Laura Evans went to law school wanting to be an environmental lawyer. She focused on that all the way to actually practicing environmental law, which is pretty uncommon in the legal world. When she eventually left environmental law, she didn’t have a plan, but she did still have the passion to make a change for the environment.
Now, she works as an environmental planner, still in the environmental space but doing slightly different types of work than before she left the law.
In their conversation, Sarah and Laura talked a lot about how that happened, she had a panic attack on a Friday, and by Monday, handed in her notice. And, they talked about why that worked out so well for her. Let’s get into the conversation.
Becoming An Environmental Lawyer
Many people enter law school planning to practice a specific area of law, but that’s not where they ultimately end up. That was not the case for Laura. Interestingly enough, she planned to be an environmental lawyer all along.
After graduating, Laura went to work at a small law firm in Austin, Texas, where her boss practiced Federal Wildlife Law. When she started, he had an influx of environmental law work, so she got to work with The Fish And Wildlife Service and other conservation efforts. So for the first four years, most of what Laura did involved research and writing about Federal Wildlife Law.
Working in environmental law was a significant life-goal for Laura, and she finally achieved it. It was much more corporate than Laura expected, but it was meaningful work, so Laura put her heart and soul into it until she got sick.
Getting Sick Of The Law
During the 2013-2014 holidays, Laura juggled different cases, got enough billable hours, and hosted visitors. That year, Texas had a terrible flu season, and unfortunately, Laura fell ill.
When she got better, all Laura wanted to do was simplify her life. She saw an herbalist and cut out sugar and stressors in her life. After that, she lost her spark for working as an environmental lawyer. The passion she once had just wasn’t there anymore.
A few months later, things got really stressful. There were weird calls with unhappy clients, and it was such a blur that Laura didn’t fully know what was happening. Later that day, she experienced her first anxiety attack.
Immediately, she took a week off and saw a therapist. It was clear that Laura had been trying to hold things together for a long time, and she had enough. The following Monday, Laura submitted her two-weeks notice.
Left Environmental Law With No Plan
Laura didn’t know what she was going to do, so she sought a career counselor at UT Law. She didn’t have a plan, but she did have an interest. She wanted to create a website that posts daily reports on federal agencies called the Federal Registry Blog.
She tried to use what she had learned as an environmental lawyer to do something more artistic and public-facing. And in the meantime, she tried to learn more about herself.
But after a while, Laura started to worry about money. So a few months later, she took a litigation job at the Texas Commission On Environmental Quality. However, this return to the law was not different. She became disappointed in being a law firm lawyer but wasn’t fully ready to give the law up for good, so she only stuck around for ten months.
Deciding To Leave For Good
Laura left her TCEQ job much more intentionally. She was ready to give up work that was incredibly depressing, and finally create the Federal Register website she thought about since leaving environmental law.
She stuck around Austin for a few months, creating the website, but something else was happening behind the scenes. That summer, Laura and her husband divorced, and she decided to move back to Western New York.
Starting Fresh As An Environmental Planner
After moving, Laura’s goal was to find her roots and make her way through Western New York. She wanted to figure out how to get back to the place she grew up in and what she wanted to do. Shortly after, at a Cornell Alumni event, she crossed paths with an environmental planner who needed help. And that’s what she’s been doing ever since.
Even more recently, Laura also wrote a book, called Silent Seasons: Chasing Sustainability Through The Law. The title is inspired by Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a book that came out almost a decade before all the environmental laws we know today had been passed. And it’s partly thanks to this book.
Unfortunately, Rachel Carson passed on just two years after the book was published, so she never got to see her work inspire so much change. So, that’s where Laura picked up the torch.
Silent Seasons is about the seasons of Laura’s life and what she’s learned and experienced. Her hopes in sharing her stories are to inspire others to share their own stories and to have a better sense of environmental law and what it really is.
Inspired by the book, Laura created a podcast called The Keeping Things Alive Podcast, which touches on different environmental and social issues.
Finding Something Better After Leaving The Law
Laura has beautifully combined her passion for the environment and her experiences as an environmental lawyer to find something better in her new career. To learn more about Laura, you can purchase Silent Seasons or listen to the Keeping Things Alive Podcast.
And, if you’re ready to leave the law but need some help and guidance, Former Lawyer has an exciting announcement! Sarah is now offering one-on-one coaching to a limited number of clients.
Work With Sarah
When you get 1:1 coaching with Sarah, you’ll follow a 12-week framework personalized for you by Sarah. And, on top of that, you get her to help you with advice and guidance the whole way through. And, even more than that, you’ll also get access to the Former Lawyer Collaborative.
