Drinks with lawyers - Vicki follows the whales
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Drinks with lawyers – Vicki follows the whales

By Dawnell Smith

Vicki remembers her fifth grade teacher asking everyone in class to draw a picture of what they wanted to be when they grew up. She drew a judge in a black robe behind a courtroom bench.

Vicki fishing at Little Birch Lake when in the 5th grade. Photo by grandma Avis Clark.

That may sound like the defining moment for a kid who eventually grew up to practice law, but Vicki’s not so sure. Her choice of what to draw may have had more to do with hanging out with her grandma Jackie, who loved to watch the TV show Perry Mason while knitting.

Honestly, said Vicki, her drawing may have had more to do with her “wanting to be the one in charge.”

Not surprising since Vicki has been with Trustees for 20 years now, most of them as legal director or executive director, where decision-making lands. But lawyering isn’t something that drove her path as a young person. It’s more accurate to say she came to law by following the whales.

The pull of the water

Vicki always loved animals as a kid. She was the kid who loved to go fishing at the nearby lake, but didn’t want to put the worm on the hook or take the fish off it . She considered going into veterinary studies for a time, but a career day experience holding a cat who freaked out and peed all over the room changed her mind.

She became enthralled with the ocean when she saw and experienced it for the first time in the eighth grade. The pull stayed with her. By the end of high school, she had gravitated toward marine biology as a way of studying oceans and whales, heading to college at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

She started out certain that she would make a life of studying whales, but her plan got derailed late in college by an epiphany.

Vicki at college showing a horned shark to visitors during a tour of the marine science lab. Photo by friend Kathy Fournier

She realized during a marine invertebrate zoology class while they were learning about the tiny porcelain crab that the smallest things matter when everything is connected, and you could spend a lifetime with a narrow focus on one small animal (or giant one) and still have no real impact on their wellbeing.

“I realized that as an academic you’re not necessarily an advocate,” she said, “and that I could do more for marine animals by protecting places.”

Her path from the ocean to courtroom began.

Drawn to whale song

Vicki was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, and grew up mostly in Iowa. Her father was in the Air Force, so they traveled a bit. He was stationed in Kotzebue, Alaska, for a time before she went to kindergarten, but the family stayed behind.

Her father died before Vicki got out of grade school, and as the oldest kid, she grew up quickly. Her mother Kathy Clark described Vicki as more mature and responsible than other kids her age.

Her sister Julie Miller remembers Vicki always having a stack of books from the library—Harlequin novels, mostly—and always having a good memory. “Ask her any song’s lyrics from the 70s or 80s and she knows them,” said Julie. “This is helpful when she is with her mother and sister as we constantly misremember them.”

Anyone who hangs out with Vicki at her most animated moments can vouch for her belting into song and knowing all the lyrics. More often, though, she moves like she does when scuba diving, steadily moving forward while looking into the nooks and crannies, paying attention to her whereabouts and surroundings, paying attention to other beings.

As her mother said, “Vicki tries not to speak without facts. She looks at both sides and then decides which she will support.”

Both her mom and sister agree that Vicki is keenly analytical, and also full of heart. “As a big sister she had to listen to and take care of younger siblings,” said sister Julie. “I don’t know of a more compassionate person than my sister. She still cries when she watches Charlotte’s Web.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Vicki found herself drawn to big water, and the song of whales, and the means to protect both.

Vicki doing a pool dive while learning to scuba dive--her pathway to the other world.

Vicki learning to scuba dive in 1991. Photo by Tony Montenaro, a friend also in the class.

Clean water is life

After her epiphany about the connection between all living beings and advocacy for whales and marine life, Vicki started thinking about options. She read a story about how environmental lawyers could make headway in ensuring clean water and air. The connection between the law and the oceans stuck with her. She decided to stay a fifth year at U.C. Santa Barbara to take a series of environmental studies classes that included planning processes and legal issues.

She also did an internship at the Environmental Defense Center that year, where she got her first indoctrination into planning law.

Within a few years, she went through the preparation process and started law school at Golden Gate University. “I lucked out,” she said. “When I got into the school, they didn’t have an environmental program, but the professor they brought on and who started its clinic is one of the most brilliant people I know.”

