Carrie La Seur (North Dakota & University 1993) is an attorney for Baumstark Braaten Law Partners in Billings, Montana, and novelist. She is the founder and executive director of Plains Justice, a non-profit organization that provides energy and environment related legal services to the northern plains states. Carrie previously served as a gubernatorial appointee to the Iowa Power Fund Board and the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and was a clerk for the Federal Court of Australia. Carrie holds a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and a B.A. from Bryn Mawr College.
Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?
Carrie La Seur: Billings, Montana.
Rhodes Project: Have you seen a movie or read a book recently that you would recommend?
Carrie La Seur: A book that I read recently and have been recommending to everyone is called How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. It’s about a lot of factors that impact the success of at-risk children as they go through preliminary and secondary education, as well as later stages of their lives. It’s a really good book.
Rhodes Project: What was the first job you ever held?
Carrie La Seur: I had a job as a cook at a pizza restaurant when I was sixteen. That’s not counting babysitting. It’s the first job I had to use my social security number for.
Rhodes Project: Tell me a little bit about Plains Justice.
Carrie La Seur: Plains Justice is a non-profit organization that I founded in 2006. It provides scientific and legal services to other non-profits and communities that are dealing with energy and environmental issues in the northern plains states. To give an example, we were one of the first organizations to draw attention to the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. We represented landowners in state siting proceedings and fundraised to launch the national campaign.
Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?
Carrie La Seur: I have two, if not three jobs at the moment. I’m still the executive director for Plains Justice, but I am doing that on a volunteer basis; we’re in a transition to a new staffing model right now. I’m also an attorney with Baumstark Braaten Law Partners in private practice. I’m teaching Environmental Law at Montana State University – Billings in fall semester 2013. Then I’m publishing novels in my spare time. My first – a literary thriller set in Montana, called The Home Place – will be out in summer 2014. The best part of my job is my clients. They are people who are trying to hold onto a way of life. They tend to be salt of the earth and really colorful. I feel good about representing them every day.
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Carrie La Seur: It would definitely be fundraising for the non-profit. Over the last few years, as the foundation sector and the philanthropic sector have absorbed the impact of the 2008 crash and the recession, it’s become really difficult to keep a small non-profit funded at previous levels.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman about to enter law school?
Carrie La Seur: I would say to make sure that it’s what she really wants. She should really inform herself about what her career path will look like. It seems that a lot of people are doing law school as a fall-back or just as a predetermined next step that they haven’t thought through. It is a demanding career and it is very technical in a lot of ways. Through what I’ve been hearing a lot in the media about recent law graduates, it’s becoming increasingly hard for new lawyers to get and keep a job that is satisfying. There are very low levels of satisfaction, especially at the lower levels, as associates in larger firms. It’s not what a lot of people thought it was going to be when they entered law school. I would say that being really well-informed before taking that step is important.
Rhodes Project: Who are some of your mentors?
Carrie La Seur: Some of the best have been people who’ve helped get the non-profit off the ground. They’ve all been women. I’ve also worked with some terrific men. My Oxford supervisor, Malcolm Bowie, was just wonderful. I named my son Malcolm. I thought the world of him. He took me seriously as a scholar, which was a great gift.
I can think of four women who have been involved in my professional career who have really been instrumental. One is Judi Whetstine, a career Assistant U.S. Attorney who, in her early retirement, was an enormous force in getting Plains Justice off the ground. She gave all kinds of volunteer time and was a tremendous mentor on the legal side of the organization. Another was Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, an African American activist on population and environmental issues. She served on President Clinton’s Council on Sustainability. She has been a tremendous ambassador for Plains Justice and provided such vision and heart to the organization. She encouraged me through some of its more difficult stages.
The other mentors who occur to me are women who were prominent in the establishment of the sustainable agriculture movement in the United States. One is Denise O’Brien, who founded an organization called the Women’s Food and Agriculture Network. She is now advising on sustainable agriculture in Afghanistan through the State Department. She has run her own organic farm for 30 years in Iowa and is also gives enormous time and energy to helping young female farmers get started, which is really difficult in today’s farm economics. The fourth woman I can think of is Sarah Vogel, a former North Dakota Commissioner of Agriculture. She was elected to that position in a state-wide election. She made her name as a lawyer defending farmers from foreclosures in North Dakota back in the 1980s. She is a tremendously well-respected figure on agricultural issues now. From the moment I met her and explained what we were doing with Plains Justice, Sarah has been its biggest cheerleader and supporter and has opened all kinds of doors. The private firm I’m working with right now is actually the firm that she founded.
Rhodes Project: What is a memorable gift you have received?
Carrie La Seur: One of my most treasured possessions is my Grandpa La Seur’s bamboo fly rod, which my dad passed down to me. My great-grandparents homesteaded along the Stillwater River in south central Montana in 1911, so my grandpa grew up fishing that river. Fishing is a longstanding family tradition with us. My family doesn’t have a lot of heirlooms to pass on, so this one is priceless to me.
Rhodes Project: What has been the highlight of your year so far?
Carrie La Seur: The absolute highlight is that I just sold my first novel in a two-book deal. That’s the highlight of the decade.
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