Law Schools Mainstream Sustainability in the LL.M. Curriculum

Law schools are changing what they teach and are helping to change the way the world does business

As sustainability and social impact move up the corporate agenda, law schools are changing what they teach and are helping to change the way the world does business. Law schools believe their LL.M. students and alumni can play a role in reducing the impact of climate change, by nudging companies and governments to act — and challenging them on living up to their climate pledges.

At the same time, the demand for lawyers and experts in environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters is rising, to help companies develop their sustainability strategies and also bring litigation against the poorest performers. This has made such matters a central focus on the LL.M. curriculum, which aims to prepare candidates for roles in legal practice.

“Whether students are considering a legal career, commercial role, employment in government or the third sector, sustainability is going to be an important concern for their future. At the same time, we recognize that the environment is one of the core pillars of sustainable development and emphasize the overlaps in these relationships throughout the program,” says Ben Mayfield, who lectures on Land and Environmental Law at Lancaster University Law School in the north of England.

Lancaster University offers the LL.M. program in Environment and Law, which is jointly delivered by the Law School and the Lancaster Environment Centre, enabling participants to explore the environmental aspects of the law and the legal regulation of the environment at the same time.

High student demand for green content

The level of demand for such content is high. “One of the best features of our environmental law programs is the demand from students across disciplines. We have postgraduates with first degrees in environmental science, geography, history as well as in law. This allows our seminars to develop student understanding of how law intersects with many disciples in the context of environmental law,” Mayfield explains.

This means that students on the LL.M. program have the opportunity to examine different approaches to sustainability. “This includes sustainable development in planning, agriculture, climate change, biodiversity loss and in international agreements. The program is co-delivered by scientists in our Environment Centre, so students get a true interdisciplinary experience,” says Alexandra Harrington, a Lecturer in Environmental Law at Lancaster University.

The school is situated amongst some of the most beautiful and fragile countryside in the UK, and as part of their LL.M. program students can visit some of the local environmental features to examine what steps are being taken to protect them. “Additionally, we take a global approach by incorporating the expertise of the faculty members in guiding international and national laws and policies, including real-world perspectives from the treaty negotiation and implementation process,” Harrington says.

Georgetown University Law Center, in Washington D.C., has more than 65 courses in the Environmental and Energy Law LL.M. program. These range from core courses on environmental, natural resources law and energy law, to detailed seminars on topics like environmental justice, energy markets, corporate sustainability, and the intersection of environment and trade.

“Even courses on international development, project finance and business negotiation are integrating sustainability-related issues and case studies,” says Lydia Slobodian, the Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at Georgetown Law.

A hands-on learning experience

The school has a strong focus on experiential learning, too. “We have practicums on climate change, natural resources law, and international environmental law that allow LL.M. students to get experience working on real-world projects with the Georgetown Climate Center and other partners,” Slobodian says.

She points out that climate change and environmental degradation are some of the biggest problems of our time, which underlines the importance of integrating issues linked to sustainability into graduate law school education. “Environmental problems — and the legal tools to solve them — are cross-cutting, and there is a growing demand for lawyers who understand them,” says Slobodian.

The adjunct professor is also clear that demand for this content is robust. “We consistently have waitlists for climate and energy law LL.M. courses because of their popularity among students pursuing other specialized LL.M.s or certificates,” Slobodian explains. “Many of these students may not have specific interest in environmental law — they’re not here to learn how to save the world — but they realize that understanding, say, legal aspects of the energy transition will help them in their careers.”

For this reason, many of Georgetown Law’s sustainability-related courses are listed across multiple LL.M. programs. For example, the course that Slobodian teaches, International Environmental Law, is also part of the National Security Law, International Business and Economic Law LL.M. program, as well as the Human Rights Certificate.

She adds that the best way to contribute to wider societal problems is for law schools to “mainstream sustainability throughout the curriculum. We are living in a climate change world, a world of unprecedented environmental degradation. That’s going to affect all areas of law — and life”.  

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