You can learn more about 1:1 coaching with Sarah here, and if it sounds like something you need, book a call to see if it’s a good fit. We can’t wait to hear from you.
Connect With Laura
Mentioned In This Article
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
Today, I'm sharing my conversation with Laura Evans. Laura went to law school wanting to be an environmental lawyer. She practiced law as an environmental lawyer and ultimately now she works as a planner, still in the environmental space but doing slightly different types of work. We talk a lot about how that happened, how she went from having a panic attack on a Friday at work to walking in the next Monday, giving her two weeks notice, and why that was such a good thing for her and lots more.
We'll get to the episode in just a second. I want to remind you that I am working with a very limited number of people one-on-one for career coaching. if that's something that you have been thinking about if you're a lawyer who knows that you want out but you're not sure what you want to do next and you need some help figuring that out, just go to the website under Work With Me, you can click on one-on-one coaching on the drop down and see all the information and schedule a consult to see if working together might be the right thing for you. Okay, let's get to my conversation with Laura.
Hey, Laura. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Laura Evans: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for having me. It's great to be here.
Sarah Cottrell: I am excited for you to share your story. Let's start with you introducing yourself to the listeners.
Laura Evans: Okay. My name is Laura Evans. I am a natural resources planner. I'm a former environmental lawyer that's licensed in Texas. I have inactive status with the Texas bar now. I'm also an author. I just published a book called Silent Seasons: Chasing Sustainability through the Law. I've written about my past history with environmental law and sustainability and all the trials and tribulations that have happened and the sustainability lessons that I've learned.
I live in Buffalo, New York. I'm from Western New York which is Buffalo, Niagara Falls. We're very close to the border with Ontario, Canada. I also spent my 20s in Austin, Texas. I explained this in the book but yeah, I went there to do an AmeriCorps program. I went to law school at University of Texas School of Law in Austin and then I practiced environmental law there for about four years and then I moved back to Western New York in 2015. I've been here figuring out my place as a former lawyer. That's pretty much my story.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, awesome. First of all, I am also someone with an inactive Texas bar license because people will ask like, “Oh, did you let your license go?” and I'm like, “No, I took the bar and I will pay $50 a year to just keep that thing even though I have literally zero interest in practicing law again.”
Laura Evans: It's like a $40 magazine subscription but I do like to have it too.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Let's talk a bit about the process, and this came out a little bit in your intro, but when you went to law school, my understanding is that you were like, “I'm going to be an environmental lawyer,” that was the plan, right?
Laura Evans: Right, yes.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that there are a lot of people who go to law school whether it's because they want to work in environmental law or some other public interest law who go to law school planning to do that and either end up not doing that, or they do end up doing that and it's not really what they thought it would be or what they envisioned it would be as a non-lawyer before they went through the whole process. Can you talk to me a little bit about you had this pretty clear idea of what you wanted to do when you went to law school, when you were in law school, were you like, “This is a great plan. I feel like this is the right thing,” where were you at that point?
Laura Evans: Yeah. it was strange because I got my undergraduate degree in natural resources and made that decision in undergrad to go to law school, but then I had a year where I did an AmeriCorps program in Austin at an elementary school so I got away from environmental law a little bit and started to see a little bit more of a public interest spent there.
Then when I was in law school, I did a program called Street Law and I was helping youth know your rights and that stuff. I got a little away from it. Then that first year of law school, you end up taking all the same classes as everybody else and environmental law isn't there, but it comes up a lot in property law. I think I was able to take a writing course in water law my second semester but I guess as soon as that year was over though, I still went back to my original plan.
I remember having a little bit of an issue like, “Oh, should I maybe go into education law instead? I've seen so much during this year of my AmeriCorps,” but then it was like, “No, you really spent four years studying natural resources policy and management and this is where you're going,” so those two site, the year two and year three of law school, I was in the Environmental Law Clinic. I was editor-in-chief of the Texas Environmental Law Journal. I just went back into the deep dive of learning everything.
I wasn't practicing law on behalf of a client except for at the clinic where we did have some non-profit clients. But my thought process during that was still to keep my head down and get it done. I wasn't at a law school that specialized in environmental law, at least they didn't advertise it, but we had really good environmental law professors and courses. I felt like I just had incredible access to all of these people, while all of my law school classmates, only a handful of them were interested in environmental law or maybe discovered it in a class, but I was one of the few people there that was there for that reason.
