About Environmental Law

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 a dual degree in environmental studies through the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.


Note: Whether a particular course is scheduled depends on faculty availability and student demand. View the Course Descriptions for more information about each course and when it's offered.

Core/Foundation Courses

These are the basic courses offered at the UW that — at a minimum — employers expect a student interested in this specialty to have.

Recommended Courses

Students interested in this practice area should consider including one or more of the following courses as electives.

Enrichment Courses

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.

Curriculum Questions

For particular Environmental Law Curriculum questions, contact:

Clinical Programs, Internships & Externships

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.

Learn more about the Midwest Environmental Advocates Externship »

Externships in Environmental Law

Second and third-year law students can earn academic credit for externship work at organizations such as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Clean Wisconsin, and other nonprofits and government agencies that practice environmental law.

Learn more about Externships or contact Externship Director Erin McBride at erin.mcbride@wisc.edu for additional information.

Student Organizations & Related Activities

Students involved in student activities and organizations are often strong job candidates. Employers look for students who show leadership, public service, and community involvement. 

For a full list of student organizations at UW Law, view the Student Organizations, Journals, & Activities.


Here are some of the faculty who teach or have an interest in this subject area:

In addition to our full-time faculty, the Law School's adjunct faculty members — prominent practicing lawyers and judges — bring their specialized knowledge and experience to the classroom. Filter by "Adjunct" in the Law School Directory for a full list.

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