University: University of Bristol
Issues such as biodiversity loss, climate change, the demand for global sustainability and the need for alternative energy sources make environmental laws more important than ever. Environmental regulations seek to limit pollution and to minimise the negative impact of human activity on the natural world. This sweeping objective means that environmental lawyers are involved in a wide range of matters, from health and safety, risk management, contaminated land, waste, renewable energy and environmental finance/reporting, to commercial and property transactions, supply chain/ESG advice and litigation. Clients can include individuals, community groups, companies of all sizes, local authorities and governments.
Common answers to the age-old question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” typically include references to being a superhero or owning a sweetshop, but not for environmental associate Arthur Hopkinson, he always knew he wanted to be an environmental lawyer. Arthur’s unshakeable love for his practice area is perhaps why he can’t whittle down the highlight of his training contract at Osborne Clarke LLP to a singular event. “As opposed to a moment, it was having that goal reinforced through the process of working within the practice area,” he tells us. “It [his training contract] made me realise that it was a career that I could see myself working in long term and that was the most satisfying part of it.”
While typically as a lawyer you specialise in one practice area, Arthur remains an exception: “I’m the first at Osborne Clarke to sit between the planning and environment teams and act as a hybrid in bridging the gap between those two areas.” Speaking about what this means for him Arthur says: “On the planning side, I focus on renewable energy projects, so that’s planning permission and consenting for solar farms, battery storage projects, hydrogen projects and some offshore wind. On the environmental side, I do sustainability and environmental, social and governance work, with a focus on supply chain sustainability and corporate reporting, but it’s quite diverse.” These two practice areas complement each other nicely and allow Arthur to do some “crossover in between, which involves environmental services, such as carbon credits, biodiversity credits, nature-based solutions”.
In terms of the day-to-day work, Arthur explains that it’s “everything from corporate advisory work and sustainability advice around the sorts of environmental impacts that a business has, through to regulatory investigations for environmental offences”. This also includes a large portion of “transactional support such as when a client is looking to buy a company or a property, the client will need support in investigating the environmental liabilities or obligations that come with that purchase”.
To sum up Arthur’s work as an environmental lawyer he tells us: “It’s a specialist practice area but it’s also broad in the sense that you need to juggle several balls and have various pockets of knowledge to make sure you’re fully equipped for whatever comes.”
Looking back on those early days Arthur reflects on how much has changed since his training contract. Arthur says it’s not only his work that’s changed, but also the “significant comfort blanket or support net” is removed once you’re qualified as you begin to trust your own judgement more. “Once you’re established and comfortable, you can pretty much work independently on your own matters. I can happily do my own work with limited supervision.”
However, becoming a fully qualified lawyer isn’t solely about freedom; fans of Marvel will know only too well that with great power comes great responsibility and this truth is evident to Arthur. “There’s a lot to the job that you don’t need to worry about when you’re a trainee but once qualified you do have to focus on.” Responsibilities such as “billing and invoicing clients, managing client expectations, project managing” are all important changes that come with being qualified. In addition to these newfound tasks Arthur has the added responsibility of supervising trainees, which he describes as feeling “very odd to be on that side of the coin”.
“I now have my own client contacts, I’m approached directly, internally and externally to do work and I’m rarely not project managing my own work now”
As with all industries, the legal profession has challenges to overcome; one that particularly springs to mind for Arthur is “retaining talent and making sure that you’re getting the right lawyers to join your firm”. This is particularly important, Arthur notes, to support practice areas firms are looking to grow “because there are so many new pockets and frameworks developing, especially in environmental law and finding the right people to be involved in that is really difficult”.
And of course, it’s hard to mention challenges in the legal industry without reflecting upon AI. “The general landscape surrounding disruptors to the legal industry is huge, in particular technology and how it’s implemented.” Arthur explains: “Every law firm’s looking at how AI and Chat GPT could replicate the work of an associate overnight and streamline the cost of having hundreds of people at a firm.”
Looking at Arthur’s practice area more specifically, the demand for more environmental specialist talent within all companies has also caused disruption for law firms. The emergence of sustainability consultants who “tend to take on quite a legal role and advise on issues we’d typically advise on” means that “there’s the challenge of non-lawyers carving out work we traditionally would’ve done”.
As well as looking at challenges to his team, Arthur reflects more broadly on how issues such as Brexit are impacting environmental law. Arthur finds that a large portion of his time is spent advising on sustainability law: “I think the key point at the moment is there’s a huge amount of European legislation coming forward that’s focused on sustainable supply chains and sustainable reporting, and the idea is to improve the environmental performance of businesses and large organisations in the EU.”
He continues: “It’s been designed so that if you’re a large US or global company that does enough business within the EU, you’re dragged in to complying with certain obligations there. For us [as environmental lawyers], we’re having to advise a lot of US-based clients around this subject area because they’re so concerned about the extent that they could be obligated under the EU.” Why is this so interesting from a UK perspective? “Brexit was meant to be this wonderful break from Europe”, but Arthur tells us that the way legislation has been drafted means that this break isn’t particularly legally significant when it comes to the environmental perspective.
To build a long and sustainable career in this practice area Arthur relays the importance of “enjoying the diversity of the practice area and really knowing the practice area”, affirming that the two go hand in hand. Due to the “breadth this practice area encompasses, you have to enjoy variety”. He adds: “Very often you’ll be thrown into something completely new that you’ve never seen before.” This is where a real intellectual interest in the area will fuel your research. Arthur explains that because often there’s “a need to do long hours, read around the subject matter and invest in your own knowledge base so that you’re up to date and current with what you can advise clients on” You really need to love your work. Luckily for Arthur he does, and the same is also true for “everyone I work with here and know from other firms in the same practice area”.
If, like the climate, you’re heating up at just the thought of working within this practice area and want to know how to break into environmental law, Arthur advises you should “get a taste of the kind of frameworks environmental lawyers deal with”. Ways to do this include approaching and meeting with “as many environmental lawyers as you can to understand what they do on a day-to-day basis and the kind of issues they deal with”. Arthur’s certain that this approach “will give you a good sense of whether or not you’re suited to the job and whether you’re actually interested and would be willing to pursue that career”. Thinking about his own first steps, Arthur recommends getting involved with the UK Environmental Law Association early on, just as he did. Talking about the association, he concludes: “It’s great because it’s a significant network of environmental lawyers all across the country who are all willing to give their time to speak to you, answer your questions and give you a taste of what environmental lawyers do.”
If you're interested in sustainability and a career in environmental law, you can find out what you need to know about this practice area in 'Environmental law: what you need to know'.