There are moments in my life, “Well, I can really keep my blinders on for a while and be very committed to a goal for a long time.” While I was in it, I clerked for Earthjustice after my second year up in Alaska. I did informational interviews with a bunch of environmental lawyers in Austin. That's how I got my first job.
But the other thing I would say that really happened to me strangely in law school is that I started out in 2008. I had already applied and gotten in but I do really think that the 2008 financial recession had a huge impact on me because it felt like when I entered law school, there was just this land of opportunity with many jobs and many opportunities and then once the financial crisis hit, everything just seemed so much more scarce like jobs, internships, and everything. I felt like the environmental law field got affected too.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I know you mentioned in your book the fact that you're coming into law school, meanwhile the 3Ls at your law school are having their offers rescinded and having to scramble to find jobs. I graduated from law school in 2008, so obviously a different experience, but yes, like you said, there was just tons of upheaval and I think there were a lot of expectations that people reasonably had based on previous years that shifted pretty quickly with all the things that happened in 2008.
It's interesting because when you describe your experience in law school, it really sounds like because some people will say, “Oh, I went to law school and things fell off,” and I knew that there was something that wasn't quite right. I wonder if you think that for you some of that, if there might have been any of this general sense of like “Is the law for me?” that was tempered by the fact that you were so focused specifically on this area that you really cared about, that you weren't necessarily thinking about some broader question of like “Am I meant to be a lawyer?”
Laura Evans: Yeah. I do remember my first year of law school, we took all the same classes with the same people and one of my classmates was like, “You are not supposed to be here. Your personality does not match this in any way.” I was like, “Really?” but both of my parents are teachers. I had a few friends with parents that were lawyers but I didn't know them that well so I definitely had some questions about what I wanted to be or “Is this really for me?”
I also remember we had a speaker in the Environmental Law Clinic and he was more of a public interest type, an environmentalist who's really trying to help to save the earth and he just told us, “This is a war. You're walking into a war.” I still remember him saying that and me just being like, “Really? Is it that serious?”
Then just as my life has gone on and as environmental issues have gotten more intense, everything's happened, it's like, “Yeah, no, this really is a big deal about property, projects, and infrastructure, then the impact that all of our society has on the earth.” It has gotten to be much more existential and bigger than I thought it would be.
But at that time, it was still like all my environmental law classes, clinic, and everything was still, and that's what environmental law still is, it's like wrestling with all of these problems about land use and different people with different interests, and then animals and water. I just found myself very limited in what I could do as an environmental lawyer. But when I was in law school, it was still being presented to me as wrestling with these big issues that I wanted to be a part of.
Sarah Cottrell: It's really interesting because I have talked with other people who have worked in other fields, for example, as public defenders, and they talk about having a similar experience where going into law school and even in law school, having this sense that there were real avenues for efficacy, then coming out and starting to do the work, and seeing that they were approaching it even if you're in a situation where you're doing some impact litigation, it still tends to be more individualized or addressing an individual issue within the larger system. it doesn't necessarily provide the ability to impact significant changes in the system the way that I think a lot of us, when we went to law school, maybe envisioned.
Laura Evans: Yeah. I completely agree with you on that statement. All of my internships, my clinic experience, I think she just stepped down but we got to meet with Gina McCarthy when she was part of the EPA and I just felt like I was in the middle of a lot of moving and shaking, and that there were a lot of potential impossibilities. When you actually start a job and this is your client and this is what they want, that's what you go with.
I've really developed a great ability to see all different sides and argue for all different sides in this particular realm. But ultimately, my goal of going there to actually work through these problems and address these problems, I've never felt like I've been able to do that in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, I was getting sicker, more run down, just glued to my phone and exhausted, and that's still an issue when I still want to be a part of these projects and this world.
I guess I would say, to explain that, I'm not a lawyer anymore but I am a planner, I've used my environmental law background to do the work that I do today. That's what I mean that I'm still in it and I like it more than the lawyer part. But a lot of these issues and trying to still tackle these environmental sustainability issues, it's still a part of what I want to do with my life.
Sarah Cottrell: For people who are listening who may not know the specifics, can you talk a little bit about what it is that you do as a planner and how that differs from what you might have done as a lawyer?
Laura Evans: Yeah, for sure. The National Environmental Policy Act requires all big federal projects to follow this law and do a lot of planning, writing environmental impact statements and environmental assessments, trying to make plans for how a particular project is going to impact the environment. As a lawyer, I would read those environmental impact statements and environmental assessments to make sure that they're complying with the latest version of the law and we'll be able to not get sued and those types of things.
