When I started law school, I was often asked, "what kind of lawyer do you want to be?" As a first year, I had no idea. None of us really did. We took courses in contracts, property, and torts but we had no definite goal of "I'm going to be a criminal litigator" or "I'm going to be a tax attorney." Unlike college, you don't proclaim a major or a focus in law school. You aren't even permitted to take anything but the required courses for the first year and a half (with, perhaps, one or two electives). So it wasn't until nearly my third year that I dabbled in Environmental Law with Professor Richard Lazarus. Unlike the stodgy, dusty, boring case law and historical treatises we were inundated with in classes such as Civil Procedure (just watch My Cousin Vinny and you'll know enough to get by) or UCC, the facts, issues, and impacts we studied in Environmental Law caught and held my attention. It didn't hurt that the professor was engaging and enthusiastic about the subject too. It was around then that I first really learned about Earth Day. Previously, it was just another day to hold some sort of celebration or have an excuse to party in the quad. I took several other environment-themed courses and by the time I graduated, I decided that this was the field in which I wanted to practice.
After graduation and passing the bar exam, I came bright-eyed and bushy-haired to Washington, D.C. for several reasons (including the fact that I wouldn't have to take another bar exam to practice here and that I had free housing for 6 months), one of which was that there were more opportunities to find a legal position in environmental law here than most places. Here is where the acronym-frenzied organizations such as the DOJ's ENRD, the EPA, the ELI, the EDF, the WWF (not to be confused with the previously a.k.a. WWF) resided. I tried my luck with government agencies, private law firms, non-profit organizations and papered the city with my resumes and writing samples. I volunteered at the National Audubon Society. I wanted to use my shiny new legal skills to save natural resources, to protect cute and fluffy critters (the ugly, slimy ones could go to hell), to do something worthwhile and noble and good. I loved environmental law; but it did not love me back. I worked at a small law firm for a few years in which one partner focused on money-paying, steady, cut-and-dry contracts and corporate law while the other partner dabbled in pro-bonoish, erratic, but passionate environmental law. It was the field of the latter that pulled me into the firm, but it was the reality and solidity of the former that kept me there. Eventually, the firm needed to pay the bills by taking on more of litigation and negotiation cases and less of the altruistic but penniless clients. I still wrote briefs on behalf of organizations seeking to protect nature and strengthen standing environmental laws, but, by necessity, I began to gain more experience in contracts, intellectual property, and employment laws. By the time I became a partner myself, the environmental-focused part of the firm was all but gone.
I am pretty happily employed in the field of intellectual property. The pay is decent, the research is interesting, and I can work from home where the hours are flexible and the dress-code even more so. I can assist well-meaning but helpless entrepreneurs seeking protection for their goods and services. I can lay the smack down on arrogant know-it-alls who try to weasel or bully their way into getting their unacceptable trademarks through. But on days like today, Earth Day, I do wonder what my life would be like if it took me down the emission-trading, brownfields, smart growth path.