By Dawnell Smith
If you heard about ConocoPhillips’ new Willow oil and gas project, you might have seen or heard Bridget Psarianos’ name in the news. She’s our lead attorney on Willow litigation and arguably the personification of our informal organizational motto, “Small, but mighty!”
She’s compact, maybe 5-foot tall, and prone to hilarious asides and dramatic gestures while telling stories of near (or actual) disaster. Just ask her about her first driving lesson, or the run-in with an agitated black bear on the Turnagain Arm Trail.
At the office, you can find her standing at her work desk in socks, no shoes, with an expression of deep concentration, her dog Joan Jett and maybe a glass of kombucha nearby.
She’s the kind of person who can animate joy, frustration, discovery, laughter, “insert communal emotion” here, and then immediately turnaround and re-concentrate.
Lawyering requires the brain to fully fire, Bridget said. “I have to keep the creative part of myself active when thinking about case strategies. The hunt for where the facts line up with the law to create a legal violation is exciting to me.”
How did I get here?
The way Bridget tells it, she found the law while kicking the tires of doing good. She majored in criminal justice at Penn State because, well, why not, and also because other majors didn’t feel right, and her mother majored in criminal justice, too. When it came time to graduate, her classmates started talking about law school and Bridget thought to herself, “Oh, so that’s what people do with this degree.”
Bridget got a job instead, working for Habitat for Humanity via AmeriCorps in New York City. She wanted to do work that helps people, though she quickly learned that the income wouldn’t let her take care of herself.
Around the same time, her uncle said, “Why don’t you go to law school? You’d be a good lawyer. You know how to argue your case.”
Her mother agrees. “Years before she reached the tender age of 10, I realized that there was no way to possibly back Bridget into a corner,” said her mom Catherine Psarianos, more commonly known as Moe.
See you in a few years—or decades
“I figured, well I could get more skills, do good work and also keep a roof over my head,” said Bridget, “and I thought even nonprofit lawyers probably made enough money for that.”
So, she signed up for the LSAT late, read a book on how to pass it, and did well enough to get into law school.
She first wanted to do human rights work until she learned how few jobs were available in that specialty. She studied at one of the top schools in environmental law at Pace University instead, and graduated in 2011, just a few years after the housing market crash “when there were tons of lawyers in New York City and no jobs,” she said.
She ended up looking for any legal-related position she could find, wherever it took her, and landed a position with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Alaska. She told folks at home she was taking a journey north for a couple of years.
That was 12 years ago and counting, almost half of them now with Trustees.
A desk job she can love
The thing people should know about environmental law is that “there’s a lot of math and science involved and that stuff’s hard,” Bridget said.
The work can also feel like a merry-go-round of administrative and legal actions that refuse to resolve or won’t stop, making you feel weary of whirling around in circles and maybe even sick to your stomach.
On the other hand, Bridget has always loved reading, writing, and doing research, and her work with Trustees involves a whole lot of that. Back in law school, classmates would complain about the many hours of reading and writing, said Bridget, and she thought, “What did you think lawyers do? I just expected I would be reading and writing 40 to 50 hours a week for the rest of my life.”
What might sound like desk job drudgery to some is fun and meaningful to Bridget because it allows her to use her role as an attorney to help people tell their stories and explain what matters to them in legal declarations and comments to agencies and other institutional processes—the very places where decisions get made.
For her, lawyering contributes to the efforts of clients, partners, and coalitions striving to protect land and communities, to address the climate crisis, and to make the change necessary to sustain people and animals for generations to come.
And, of course, her impact on the work means the work has impact on her, too.
Her mom Moe—whose acerbic wit and wisdom is legend—says lawyering has definitely had an impact on Bridget. “I feel that her working in the legal field has ingrained the concept that one side wins and the other one loses,” said Moe, “not always a happy ending, but a necessary life lesson.”
Let’s put it another way: Bridget backs the New York Giants and always has, so it amuses her when people ask, “how can you keep rooting for them when they play so badly?”
The answer is obvious. If you back something, you commit to it. The merry-go-round sucks when you’re struggling and feeling woozy and about to throw up, but it can also be a blast—and hanging on can also be the point, the very thing that matters.
“I went from advocating for affordable housing in New York City to fighting climate change in Alaska,” said Bridget. “So, yeah, the Giants keep losing, and I stick with them.”
“Bridget has an interesting temperament that is both very easygoing and ‘go with the flow’ mixed with very steadfast feelings she won’t bend on,” said her partner, Hank Beckman. “I think this helps her get along with others while still holding true to herself.”
At the same time, the legal process had left its mark, he said, and “made Bridget more jaded about how much of a difference can be made, but back to her steadfastness. She keeps trying.”
When something big happens with a case, Bridget has a Big Fat Greek Wedding cry of joy or grief, and then gathers the fullness of her heart and mind to get back to work.
Because that’s what the work is. Because that’s what doing good requires.
This is the first in a series of interviews with Trustees’ attorneys over drinks, this time over IPAs at Hearth Artisan Pizza in midtown Anchorage.