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What is planetary law? How lawyers can work on climate

The truth is, all companies need climate expertise, from renewable energy developers to consumer products.

Contributed by Matthew A. Karmel, Esq.

PBS recently interviewed one of my clients about how its recycling business works to save this world we call home. 

Watching the interview, I remembered why I became a lawyer, and why I have spent my career building a legal practice that allows me to work on important climate issues every day. 

I want to help people grow their businesses, and I want to help the planet. I want to do both, and I truly believe every lawyer can. 

No matter your practice area or role, any lawyer can prioritize climate while bringing more satisfaction and meaning to their careers and lives. Here are a few suggestions:

Finding your first climate project

Several years ago, as I reflected on my nascent career as an environmental attorney, I faced a big problem. 

None of my clients were involved in climate issues. 

Sure, I was working on environmental matters, from brownfields remediation to traditional environmental counseling and litigation.  But I also wanted to help businesses reduce climate impacts and advance sustainable initiatives.

My solution? Pro bono. It means “for the public good” and refers to professional services rendered free of charge, usually to nonprofits and community groups, and more recently to social impact enterprises.  

Through pro bono work, I figured I could find a climate-friendly project and start my journey as a lawyer for the planet immediately. And I could do this without having to make drastic changes to my career or find a business that needed my help (and would take a chance on a then-junior attorney).

So I talked to my network and found a nonprofit that needed legal assistance to convince state regulators to allow community gardens to expand composting operations without prohibitively expensive permits. The next day, I was working on an important issue for the planet and my community. 

The rest is history. I credit so much of my success to this first climate client, not only because it provided momentum but also because I learned new skills, got recognition for my work, and connected with key regulators and businesses. While I started my climate journey by doing pro bono projects, the reputation I built through these activities was the springboard for my current work for private equity funds, startups, and many other businesses. Indeed, I now chair an Environmental and Sustainability Practice Group at an AMLAW 200 law firm which combines traditional environmental legal advice with cutting-edge sustainability counseling. 

After tracking environmental pro bono opportunities for the past year, I know that climate-conscious pro bono opportunities exist for all types of lawyers. Corporate attorneys can help form environmental nonprofits and social impact enterprises. Land use attorneys can support community solar projects facing development obstacles. Family law attorneys can help with immigration issues stemming from climate disasters.

So how do you find a pro bono project that will help advance your career? 

From my perspective, the most significant barrier to doing pro bono work isn’t finding the time (though time is certainly a consideration) but finding the work. Thankfully you can turn to many organizations to find meaningful environmental pro bono opportunities, and you can always take to the streets and find a pro bono project through your network. 

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Committing to planetary law

If you want to make a more significant impact, maybe pro bono work isn’t enough. If so, opportunities in the professional market abound.

It used to be that you needed to work for a government agency or nonprofit to work on climate change as a lawyer. While these are still great options, the expansion of the circular economy has given lawyers more options than ever before.

As a result of this shift in the corporate and legal markets, you can work as outside counsel (or in-house counsel) for planet-friendly companies. But what does that even mean?

While all companies have an impact on climate change and the potential to be climate-friendly, some specific industries have a more obvious and direct climate impact. I call these CLIMATE-CENTRIC COMPANIES.  Climate-centric companies work within industries such as renewable energy, waste and recycling, transportation, impact investing, agriculture, cleantech, and circular economy product manufacturing. These companies necessarily have a direct and significant impact on the climate.  If you work for climate-centric companies, you will have a more direct impact on the planet.

But there are also CLIMATE-FRIENDLY COMPANIES in all different industries that integrate climate into their business models. If you work for climate-friendly companies, you will be part of a team focused on helping the planet.

The truth is though, all companies need climate expertise. I use my specific environmental experience for companies in renewable energy, waste and recycling, agriculture, consumer products, and more. Tax attorneys can advise impact investment firms on regulatory compliance as a way to have a greater climate impact. Litigation attorneys can focus on solar construction disputes or other circular economy litigation.

In fact, while tracking job openings at climate companies, I have seen job openings for labor and employment counsel at e-bike companies and electric vehicle manufacturers, contracts counsel at regenerative agriculture startups, and intellectual property attorneys at upcycled food companies. The bottom line: the circular economy needs all kinds of lawyers! 

Finding planetary law opportunities and jobs can be a little challenging, but that’s fun too, right?  Try Climatebase or BWork, or these tips.

Also, it’s important to remember that you don’t need to change your job to do more climate-friendly work. You can look for small opportunities to do more earth-conscious work, just like the pro bono work discussed above. Small actions add up quickly.

Joining a climate community

As the African proverb says: We can go fast alone, but to go far we must go together. 

It’s important to find a community that is working on climate issues to help you scale your impact but also to provide support when you need it most. I am a member of both the SoapBox Project and Work on Climate, and find them exceptionally rewarding. 

As an added benefit, becoming part of a community will help you find pro bono opportunities, climate-friendly clients, and earth-conscious employers. Not only will you benefit from interacting directly with other people working at nonprofits and companies with shared passions, you’ll also have a baseline of trust and understanding with fellow members of your new community.  I’ve found that people within communities will go the extra mile to help other community members. Aren’t you more likely to help a law school classmate, a neighbor, or someone that is part of your “tribe.”

Don’t be afraid to think more broadly and creatively to find your climate community.  Interested in a specific industry?  Find an industry group; you’ll learn so much about the day-to-day business and meet actual people in the industry.  Interested in something less corporate?  Find an environmental nonprofit to volunteer with; you’ll get to do meaningful work while building your network.  Interested in impact investing?  Look up angel investment groups.  Interested in natural resources? Look up hiking and foraging groups. The possibilities are endless.

Growing your impact

These are just a few ways to have more impact on the planet with your legal skills.  Every lawyer can have an impact, and I’m committed to sharing more tips every other week through my newsletter, the planetary lawyer project. The path of the planetary lawyer is a winding one; we learn from each other and, hopefully, cross paths now and again.

About the author

Matthew Karmel is the Chair of the Environmental and Sustainability Law Group at Offit Kurman P.A.  Matthew represents solar developers as well as other businesses helping to make the world a better and more sustainable place.  His particular focus and experience have garnered wide recognition, including from NJBiz, which included Matthew on its 2022 “Law Power 50” list highlighting the most influential attorneys in New Jersey, and from Waste360, which included him on its 2022 “40 under 40” list recognizing professionals driving the future of the waste and recycling industry.

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