Law school doesn’t really prepare students for what lawyers do, she said, but the  Environmental Law and Justice Clinic did. The clinic allowed students to get certified under state law so they could represent clients and do legal work under the oversight of an attorney. Vicki got into the clinic its first year and that’s when the real learning began.

She worked on a Clean Water Act case concerning the dry dock blasting of ships that sent paint metals into the water. She worked with clients who lived near an autobody shop and were affected by fumes; the clinic’s work eventually led to a requirement that  autobody shops have hood systems. She stayed with the clinic after she finished law school, too, in a one-year fellowship working with law school students.

Vicki’s Grandpa Jack, sister Julie, Vicki, and Grandma Jackie at Vicki’s law school graduation. Photo by Kathy Clark

Her law school years were also her introduction to Trustees for Alaska, where she took a summer internship in 1994.

Finding lawyer positions that fit her interests and could pay the bills proved challenging. Vicki worked for the Environmental Defense Center for over four years and was offered a position with another firm at a more livable salary, but the deal fell through because of the firm’s financial situation. That’s when Vicki saw a Trustees for Alaska job announcement for a staff attorney.

That was 2003 and she’s been with Trustees ever since.

The work is harder

Trustees had a smaller staff working on heady issues back then, including coalbed methane concerns near private property, and mining issues like the proposed Pebble mine in Bristol Bay. It didn’t take long for her to be “making the decisions.”

Jasper’s the boss In the backyard, June 2022. Photo by Vicki

She started as legal director in 2007 and as executive director in 2014, and now knows, as she didn’t in the fifth grade, that making decisions requires a lot more than an opinion and a gavel. Making decisions that make polluters unhappy goes with the work, of course, while collaboration and buy-in matters when trying to make the workplace healthy, kind, and effective.

“You’re never going to make everyone happy, but if you’re going to be good at decisions, you have to be self-aware,” she said, “you have to ask, ‘is this something that makes most people happy or are you trying to impose something?’”

It’s particularly important to work on making the workplace healthy when the work is hard and unending. Vicki finds so many reasons to feel frustrated. Laws exist so we can interact without chaos, and chaos agents know it. The efforts to undermine laws and rules that protect clean water and animals like salmon and caribou are constantly under attack.

“The work is such an uphill battle in nonprofit public interest law,” she said. “Over the time I’ve been practicing, there’s been a backlash against regulation, laws have been made less rigorous, and there are fewer opportunities in the law for holding polluters accountable.”

It often feels demoralizing, “but it is so necessary that it gets you up in the morning.”

So do relationships. Vicki’s greatest joy in lawyering centers on people, and  “being with clients in their home areas and really understanding their experiences and what they want the legal work to achieve.”

She has met and learned from amazing people in her time with Trustees, she said, like Vic Fischer, Bella Hammond, Violet Willson, and Rick Delkittie Sr, all of whom contributed to protecting Bristol Bay salmon and communities form the proposed Pebble mine.

The big swim

Vicki swimming with fishes in 2018. Photo by fellow diver

For 6 months last year, Vicki held the role of both executive director and interim legal director, and realized how much the work of running an organization and tending to its health meant taking her away from the weeds of legal work. “I had to get myself up to speed after not being in the day-to-day work on briefs and memos,” she said. “I was stale in my knowledge and had to catch up.”

Perhaps this is an epiphany of sorts, too—to know that holding Trustees together through seeking grants, and making internal policies, and communicating with the board of directors, and negotiating the needs of many is as much a part of advocacy as making an argument in court.

Everything’s connected and the health of the whole depends on every porcelain crab and whatever mysterious things whales do in the deep sea.

“Vicki’s passion to work for preserving and bettering the environment is foundational to who she is,” said sister Julie. “I admire my sister for her passion, dedication, and thoughtful approach to her life. She is intentional in what she does and how she lives. She lives according to her principles and is a sincere and loyal friend. I am proud of her and proud to be her sister.”

Vicki hasn’t stopped following whales, either. In February, she heads to the Caribbean island of Dominica to swim with sperm whales, and to glide within big water and whale song again.


This is the seventh in a series of profiles based on interviews with Trustees’ attorneys over drinks, this time over Manhattans at the Spenard Roadhouse  in Anchorage.

More in the “drinks with lawyers” series: