Thompson '10 to Work for National Forest Service as Presidential Management Fellow

May 20, 2010

Ask someone to picture a government lawyer at work and odds are good the resulting image will be set indoors, likely at an office in Washington, D.C.

Thompson passed on a law firm offer to help the National Forest Service analyze the impact of proposed development projects on federal land.

But that's not the case for Erin Thompson, slated to graduate on May 23 from the Law School. In the fall, she plans to travel west to join a National Forest Service team that analyzes the potential environmental impact of proposed development projects on federal land.

"I'll be on a team including an archeologist, a hydrologist and a geologist, and we'll be working in Region III, which is Arizona and New Mexico," Thompson said."About half the days will be in the office, but the other half will be in the field actually working to help prepare environmental impact statements."

Any time there's a new application for mining, grazing, road building or other projects on federal land in New Mexico or Arizona, Thompson and her colleagues will be involved in assessing the potential environmental impact. The analysis includes talking to local stakeholders and considering the impact to any nearby properties, such as Native American land.

"This really is a great fit for me," Thompson said."One of the things I'm most excited about is that I'm going to be able to work with people from a lot of backgrounds and specialties, and local interest groups as well."

In August, the 26-year-old Chicago native and her dog, Bella, will embark on a cross-country drive that ends in Albuquerque, N.M. , where her job as a National Environmental Policy Act specialist awaits.

The trip, which will include visits with friends along the way, is the latest stage in a professional journey that has included stints as an archeologist, a paralegal and as a summer employee at a litigation firm.

When she first came to law school, Thompson thought she might focus on transactional law. It was a far cry from her days an archeology major at the University of Michigan, but two years working as a paralegal in Chicago had her thinking she might like it.

"But when I came here I really liked constitutional law and environmental law, which is where I took the majority of my classes," Thompson said.

In the months before graduation she received an offer from a law firm, a commodity that has become more rare and precious in a job market drastically changed by the economic downturn. But she's going to take a pass on that, at least for now.

Instead, Thompson will join the National Forest Service as a Presidential Management Fellow, a two-year program that aims to bring top young professionals — including lawyers — into government work managing public policy programs. Thompson is one of 16 members of her class to be named a finalist for the fellowship.

Yared Getachew, the assistant dean for public service and director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, said he's rarely encountered a person better prepared to take on the challenges of developing and advancing public policy in a challenging field such as environmental preservation and planning.

"Erin is also an extremely kind and considerate person and it's only fitting that she recently received a prestigious appointment as a Presidential Management Fellow," Getachew said."I can say without a moment's hesitation that the public is in excellent hands."

This will be Thompson's second time living in New Mexico. Prior to law school, she spent a summer working there as an archeologist, an experience she said had strange parallels to the practice of law.

"In both areas, context is really important. In archeology, if you have an artifact, you need to know the context of where it's from, otherwise there is no value other than it just being beautiful or interesting," she said."In the same way, my concept of practicing law is that you need context. You can have all the legal knowledge in the world, but you need to understand your client and their business and the situation they are in."

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