Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Profile / Adam Draper: Mission Critical: A Nonprofit Legal Career

Profile / Adam Draper: Mission Critical: A Nonprofit Legal Career

August 2018 Bar Bulletin

By Ann M. Gygi

“Outside of Tieton today for a 4,500-acre ranch appraisal. Good stuff — always nice to be reminded of the on-the-ground work!” This was the brisk communique I received from Adam Draper, corporate counsel for Forterra, after asking about the daily motivation behind his nonprofit work. That appreciation for the on-the-ground work is a crucial ingredient for most lawyers with nonprofit organizations, where mission, as much as the law, drives their practice.

Draper, a 2004 graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, has spent the majority of his legal practice laboring for nonprofits. But that was not a foregone conclusion when he made the decision to attend law school. Draper has worked at Forterra since 2011, when I recruited him to help with a burgeoning number of grant contracts and conservation projects that needed legal attention. Forterra is a regional, nonprofit organization that has worked for 30 years securing land for a sustainable future. Forterra’s particular brand of environmentalism brings businesses, landowners, philanthropists and government together to protect keystone landscapes. Forterra projects can be audacious, atypical and complicated.

From the first Skype interview, it was clear that Draper would contribute not only the keen legal eye needed for project development and documentation, but that he also “got” the conservation business. Equally impressive were his warmth, humor and equanimity; important attributes in a business that demands long days and where emotions can run high. Really, if Draper could convey all that in a Skype interview, why wouldn’t we bring him on to see what he could do in person? I’ve since returned to private practice, but seven years on, Draper is still helping Forterra secure great places.

It’s not surprising that Draper wound up working in land conservation, having graduated from Oregon State University with a B.S. degree in environmental science, with a geosciences minor. His education opened the door to a promising career in environmental assessment and remediation work. But after five years as a project manager/industrial hygienist, he had to make an important decision. He could continue up the corporate ladder as an environmental consultant or he could change course to a more “pro-environment” direction. Considering his youth spent exploring the beaches and mountains of Oregon and the environmental conditions he had been called upon to address in the field, the idea of environmental law appealed to him. Draper’s experience in the environmental arena had awakened a desire to work on behalf of the environment. So, he joined the ranks of those whose real-life work experience leads to the law school door, rather than a life-long drive to become a lawyer (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Lewis & Clark appealed to Draper for its recognized leadership in environmental law. The academic scholarship it offered didn’t hurt either.

Draper served as an associate editor of Lewis and Clark’s Environmental Law Review — the nation’s oldest law review dedicated solely to environmental issues. He cultivated his interest in and knowledge involving land conservation law, tax benefits and strategy, graduating cum laude in 2004. From law school, Draper followed the time-trusted path to a clerkship. He clerked for Judge Susan Agid at the Washington Court of Appeals, Division One. He still laughs in amazement that he got the position. “I was late to apply, and did not even have a suit with me in Seattle for a spur of the moment interview.” During his two-year clerkship, Draper sharpened his legal analysis and writing skills. Of working with the revered Judge Agid, he recalls, “Judge Agid was a great jurist, but an even better person. She was a true mentor.” And true enough, I recall the incisive reference she provided when Draper was interviewing with firms here upon returning from working in D.C.

But following his clerkship, he veered away from the typical path to private practice. “While I was focused on getting a great public interest attorney job after clerking, I quickly learned that in most places those are few and far between,” he recalled. “In the meantime, I got married and my wife was offered a wonderful job in Washington, D.C., so we headed east in early 2007 and I took a second bar exam.”

In D.C., Draper cemented his not-for-profit path, working first for PEER, “Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility,” an NGO (non-governmental organization) that supports public employees making claims of environmental malfeasance. Fighting on behalf of whistleblowers was some serious responsibility and, naturally, the pay was not equal to the job. When a director of land protection position opened with the North Virginia Conservation Trust, Draper happily joined up. He remembers the “great tax issues” associated with conservation easements, but perhaps more fondly recalls the kayak trips. “That was where I learned how to put deals together,” he said.

I asked Draper what drew him to a nonprofit legal career. “I think it was really that idea of working toward something much bigger than money,” he said. “Working for six years in private business before going to law school really helped me identify my priorities. Working for a cause that I cared about mattered to me, and my decision to go to law school was a means to make that happen. “The natural world has always been my sanctuary. Nothing clears the mind and helps dissolve everyday stresses better than escaping the city and finding a trail or viewpoint that elevates the senses.” His undergraduate degree, work experience, and personal connection to nature all drew him to Lewis and Clark.

A deep knowledge of environmental law was not the only outcome from Draper’s law school days, for it was there that he met his future wife, Liz. Meeting Liz through a classmate — Liz’s younger sister — made law school worthwhile, never mind how the legal career might have turned out. Today, Draper emphasizes how beneficial it is to have a supportive spouse when committing to nonprofit work. “The pay is not great, and the demands on time and attention can be just as high,” he noted. “It’s important that your family understand the mission tie, and accept the economic trade-offs.”

For the Drapers, that cuts both ways. Liz has also worked mainly for nonprofit organizations in the health care field. Raising two young boys, John (9) and Thomas (5), the family commitment to nonprofit work provides a strong sense of civic connection, even if fewer trips to Disneyland. It’s a lifestyle choice the family willingly makes. “I appreciate that mission and purpose in his job are important to Adam — as they are to me — and of course we never argue over money at all,” says Liz, with only the slightest sarcasm. While the pay may be lower, nonprofits may be able to provide important schedule flexibility, “much needed when you and your partner work full time while wrangling two young human tornadoes.”

Draper recalls a favorite project that illustrates the rewards of his work at Forterra. “I was working with Jordan Rash, one of our conservation directors, to preserve a farm in Pierce County,” he recalled. “The farm was owned by two brothers, and offers had been made to them to sell it for a housing development. They didn’t want to see the farm developed, but they needed the income for their retirement.

“Jordan kept working with the Matlock brothers over several years, pulling together competitive funding to buy a conservation easement on the property. We succeeded. We were able to purchase a conservation easement and prevent development of prime agricultural land, then the Matlocks were able to sell the farm at a price in keeping with its agricultural value. The Matlocks get to retire, two family farmers got much needed additional land at a price they could afford, and we as a society keep valuable farmland in production. It’s a great example of what Forterra does best, and what keeps me coming to the office day after day.”

Draper performs the legal work on projects like that, but as is often the case with NGOs, his job regularly entails more than strictly legal work. “Versatility is key, we all have to play many roles from time to time. It’s an all-hands-on-deck mentality.” One of his many roles was to fill in for an unexpected void and serve as acting vice president of conservation. “It was supposed to be a short time, but I wound up as acting VP for three years,” he said. “When resources don’t allow the ideal path, you do what is necessary to keep the organization moving forward.”

Those valuable characteristics that we spotted in Draper up front have helped him to excel as a lawyer, and manager, at Forterra. We can all take inspiration from him, and others who share his willingness to submit to the special joys and challenges of mission-motivated legal work.

Ann Gygi practices land use law at Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson.

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