrations: Law and Social Change
No list of top programs would be complete without an Ivy League school, and it shouldn’t surprise you that environmental law is one of the many areas in which Harvard Law excels.
On the academic side, Harvard’s environmental law program falls under the broader Law and Social Change concentration. JDs can learn from the likes of Richard Lazarus, who literally wrote the book on how environmental law gets made. EELP is technically the program’s research arm, with the Emmett Clinic providing real-world training.
Georgetown University Law Center
- Location: Washington, DC
- Program: Environmental Law & Policy Program
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM
- Concentrations: Environmental and Energy Law; Global Health Law
It’s hard to compete with a law school located in the nation’s capital. Conveniently positioned halfway between the White House and Capitol Hill, the Georgetown Law Center puts its students near the beating heart of federal policy lawmaking.
A faculty full of top-tier environmental lawyers and a course catalog overflowing with classes on climate and energy issues are just two reasons to attend Georgetown. If you’re on the fence, the chance to influence actual climate change legislation as part of the Georgetown Climate Center and the Harrison Institute Policy Clinic should push you over the edge.
UC Berkeley School of Law
- Location: Berkeley, CA
- Program: Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE)
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM
- Concentrations: Environmental Law; Energy Law; Public Policy
If there’s one thing CLEE cares more about than saving the planet, it’s helping students channel their passion for the environment into real policy solutions. And studying in the San Francisco Bay Area is a dream come true for future environmental lawyers, who can plug into an established community of experts on oceans, land use, climate, and energy.
Like most environmental law centers, CLEE is a practical and research arm for the law school’s academic operation. In the classroom, JD students can specialize in environmental law, energy law, or policy. From there, they can hook up with the Environmental Law Clinic (ELC) and start making an immediate impact on California’s response to climate change.
S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah
- Location: Salt Lake City, UT
- Program: Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment
- Featured Degrees: JD, LLM, one MLS option
- Concentrations: Environmental and Natural Resources Law; International Law
Named after one of the 20th century’s most influential conservationists, the Wallace Stegner Center is the hub for all of the University of Utah’s work on the environment, including research, legal scholarship, and policy initiatives. The center’s environmental law clinic assists JD students with professional development as they navigate a robust curriculum.
As an alternative to the Stegner Center’s environmental and natural resource specialization, the College of Law offers an interdisciplinary Certificate in International Law. By pursuing this instead, you can broaden your focus to international environmental law, or to issues at the intersection of the environment and human rights.
Which Environmental Law Program Is Best for Your Career?
Clearly, you don’t have to become a park ranger or get a degree in environmental science to turn your love for the environment into a career. Indeed, as an environmental lawyer, you can pursue your passion while earning six figures annually.
While studying environmental law is both lucrative and important, we can’t tell you which of these stellar schools to choose. The one thing we can say for sure is that, with a JD, LLM, or MSL degree from any of the environmental law programs on this list, you could help shape environmental policy for the most pivotal period in Earth’s history.
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