Geology and Law: A Promising Partnership

Life can be unpredictable. But its unpredictability can lead to incredible opportunities.

Michelle Bushman has a fascinating and fulfilling career as Legal Counsel for the Western States Water Council—a job that she is uniquely qualified for. Did she ever think that this is where she would end up? No. Is she happy it happened? For sure.

“My whole life is a convoluted path, so it’s very non-traditional,” Bushman said.

Her serpentine professional journey started out in Virginia. Her husband was gone on military assignment for six months at a time, so Bushman used this time to pursue her own personal interests.

“I ended up spending a lot of the time in the library doing research for some stories that I wanted to write, but I didn’t know enough details in order to be able to write them,” Bushman said.

For one of the fictional stories she was writing, Bushman needed to find some information on rocks.

“I ended up totally going down this rabbit hole learning about obsidian and then about other rocks, and I was just hooked,” Bushman said.

After Bushman and her husband divorced, she went back to her home in Las Vegas and started school at UNLV. But that’s not where she graduated.

“My stepmom always got the BYU Magazine and, because I was [studying] geology, she had seen an article that Bart Kowallis had written,” Bushman said. “He talked about geology and religion . . . and I really liked the article. It just kind of stuck with me and kept going [through] my head.”

Bushman reluctantly received revelation that she was supposed to be in Provo, Utah instead of Las Vegas.

“I felt like Heavenly Father told me I needed to go to BYU, which I really didn’t want to do,” Bushman said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with BYU; it [just] wasn’t . . . on my radar.”

Leaving her friends and family in Las Vegas behind, Bushman headed north to finish her undergraduate geology degree—but she didn’t stop there. She worked closely with Steve Nelson, who encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree focused on groundwater discharge in the Amargosa Desert.

While Bushman was in the process of writing her thesis, her plans took another unexpected turn. During a geology departmental seminar introducing students to different career possibilities, Bushman was brainstorming experiences she could put on her resume to obtain a job.

“I’m starting to write all this stuff down and into my head popped BYU Law School,” Bushman said. “I kind of dismissed it, but it wouldn’t go away. For a couple of weeks, I just couldn’t get rid of that feeling that I needed to go.”

She was nearly finished with her master’s degree in geology, and there seemed to be no reason to study another vocation—especially one so different from her background.

“I finally thought: Fine, I’m just going to take the LSAT, and when I bomb the LSAT, I’ll write that off saying I had done it,” Bushman said. “I passed the LSAT.”

She only applied to one law school—BYU—but she got in, and Bushman found herself simultaneously attending grad school and law school.

“I was still working on my master’s in geology [clear up] until I finished law school,” Bushman said. “It’s not something I would recommend.”

Disregarding her own advice, Bushman simultaneously graduated with both her JD and her MS in geology.

“For about the first year, I just felt completely adrift. . . . It was really hard to go to law school. It was like learning a completely different language,” Bushman said. “Then I got my first internship that first summer. I got to work with a firm that did water law, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that this was actually doable. It would be interesting and it would also fit with all of the geology work I had done.”

Bushman graduated in 2008, immediately after the market crashed. It wasn’t easy for attorneys to find jobs, and Bushman was just happy to find an opening when she was hired as a litigator.

“I didn’t love litigation, but there were parts of it that were very satisfying,” Bushman said.

However, a former mentor suggested to Bushman that she should do litigation to prepare for other aspects of law.

“If you will [litigate] for four or five years, you will be fearless as an attorney . . . because you won’t be intimidated by someone threatening to take you to court. . . . You’ll be familiar with it,” her mentor told her.

After litigating for several years, Bushman had a shot at her dream job. She ran into an employee at the Western States Water Council who had written an article expanding on her internship paper about exempt wells.

Bushman joked with him saying, “Well, if you ever decide that you want to move on to other things, give me a call and let me know, because I want your job.”

It turns out, that was the right thing to say because she got his job and has been working as legal counsel for the last two years—perfectly combining geology and law.

“One of the biggest things we do is go out and make sure we’re aware of what’s going on in the federal government,” Bushman said. “Federal agencies propose regulations and courts issue decisions that impact the ability of the states—for better or for worse—to effectively manage their water resources.

Bushman meets with government leaders at the state and federal levels to facilitate discussions, develop positive relationships, and provide a forum for sharing information. She reviews contracts and other legal documents and helps out with whatever else she can as the resident lawyer for the Western States Water Council.

Although she loves her job today, she’s learned a thing or two during her professional journey.

“It’s going to be hard sometimes, no matter what path you choose. . . . You’ve just got to stick with it,” Bushman said.

Her advice to current students is insightful.

“There are going to be times when you might not get the job that you want at first, but you stick with what you can do in the moment and prepare yourself so when opportunities open, you’re ready to take [advantage of] those opportunities,” Bushman said.

—James Collard, College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences

By James Collard Posted on