But now as a planner, I write those documents in the first place. When there's a project, I will go and do a site visit, I will read the parameters of the project, try to make an educated guess and prediction about how that project is going to impact the environment. I also have helped the county that I live in do resiliency planning. There'll be how do we plan for natural disasters, economic disasters, the next pandemic. I've been helping them frame things from a resiliency perspective, the ability to withstand shocks.
I also do environmental justice assessments which is a part of environmental law basically that poor people and people of color tend to be living near larger sources of pollution. When there's a project proposed, there has to be an assessment about if there's any environmental justice communities that are designated in the area and then what potential impact that would have on them. in that way, as a planner, I'm still in the implementation of environmental law, just not in the lawyer capacity, a lot of research and writing.
Sarah Cottrell: Which who doesn't love that?
Laura Evans: Yeah.
Sarah Cottrell: Let's back up a little bit and we will circle back around to how you ended up in doing this role that you're doing now. Let's talk about so you graduated from law school and you started practicing as a lawyer, can you talk a little bit about what that job was and how it went?
Laura Evans: Yeah, sure. I was at a small law firm in Austin, Texas that had been formed by some UT alums maybe two decades before and I joined the Land Use group. My boss, the partner at the law firm that hired me specifically practiced, he still practices, Federal Wildlife Law and so just at the time of graduation, he just happened to have an uptick in a lot of environmental law work because the wind industry, the wind turbines do end up harming birds and bats, it's a question of how many and how much and so it really is a big deal of where you plan to put wind farms.
Then the wind industry individual clients and larger organizations were negotiating with the fish and wildlife service to try to get permits to make sure that, because the Endangered Species Act has a pretty significant consequences including jail time for people who intentionally harm endangered species, I just did for the following four years and we started out at a small firm and then we moved to a larger more national firm halfway through my time being there.
But I was writing letters, I was negotiating with the fish and wildlife service, I was helping clients put conservation easements on their land to permanently preserve and protect land. That was one of the more feel-good projects. Then I also did a little bit of Clean Water Act work because a lot of times when there is a project that's going to impact endangered species, it might impact wetlands as well, doing some work with the Army Corps of Engineers.
Then there are a lot of times where a new species is going to be proposed to be listed and so I would help clients who might be impacted by a new species being listed, help them walk through that process. I did a lot of ghostwriting, a lot of public comment organizing, and just writing out information about The Endangered Species Act. it was Federal Wildlife Law all day every day for about four years.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Tell me so you're working in this job, this is the work that you are doing, how do you feel about the work that you're doing? When you start are you like, “This is definitely it,” are you like, “This is totally not it but I started law school in 2008,” where were you?
Laura Evans: I remember when I got this first job I really thought, I think I say this in the book, it was like, “Oh, my major life goal is achieved. I'm 26, that's it.”
Sarah Cottrell: Be an environmental lawyer, check.
Laura Evans: Yeah, exactly. That was my big plan and then it was like it was there and it was more corporate than I expected. The people that I worked with all had some form of a biology degree too. They really like the outdoors. I got to go on this amazing Grand Canyon rafting trip for business development. I really felt like I was meeting with big clients that were doing really big infrastructure projects. I'm living in Texas, there are water issues, a lot of water scarcity issues, and that was coming right up on my work and so it did feel important. I did really put my heart, soul, time, and energy into it for a long time really until I got the flu.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. I know what you're talking about because I have had a chance to read your book, and we'll talk more about the book in a bit, for listeners they can know that's coming, but for people who are listening, can you set the stage leading up to the point where you got sick and where things were and then what happened?
Laura Evans: Yeah, sure. I think it was Christmas time of 2013 and then New Year's 2014. I had a ton of work, a lot of projects going on, it was scrambled to get, oh I hated billable hours, get your billable hours done by the end of the year. Then also I was writing something that didn't count for billable hours but it was going to go in the American Bar Association Journal or something like that. it was like an extra marketing thing that I had to do.
I was living in Austin with my now ex-husband and he was having a bunch of friends down to visit and it was a really bad flu season. I was juggling work, I was juggling the holidays, I was juggling people visiting. The reason people were visiting was to then drive two hours to San Antonio for a New Year's party and there were also people that had come, they stayed at our house, they had recently had the flu and so I was just trying to keep it all together.
I got really sick. The flu was really bad in Texas that year. A lot of people did die and I'd been completely committed to all of this work for so long. As soon as I got sick, it was like I couldn't think or do anything, all I did was send a quick email to my boss and then I had the flu for a week and I really couldn't do anything. it wasn't the flu that was throwing up or anything, it was the chills and the aches and my throat, my mouth, were all sore. I thought I would be able to watch TV or read but I really couldn't. I had to just be in my bed for over a week.
