Working in the Legal Division at the EPA

I’m the Director of the Legal Division in EPA’s Criminal Enforcement Office. EPA has approximately 175 criminal investigators scattered around the country — federal agents with the normal range of law enforcement powers (firearms, search warrant authority, etc.) — who investigate knowing violations of the federal pollution control statutes. Those agents’ investigative work is managed here at EPA headquarters. The legal division has a dozen attorneys who do a mix of policy and case-specific work in support of the criminal enforcement program. There are also another couple dozen lawyers working in EPA’s Regional offices who do most of the direct case-support work, and some litigation.

From 1998 to 2005, I was a Regional Criminal Enforcement Counsel (RCEC) in EPA Region III — the Mid-Atlantic States. I came to that job after a clerkship and several years as an associate in the environmental practice group of a large Washington, D.C., firm. RCECs provide EPA’s agents with legal advice, and also assist prosecutors from the Department of Justice, who seek indictments and prosecute cases.

Approximately 40 DOJ attorneys in Washington specialize in environmental crimes and prosecute those cases throughout the country. AUSAs in each of the 94 federal judicial districts also prosecute environmental crimes, but rarely specialize in that type of case. Many RCECs are appointed as Special AUSAs, which allows them to do grand jury and courtroom work in addition to the investigation-phase legal work for which they are primarily responsible.

An RCEC’s typical day might include meeting with agents to review a draft search warrant affidavit; reading interview reports to catch up on the progress of several pending cases; discussing with an AUSA the Sentencing Guidelines calculations relevant to a plea agreement coming up for negotiation; and meeting with another prosecutor to discuss upcoming grand jury investigative strategy. The job has a great mix of litigation, “client” counseling (the clients being the EPA agents and prosecutors), and policy work.

I’ll offer these thoughts on environmental law job searches. First, you need to understand the lay of the land: the subject matter ranges across a wide spectrum with conservation and land use issues at one end and pollution control at the other; the types of work vary from pure litigation to pure policy; employers of all sizes reside in the private, governmental, and NGO sectors. Second, you need to decide where you would ideally like to work and then figure out what you need to do to get there by acquiring experience, skills, and contacts that can provide you with information and opportunities. Finally, since it’s a lucky attorney who immediately jumps from law school to her dream job, compose a back-up plan: ask yourself what type of non-ideal job you’d be willing to do for the short term—what can you tolerate, and what will provide the best experience and skill development? Resolve to keep researching your options and reevaluating your goals once you join the workforce. There is an enormous need for motivated, capable people in this field. 

Updated September 2021