From Lawyer to Environmental Advocate

Carleton Montgomery 2011This installment of the 0.1 Billable Hour Interview features Carleton Montgomery, the Executive Director of New Jersey’s Pinelands Preservation Alliance.  Carleton left legal practice in Washington, D.C., where he was a partner in the firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, in order to join the nonprofit world and devote himself to environmental protection. 

1. Why did you leave law?

I left the practice of law, but not the law itself, as the environmental advocacy work I do now is deeply tied up in a set of laws. Legal reasoning and argumentation is a critical element in advancing the organization’s mission, and I often work with and against other lawyers – so all the years of training and practice from law firm days does not go to waste.

I left my law firm and the practice of law because I decided my career should amount to more than the firm could offer. I enjoyed the work, for the most part. I liked my colleagues well and most of our clients. The work was intellectually challenging. We even found ways to have a lot of fun. But eventually, I had to face the fact that this work consisted fundamentally in saving or making a lot of money for very large corporations. Since we only go around once, I concluded that wasn’t enough for an entire career. I wanted to do something I believed in as an end in itself. For me, nature provided that end in itself.

There was another important reason: I wasn’t home enough while my children were growing up. Kissing them goodnight after they were already asleep, and being with them most weekends, was not good enough. I’ve been a better father – not perfect, just better – since changing jobs.

2. What was the hardest part of your career change?

The hardest part of the change was also one of the best parts: It is said that the law makes you sharp by making you narrow, and I found that was too true of my own practice. In contrast, running a nonprofit – even a small one – demands a far more varied use of what intelligence, wisdom and creativity I have to offer. In my job, I do legal and policy analysis, navigate a complex political landscape, meet and work with an extraordinary range of individuals, get outdoors, teach children and adults about a place I love, and manage a small business. The job is simply more interesting than corporate litigation. At first, that was intimidating. Now it is the reason I have stayed at it 15 years.

3. What advice do you have for other lawyers who are thinking of changing careers? 

I have three pieces of advice: First, consider working for a nonprofit. We can make a huge difference working for charities, in part because so few people with business and for-profit legal experience put their skills to work for public goods like alleviating suffering and protecting the environment. Second, save enough money to help make the transition less scary, especially if you go to a nonprofit, where the pay is likely to be significantly, even dramatically, less than for-profit practice. And finally, keep your bar membership up to date, just in case.

Readers, have you ever joining a nonprofit?  What do you see in Carleton’s career path that might help guide yours? 

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