When I finally got better, I just wanted to simplify my life in a lot of different ways and I started to see an herbalist. I stopped eating sugar. I tried to eliminate things that were stressing me out. As the months went on after that, my tolerance for my job just went way down and the ability of my body to just have the energy to be working or on email from 7:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night, it just wasn't there anymore.
A few months later, there was just a lot going on at work, it was really stressful. Some clients were unhappy, we were at all these weird calls, I didn't fully know what was going on and I had an anxiety attack at work. I just went into the bathroom and I was throwing up. Then I took a week off and my friend had seen a therapist that helped her a lot and so I went and met to see her. She was just able to ask me questions about how I was doing mentally and physically.
It was very clear that I had been trying to hold things together for a really long time. I saw her on a Friday and then I put my two weeks notice in the following Monday. it was a real shock for me, my family, my boss, everybody, but I felt so much relief after that. I do remember my reasons for leaving was that I just didn't think it wasn't what I thought it was, I felt like I was killing myself for nothing. That's what happened
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. We talk a lot about anxiety and panic on this podcast because I have an anxiety disorder and a panic disorder. Was that the first time that you'd had any panic attack or was it something that had happened to you before so you knew what was going on?
Laura Evans: It was the first time.
Sarah Cottrell: That's intense.
Laura Evans: Yeah. I didn't know what was going on. I do remember throwing up in the bathroom and then my head just pounding out of my skull. This was something I had done before but I went into the parking garage and took a nap in my car just to try to regulate. One thing I had started doing when I was actually working as a lawyer was going to yoga pretty regularly. I was more in touch with my breath, my body, and things, but nothing like that had ever happened.
Sarah Cottrell: Hey, it's Sarah. I want to remind you that I am now working with a very limited number of lawyers one-on-one who are trying to figure out what it is that they want to do that isn't practicing law. What we'll do when we work together one-on-one is we will meet for 12 weeks and you and I will walk through the framework that I've created to help lawyers do exactly that. On top of personalizing that and making individualized choices about which pieces of that you need to focus on, spend more time on, spend less time on, I also have the capacity to lend my brain to your situation.
When we're working together one-on-one, I'm able to look at cover letters, resumes, and other things that you may be putting together, cold outreach emails, figuring out who you might want to reach out to, figuring out, “Okay, I have all this information about who I am, values, personality, strengths, etc., from these various assessments, but how do I put that together into a picture of what it is that I actually want to be doing? How do I figure out what I actually want my life and career to look like?” all of those things.
If that sounds like something that would be helpful to you, I would love to talk with you about whether or not working with me one-on-one is the right fit for you. Go to the website, the Work With Me drop-down, there's a link to information about working with me one-on-one. You can see more details and the price as well as the button to book a free consult with me so that we can talk through whether working with me in this capacity would be the right fit for you. I onboard one new one-on-one client per month so if this is something that you're interested in, definitely schedule that call as soon as you can because I fill the spots on a first-come-first-served basis. I look forward to talking with you about whether working together one-on-one could be a good fit.
I know lots of people who listen have experienced panic attacks so I don't have to describe it to them, but for people who haven't, it very much is like “What is happening?” Especially I know a lot of people have my story which is the first time I had a panic attack, I went to the ER because I thought I was dying. I know there are a lot of lawyers who have had similar experiences and then basically they're like, “No, it's just anxiety.” You're like, “Oh, cool, cool. Yeah, that seems like a good thing.”
It's interesting because there are a lot of people who are experiencing things like that, lawyers in their jobs and basically they internalize it instead of saying, “Hey, there's something wrong with this environment. This environment is not the right one for me or this environment is not a healthy environment for people in general.” There tends to be a lot of internalized like, “Oh, I'm somehow wrong for the fact that my nervous system doesn't want to regulate in this environment.” Can you talk a little bit about just the experience of making that decision to say, “I'm not going to do this anymore” and how, if at all, that played into it?
Laura Evans: Yeah. It's really interesting because I also think that what I've been learning is that a part of anxiety and just being overwhelmed a lot of times, you don't remember everything exactly so I'm trying to put myself back into that time. I also remember having relationship issues at the same time and so I was having this really awful internal battle of “Is this my job or is this my relationship?” which was super intense.
I ended up sticking with the relationship, getting married, and then divorced. There were some parallels there too, but I do remember that weekend I went to the Greenbelt in Austin, which the city of Austin has just this amazing network of trails, creeks, and everything that they've preserved honestly. That's part of the law firm that I worked at was a part of that whole development scheme to keep a lot of that open.
