Northeastern alumna and professor Shalanda Baker is a renowned expert in environmental and renewable energy law, sustainable development, indigenous rights, and international development. She received her undergraduate degree in political science from the United States Air Force Academy and graduated Northeastern Law School in 2005. She went on to receive a Master of Laws from University of Wisconsin Law School.
Baker is now a professor of law, public policy and urban affairs with joint appointments at the School of Law and School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Here, she chats about law school and shares advice to aspiring lawyers.
A: I went to law school for the same reasons that many people go to law school: to fight the good fight and save the world, but my specific experience with law was based in my military service. I was a military officer in the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and I was an LGBT service member under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. I came out in 2000 and my final discharge papers were signed in August 2001, only a month before 9/11. I saw how horrible a compromise the policy was because it made people more vulnerable in some ways than they already were. The policy showed how discretion can translate to discrimination, if you have the discretion to investigate you can really make certain people’s lives extremely difficult.
My first job after I left the military was in San Francisco at nonprofit serving inner-city schools undeserved in terms of education. That experience let me see how some schools just don’t even have the tools to make their students successful, and when I came to law school I actually thought I was going to do more education policy. I wasn’t really interested in the LGBT rights issues—it’s so personal, and I had already spent a lot of time on the speaking circuit talking about my experience. But that’s how I ended up making the decision to go to law school.
A: At the Air Force Academy a lot of the Neo-Conservative movement was starting to get under way, and I was questioning a lot of the ideology at the school. So, when I decided to go to law school, I really wanted to be in an environment where I’d be supported. Since Northeastern has a strong public interest background and reputation in social justice, I knew that it would be a good place to be trained as a social justice lawyer.
The co-op opportunities were really another big draw for me, and I was able to do four while I was at the school. My first co-op was at the Center for Legal Education. I got funding through the Rappaport Fellowship Program and spent my summer doing research on high-stakes testing in Massachusetts, and how that influences the education system. Through that work I realized I didn’t want to be doing impact litigation, so I began to focus on development-based work. I took classes at Northeastern which really gave me some insights into the dynamics of development in communities.
For my second co-op I was working for a judge in San Francisco at the Northern District Court. Due to a bizarre set of circumstances, one of the clerks lost her husband, and I essentially became a clerk despite not having graduated law school yet. It was an amazing opportunity and allowed me to develop a mentor relationship with the judge.
My third co-op was for Bingham McCutchen LLP, which was actually the firm I joined after graduation. I had a real interest in transactional law and development, and the co-op helped me to explore and develop that. Then, I spent my last winter at the Urban Justice Center in New York. There, I was working with LGBT youth, a lot of them are homeless and being discriminated against in school, housing, or other ways, and I represented them in various administrative hearings.
A: I knew that I didn’t want to be doing impact litigation, and during my time at the Urban Justice Center I didn’t feel like I was making enough of a difference. So, I decided to clerk after graduation. I clerked for Justice Roderick Ireland of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. It was an impactful experience which gave me the chance to develop another mentorship.
I then went on to spend three years at Bingham McCutchen. I was able to learn an incredible amount, but again, I didn’t feel like I was making a real impact. I planned to spend a few weeks in Columbia on vacation and find civil rights work, social justice work, and work with indigenous people, but a few days before I was supposed to leave I got a call from a woman at Bingham McCutchen. She said that she knew I was interested in doing international work and offered me a position in their Tokyo office.
I accepted and spent a few weeks doing social justice work in Colombia before flying to Japan for a year. About a week after I joined Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, and I went from being a project finance lawyer to a bankruptcy lawyer. This was 2008, and it was the hottest year on record. The financial crisis really made me realize that there’s so much in our system which is unsustainable, and I was doing work to try to save a system that was broken.
Therefore, I left the firm and bought a one-way ticket to Mexico. I knew I wanted to work with indigenous people, so I planned on becoming fluent in Spanish, and then possibly moving to Argentina. In Mexico, I was in Oaxaca, and I met indigenous people who were fighting against the types of projects that I used to build as a lawyer, specifically wind energy. There, I began trying to understand why there seemed to be a conflict between renewables and indigenous people. I wanted to understand the development models which were allowing this to continue. I began to do research and wrote a few papers on the subject.
I ended up leaving Mexico because my mentors at Northeastern Law School informed me of law professor openings. I went to the interview a bit unprepared but ended up being mentored through the process because of the relationships I had developed during my time in school. I applied to a few programs, and ultimately got a fellowship program to study at University of Wisconsin where I completed my Master of Laws degree.
I took my first teaching position in San Francisco, but two years into the position a friend recruited me to apply to teach in an environmental law program in Hawaii. I got the job and started an energy program that eventually attracted funding from the Schmidt Family Foundation, the 11th Hour Project, which is all about bringing communities to the table with energy development. I worked there until I received a Fulbright fellowship to do research in Mexico concerning indigenous rights and Mexico’s energy transition. I came back to Northeastern as a faculty member this fall.
A: I’m very grateful that I had time working before law school. I was a military officer and worked for nonprofits before I applied. Once I got to law school, I was really ready for the readings and all of the work. I think some people who go straight through get burnt out.
I also found that I was able to contribute more in the classroom based on my life experience. So much in life is random, but it comes down to doing a good job when the opportunity presents itself and taking advantage of mentorship opportunities. Law school is an entirely different beast, but I certainly recommend it. Never stop exploring the opportunities that are out there!
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