Academics and Research / News

New law school adjunct to teach resiliency

Rebacca Watson

DU adjunct instructor Rebecca Watson brings a career in natural resources law to students at the the Sturm College of Law this semester.

When she steps into a classroom at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law this semester, Rebecca Watson will draw her lesson plans from real life rather than the pages of a law book.

And what she’ll tell her students — many of whom are on the verge of graduation — may surprise them.

“What I want to emphasize is that their learning is just beginning,” she says. “Once you get out into practicing law, whether you’re in a corporation or a law firm, you have to keep learning. That’s just critical to your success. You have to maintain a sense of curiosity and a desire to learn.”

Watson speaks from experience. While she currently is an attorney in energy and natural resources law at Denver’s Welborn Sullivan Meck & Tooley law firm, her career has taken her from the rural environs of Sheridan, Wyo., all the way to Washington, D.C. She served in the administrations of both Presidents Bush in positions such as assistant secretary for lands and minerals at the Department of the Interior and assistant general counsel for energy policy at the Department of Energy.

Now, Watson comes to DU as the College of Law’s Distinguished Natural Resources Practitioner-in-Residence, helping students learn how what they’ve practiced in the classroom applies in real life.

She says if there’s one thing she will stress it’s that successful lawyers are resilient, open to learning new things and constantly building contacts. Her own career is a textbook example.

Watson graduated from DU (BA history and philosophy ’74, MA library sciences ’75) before attending law school, working her way through as a reference librarian. The daughter of a prominent Illinois securities lawyer and uncomfortable with public speaking, she began her studies by focusing on securities law and envisioning herself working in an office preparing documents.

But as she will tell her students, plans don’t always work out, and it pays to be open to new challenges. An opportunity in Wyoming appeared, and Watson soon realized she might be moving north to Cheyenne, not east to Chicago.

“I realized I was probably going to be living in Wyoming and needed to learn something about natural resources law,” she says.

After a two-year stint clerking for a Wyoming federal judge and getting active in Wyoming politics, Watson made friends at each stop and embraced every opportunity to try something new. She moved to Sheridan, Wyo., and became the only woman trial lawyer north of Casper and also head of the Sheridan County Bar.

At every turn, being curious and making contacts paid off, she says. She ventured into mines, visited natural gas wells and asked ranchers questions about their business. The first political candidate she campaigned for was a first-term congressman named Dick Cheney, who would go on to become vice president. A DU law classmate she stayed in touch with, Gale Norton, went on to become secretary of the Interior and eventually hired her.

“Students have to start building their network of connections right now in law school,” Watson says. “In my generation, I’ve had a lot of jobs, and for their generation the prediction is that they will have many more jobs, and you have to build in a resiliency … It’s very important that you be a survivor, and you have to give yourself the skills to survive. I find continuing education and networking to be very important.”

A law degree, she says, is just the start. It’s up to graduates to decide how they will shape their career. Watson’s adventurous spirit has seen her through writing a chapter in the official history of the 10th Circuit Court, litigating cases in a rural Wyoming courtroom, and drafting and enforcing policy at the highest levels of the federal government.

Being open to new things, even things outside the field of law, helps natural resources lawyers navigate a field that is in constant flux as commodities go through boom and bust cycles and as new technologies in energy development change the field. And developing professional contacts helps lawyers find new clients and places to work.

“I don’t want to be static; I’ve always enjoyed doing a lot of different things that are all related but allow me to continue to learn. That’s what’s exciting about natural resources law,” she says. “You don’t just have to understand public land law, you also have to know and understand the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, all of these other areas of law that impinge on people trying to do projects on public land. A natural resources lawyer becomes a renaissance lawyer.”

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