I remember just walking for hours and hours and hours with my ex through the woods and through the Greenbelt and trying to decide what to do. it felt very existential. It felt very quick. Once I made the decision, it was very easy. I also remember the therapist who I actually still see over Zoom today, that was a nice thing from the pandemic, was Zoom with that, but she just told me, “If you keep doing this, your mental health is not going to get better.” It was definitely a huge moment of just choosing myself over my expectations that everybody had of me.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that that is something that is very hard for a lot of us who became lawyers, it's hard for us to do that. it's interesting because I think that there are a lot of people who would relate when you said you put in your notice and then just the relief, the feeling of relief, being so palpable. There are a lot of people on the podcast who have described that and I know I've experienced that.
I think that for people who are listening, one of the things to think about if you're trying to decide like “Do I want to stay in this job? Do I want to leave?” do you feel like you would feel a dramatic amount of relief if you left? That tends to be a very significant signpost to what your nervous system and/or intuition is telling you.
Laura Evans: No, I agree with that.
Sarah Cottrell: So you gave your two-weeks notice, you left the law firm. At that point, where you just like, “I just need to leave the law firm”? Or were you thinking like, “Legal practice, I'm out”?
Laura Evans: No. I didn't know what I was going to do. That's where I think your business and what you do is so important because I really could have used a guide at that moment. I write about this in the book, I went to the UT Law career center and I saw my career counselor soon afterwards. She just looked at me like I was crazy, she's like, “Wait, you quit and you didn't have a plan?” and then I remember being very thrown by that and then I just blurted out to her like, “Well, I have this idea to make a website that reports on federal agency actions every day. I'm going to call it the Federal Register Blog.”
What I started to do was to pivot to what I had learned at the law firm to try to make a website or do something more artistic and public facing. My ex-husband really understands how to make websites and all of his friends were doing it too. So I took lessons from them. I learned how to do it myself. That was something that I tried for a little while but the relief was definitely there. I just love making food. I love gardening.
At the time I had two dogs and so just really spending a lot of time with them, it was all really good. But to continue on to my story though, I did not have a plan and I did start to worry about money, all the things that I didn't have a plan for, I did end up taking one more attorney job and that was with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, maybe three or four months later, something like that.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Tell me what happened there and then what you moved on to next.
Laura Evans: A couple of people put it in front of me, they emailed it to me that it was happening, it was a litigation job at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and I knew that I didn't like litigation, I knew I didn't like lawsuits, but at the same time, ever since law school in the Environmental Law Clinic, I had been the TCEQ, that's what it's called, that agency, it's the biggest environmental agency in Texas. I think it's the third largest in the US and so I was deeply curious about what it was like to work there, what is it like to enforce environmental laws.
I think I was so disappointed in what it was like to be a law firm lawyer that I wanted to see what are these lawyers doing that are enforcing the laws. So I did it for about 10 months and it was never for me from the beginning, but it was a very rigid job. it was sign in at 7:30, leave at 4:30, move your magnet over the board when you were there. it was just this massive bureaucracy and system of enforcing environmental laws. I met some of the best people there. I definitely have some crazy stories that I have just gotta keep to myself for the rest of my life. But yeah, it was not the right move from the beginning.
But also I wasn't totally ready to give up on the law and I also think that money was an issue. Also my relationship was never fully resolved so I wasn't really in this position where I could just go off, make a website, and not worry about money. I had to still support myself.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that is really helpful for people to hear because so often when people talk about making a move out of law or even out of their current legal job, people put a lot of pressure on themselves to have figured everything out and/or to just only do the next thing for the pure love of it. it's important for people to know that there are all kinds of reasons why you might make a decision to leave and there are all kinds of reasons that could support a decision to take a different role.
Taking a new role doesn't mean that you're like, “I have decided this is the one and it's going to be the best thing ever,” sometimes it's a combination of “Hey, I need to pay my bills. This is an area that I have some expertise in. There may be some other factors that make it make sense.” Because often people will then be like, “Okay, well now I need to make this be the thing,” even though the reasons they're choosing to do it are, I would say, more practical just like, “This is what needs to happen at this point in time.”
Being able to both go into something like that and also walk away from it when the time is right I think is an important part of the process. Can you talk a little bit about what you did in terms of leaving that job and then what you did next?
Laura Evans: Yeah. This is where my personal and professional life just intertwined. I explained it the best that I can in the book. I left my TCEQ job much more intentionally, and just really quickly I will say that there was a huge difference in culture and experience between the law firm job and then the government lawyer job. A lot of the pain points of my law firm job, the crazy hours or just always being attached to my phone, I was able to eliminate that with this next choice.
