Women Who Do: Environmental Lawyer and Professor on Creating Her Own Opportunities
Astrika Wilhelm has never waited for her career to materialize. Currently working just under the General Counsel in an environmental and energy company, Astrika created her own role by persuading the COO that she needed another attorney. In under 3 years, Astrika has risen from Law Clerk with the Environmental Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Assistant General Counsel at an environmental and energy company that focuses on environmental conservation, environmental reclamation, and nonrenewable energy resources. Astrika also teaches Environmental Law at North Carolina State University. We chatted with Astrika about her tenacity, her passion for environmental law, and how she created her own opportunities as a young attorney.
Q) You majored in Environmental Science and went on to study and practice Environmental Law. What made you interested in practicing environmental law?
Over and over again, the major that kept drawing me back was Environmental Science. Beyond theory, I wanted to study the foundational sciences (biology, chemistry, etc.) while also being able to interact “in the field” with nature (fish, birds, trees galore!). At Barnard, I played around with two main paths: 1) get my PhD, or 2) go to law school and practice environmental law. Like my initial search for that major, I decided to choose Option #2 because I wanted the best of both worlds. I wanted to talk and learn about science, but I also wanted to interact with public policy, law, and people! It was natural for me to choose law.
Q) How would you explain what you do in two minutes?
In sum, I work for an environmental company as their attorney. I handle any and all legal issues that pop up for the company, ranging from managing litigation to drafting and reviewing transnational documents (simple vendor agreements to more complex transactions with partner organizations) to working with state and federal administrative agencies for compliance purposes.
Q) You’ve progressed very quickly over 5 years from a Legal Consultant/Law Clerk to Assistant General Counsel. How did you reach your dream job/current role so quickly?
I tried; I worked; I reached out; I listened to advice. My career is important to me. Without it, I would not be fulfilled. I try to have a net thrown out at all times, ready to catch that beautiful trophy fish for my next move. Life throws you a lot of curve balls, and you always have to be prepared and have a Plan B…and Plan C….Plan D…all the way to Plan ZZZ. Keeping your options open for your career is critical. I ended up working for my current company as the Assistant GC simply by meeting the company’s COO and persuading her she needed another attorney. No job was ever posted on any employment site. I created my own job in essence by being ready for an opportunity.
Q) What advice would you give to a law student considering a career in environmental law?
It’s wonderful. If you are passionate about the environment, grab this career and work hard.
Q) What advice would you give your younger self?
Work hard, take care of yourself (your health and emotional well-being), and be flexible in life.
Q) Given the current economy and legal market, what would you say to someone who is considering going to law school this year?
Do it. The legal market is actually improving. And a law degree is so very versatile that you can do anything you want with it.
Q) How important has mentorship been in your professional journey?
Advice is priceless. Considering that advice is typically free, take as much of it as you can. I’ve met with dozens (if not hundreds) of other attorneys, always trying to get their advice on the legal market, a legal career, a location, a quandary. Don’t rely simply on one person, rather have that “board of directors” directing you from their varied perspectives on how best to make you succeed. I’ve been successful thus far because of the advice from dozens of individuals.
Q) What is the most difficult part of your job, and what advice would you give to other women to prepare for that?
It’s difficult being a young attorney. Many see your physical characteristics, conclude you are young (I am only 25), and make the assumption that you are inexperienced and cannot contribute much to the conversation.
Youth is not a disability, but it is often seen as one in the legal world. How do I respond? I work harder and let those around me underestimate me so I can outshine those around me.
Q) What have been some of your biggest career obstacles? How did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacle is probably the same as my response above about age. Just push through it and help others. I started the legal internship program at my company after I had been here for a few months. I want to give back, and hope I can help those who are where I was just a couple of years ago. But, after all of this, each person has to critically think about what they want out of their life.
For me, my priorities always will be my family, friends, my career, and my faith. If I’m letting one of those four priorities slip away, I need to recalibrate. Being aware of the need to recalibrate at times is critical.
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