The Unlikely Avenue from Hopeful Environmental Litigator to Inspired Transactional Lawyer

If there’s one piece of advice I would want to share with first-year and second-year law students, it is that they should not readily abandon heartfelt goals and passions when faced with challenges but, instead, identify and explore alternative paths to overcome those challenges.

Ashley Burlesci-Niukkanen

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2022

I came to law school to be an environmental law litigator. Now, going into my last semester, I am planning on being a transactional attorney. My involvement in the UT chapter of Animal Legal Defense Fund and independent animal liberation activism led me there. Are you curious why?

I don’t think I’m a leader at heart, nor do I particularly like to lead. I get anxious at the thought of delegating responsibilities, because I worry that I will appear bossy or full of myself. I find myself trying to balance my tendency to be independent with an organization’s need for teamwork. Growing up with autism, it took me a long time to be able to read emotions, tone, and inflection. I still doubt that I can truly understand how people are reacting to what I am saying. That being said, I have been filling leadership roles for as long as I can remember, usually because nobody else wants to take the role. These roles (which I assumed that nobody else could see) were the very roles that have allowed me to be seen as a person, professional, and leader.

I’ve been a vegan activist for four years now. In the two-plus years I’ve been at The University of Tennessee College of Law, I know I’ve been loud about it. I found myself itching to get out of the contracts classroom when we discussed replevin for a cow, because I knew the value of the cow depended on more than just her ability to produce young. I knew that if she was not barren, she could be used another season to produce milk for human consumption. I knew that if she existed in today’s industrial agriculture complex, her young would be stolen from her and placed in another pen. I knew that if she gave birth to a male, he would be sold for veal, and if she gave birth to a female, her baby girl would be left to the fate of the dairy industry. I found myself crying in a classroom because I read the newest Tennessee agricultural report, which cited that billions of chickens had died in Tennessee in 2019. 

The truth is that I take all injustices personally. I find myself sick to my stomach at the very idea of the law making a mistake, which it does more often than we’d like to admit. It feels like the bad guy wins often, whether it be because someone else was convicted for his crime or because the law doesn’t provide for a remedy against his evil. The sickness, the tug on my throat that I feel in the face of injustice, hinders me in some ways. I find myself filled to the very brim with anxiety when I discover that there’s simply no way to find a path to victory in a certain matter. I get loud when I feel threatened; I get quiet when I feel targeted. I get told often by my colleagues that I’ll need to calm down when I start practicing, because it will be hard to earn respect. The potency of my emotions and my inability to truly keep myself from falling apart in the face of injustice led me away from litigation.

I am starting to realize that the very things that I so often see as weaknesses may also be strengths in certain contexts. I may not be able to speak about my passions freely before a tribunal, but I can write about them with reckless abandon. Sometimes my writing comes off a little too strong, but it is still pure passion. I’ve found that when others can feel tangible passion in the air around them, regardless of what the passion is for, it inspires them to move. On the other hand, I have also seen the very same passion that inspired people to move towards my goal inspire others to rail against it. Pretty much everyone loves animals in their heart, and it can feel like a threat when you hear someone suggest that the way that you love animals is painful to them. This is why not only the volume of my speech must be tapered, but also the tone of what I say. Activism, along with strong friendships and incredible mentors, has allowed me to expand beyond the stigma of how neurodivergent people communicate because I can still exude confidence and passion without fear of judgment while controlling my message in a respectful way.

I have chosen business transactions as my focus in law school as a way of keeping my loud activism separate from my work life. I wanted to be able to negotiate with companies, come to agreements, and try to understand why they make certain decisions. I wanted to be able to help farmers avoid exploitation by large agriculture companies by negotiating contracts. I wanted to help workers in the food industry by advising companies towards different policies. I wanted to share my research with undereducated people so that those I can reach will have the opportunity to learn how the law shapes injustices. I want to help animal lovers like myself open non-profit sanctuaries. Transactional business lawyering opened some of those avenues—avenues that I did not know existed beyond litigation, which is so much more apparent than transactional legal work in day-to-day life. 

We talk a lot about work-life balance in law school, but when you’re an activist, it becomes work-life-activism balance. When you see an injustice as a law student, or even as a lawyer, you can’t just jump in the middle. When I go to a slaughterhouse or an animal farm, I have to fight the urge to join the others who sneak around the back to get photos. Instead, I have to act within the law: picketing, protesting, and educating. Not being able to be loud and understanding that my passion might inhibit me as a litigator pushed me to find other avenues in the law to pursue. I’m thankful that I’ve found transactional business law and been able to strike a balance.

If there’s one piece of advice I would want to share with first-year and second-year law students, it is that they should not readily abandon heartfelt goals and passions when faced with challenges but, instead, identify and explore alternative paths that overcome those challenges. Exploration can look like so many things. Meet with professors one on one to discuss your goals. Ask them to connect you with other professors or professionals who have similar interests. Take classes that you never plan on using just because they look interesting. Attend speaker events frequently and spend some time thinking about questions that relate to your interests. Get involved with organizations in Knoxville while you’re here because this city provides an incredible representation of groups who are doing great work for our community. Lastly, if you think that an organization can be improved or needs some TLC, be the one who puts in the work to improve it. It’s worth it.

When I came to law school, I was so scared of “selling out.” I thought that transactional law was the route straight there. It turns out that choosing a path that utilizes my strengths and foregoes my weaknesses was never going to be “selling out.” Choosing transactional law is going to equip me to help animals and people in ways that I had never imagined prior to law school. 

So, yeah, maybe I don’t see myself as a leader. But two years ago, I didn’t see myself going into transactional law. Who knows what’s next?

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