But I'm a really creative person, it was really hard for me to keep that rigid of a schedule. I also just didn't enjoy constantly suing people. That's really what I was doing all the time. I just remember, I know that if I had stuck around longer, I would have gotten bigger cases or bigger people, but a lot of the stuff that I was working on was just really, really depressing, like small-time people.
I remember older people that got their yards trashed so then they had municipal solid waste violations or something like that, it got really sad really fast and so I made a more intentional plan to leave. Honestly, it really was still about the website, to do a Federal Register website. I don't need to explain that too much but I guess every day, all the federal agencies publish their new rules, regulations, announcements and so I was pulling stuff from that and putting it on a website. I went back to that. While I was at TCEQ, I did get married and so I felt a little bit more financially secure.
My husband, I met him in law school so he had a small firm, like software contract job that was going well so it felt like a safer time for me to leave. I remember walking in and telling my boss I was leaving, and this is the first time I had a woman boss too, which I did like her a lot but she was just like, “I can't believe you even lasted 10 months. it just seemed like this was not for you from the beginning.”
After that, I stuck around Austin for a few more months and making a website and things like that but my relationship was always a behind-the-scene stressor. That summer, I got divorced and moved back to Western New York. That was really intense. That was really hard. I just started to find my roots and make my way through Western New York and figuring out how to come back to the place I grew up in and what I was going to do.
I very quickly crossed paths at a Cornell Alumni event with someone who was an environmental planner and needed the help, and that's where I started to get into planning, was through that. I've always been connected to the environmental stuff, and that is why I've written a book as well about all of these experiences because it's been a winding path, it's been a lot of different jobs that have covered a lot of environmental realms.
Sarah Cottrell: When you crossed paths with that planner, at that point, had you made a decision one way or another in terms of whether you wanted to continue practicing law, or was it still like a maybe, but the thing that this option that was in front of you was like something that was appealing? Were you like, “I'm out and I need to find something else,” or is it just like, “I'm looking for something that fits”?
Laura Evans: Well, at that point, and this has been my back and forth since I moved back in 2015, is do I get license to take the New York Bar and I have gone back and forth on that a lot. I don't want to take another bar exam. I don't really enjoy being a lawyer but there are also these moments where I do feel like I'm good at it, especially in the environmental field. There's just not that many people that have the experiences that I do.
But at the same time I really don't enjoy practicing law on behalf of one client so I've continued to avoid it. it really was just like an alumni event at a brewery and it was like, “Wow, I had no idea you were here.” Then it just so happens, “Oh, you have extra work and your wife is getting surgery and you need more support.” I guess when I had left Texas and at that point I had already left my second law job, I didn't really think that I was going to be a lawyer again.
But I do have to say that ever since I've been here in Western New York, there are very, very few environmental lawyers here and there's a part of me that would love to put my hat back in the ring. But then it's so different than in Texas and I'm pretty happy with the planning work that I have now.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, and there's always that piece of like, “Oh, if it involves litigation, ugh, litigation.”
Laura Evans: Yeah, litigation and just projects that are really depressing from an environmental standpoint, it gets really, really brutal sometimes.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. So 2015 is when you move back to Western New York, talk to me about when you got the idea to write this book and can you talk a little bit about what the book is about for the people who are listening?
Laura Evans: For sure. I started writing the book last year, about a year ago. Well I guess it was like November when I started writing but I'd had the idea for years. The book is called Silent Seasons: Chasing Sustainability through the Law. The reason it's called Silent Seasons is that there's a book called Silent Spring by Rachel Carson that was written in 1960 and she passed away in 1962, two years after she wrote it. Are you familiar with Silent Spring?
Sarah Cottrell: Yes.
Laura Evans: Okay.
Sarah Cottrell: I feel like most people are. I don't know.
Laura Evans: As I've been talking about the book, I'm really surprised at how few people actually do know it. Silent Spring, it sold millions of copies, particularly housewives really liked it. it started off as they published every chapter in The New Yorker and then they launched the book at the end. in addition to a lot of other things that were happening in the US, the civil rights movement, women's rights movement, disability rights movement, everything was going on that and it was all culminating into a ton of environmental laws being passed.
All the environmental laws we know today like Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, they all were passed in the decade following her book and then she passed away and wasn't really able to continue writing or continue the conversation, although there are many people that continue to preach Silent Spring in a lot of ways. But this book is called Silent Seasons because it's all the seasons of my life that I have been silent about what I've learned and experienced.
The book is really about what we're talking about here, all the different moves that I've made in and around environmental law and sustainability, what I've learned, what is sustainability, and then the lessons. I start off with my childhood because I grew up as a swimmer around the Great Lakes. My dad was a swim coach and so I was taught the swimming technique early on about working with the water and being more efficient instead of splashing and trying really hard, you can actually be smoother, faster, and it's all much more pleasant than if you're fighting it.
That's a childhood lesson, but I go through college law school, law firm, government agency, and I keep going. One thing we haven't hit on is that I have worked for a non-profit organization for two years here in Buffalo. That was another job. Research and writing has been a big thing but the book does tell my story but it also summarizes different environmental laws and has a few notes on how they work and how they don't work.
Something that I've noticed throughout my whole career, including my own expectations by going into environmental laws, was that no one really knows what it is or how it works even though it is around us, at all of our roads, streets, bridges, things that happen in the water, whenever we clear land, build something new, or tear something down and eat, where does that trash go, it's all connected to environmental law and sustainability.
I'm really hoping that by sharing my story and the lessons that I've learned in this book, I can inspire others to share their own stories and then also have a better sense of what environmental law is because I'm tired of feeling, people still think that I'm doing great work by being an environmental lawyer but it's not that simple.
Sarah Cottrell: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Laura Evans: Sure. I guess now I say I'm an environmental natural resources planner but the times that I've said I'm an environmental lawyer, people would be like, “Wow, thank you. That's so awesome,” and there's just this image of saving trees, animals, and the water, whatever and there are elements of that where what we're doing in this world needs to be thought out, planned for, and managed. But there's just so much that gets in the way, human emotions, profit, stress, there are only so many hours in a day and there's just a lot of competing interests for space, energy, and resources in this world.
Environmental law is really at the crux of all of that. I guess the other thing about environmental law that I talk about in the book is it's split up. Sustainability in the earth, ecosystems, and everything operate as big systems that are all connected to each other, and humans are a part of that, but environmental law and the way that we look at nature is like, “Oh, that's water, that's air, that's land, that's pollution, oh, that's wildlife,” and so it gets really fractured and really ineffective. That's the complicated part about environmental law is that everybody's performing into this system that's not really helping anyone.
Sarah Cottrell: It's interesting because I think there's also an element of what we talked about earlier in the call which is this idea of what the environmental lawyer is and then the experience of actually being an environmental lawyer are two very different things in the way that even for those of us who spend time litigating, people's idea of what it is to be a lawyer who tries cases and being a litigator are two very different things.
Laura, as we're getting to the end of our conversation, is there anything else that you would like to share that you haven't had a chance to share yet?
Laura Evans: I think we've covered a lot. Oh, I know what I wanted to say. The other part about the book that was inspired by the book or connected to the book and a part of all of my my website stuff is that in 2017, I started making a podcast, it's called the Keeping Things Alive Podcast. I think I have 87 episodes now but I've been interviewing different people in and around environmental issues and anything. That's called Keeping Things Alive. There have been different, more social issues explored.
A lot of it has to do with Western New York but that podcast which I write about in the book has gotten me connected to a lot of different environmental issues and planners and the non-profit work that I did between 2017 and 2020, all of that. I just want to say I think that even though being a lawyer was not what I thought it would be and the way that loans also have influenced my decisions is really crazy, but I do really love using the knowledge and experience that I've had as an environmental lawyer in the writing and the podcasting and just even the planning work I do today.
Sarah Cottrell: I think that's so important for people to hear because it's like some real tangible examples of one of the things that so many lawyers worry about, which is like, “But will I be able to use the things that I've developed in this career in other ways?” Of course, there are so many ways that it can be done but it can sometimes be hard to see when you're in that lawyer bubble.
Okay, Laura, if people are interested in reading your book or connecting with you, where can they find the book/you online?
Laura Evans: Well, I would say the best place to go is www.keepingthingsalive.org. There's a page there about the book and then the podcast. Also, you can just go on Amazon and search for Silent Seasons by Laura Evans. The book is there now as an e-book and a paperback. But I would say my website is great and then I do post a fair amount on Instagram as laura.m.evans. Those are the best places to find me. There are a few other places, but between the website and Instagram, that's the best.
Sarah Cottrell: Great. Thank you for that. We'll make sure that ends up in the show notes. Thank you for joining me today and sharing your story.
Laura Evans: Yeah. Thanks for having me. it's been really fun and I like being on this side of the microphone.
Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
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