Abigail St. Lawrence

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Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am a sister (the oldest of four—only three and a half years between me and the baby!), daughter, aunt, friend, and advocate.

I was born in far Western New York State, so no matter how long I live in Montana, I know that to many I will never be a “real” Montanan.  I came to Montana when I was five with my parents and three younger sisters.  My parents raised us in Great Falls, and Mom chose to stay home with us while Dad was on the road five days a week.

I admire moms of all stripes—stay-at-home or working outside the home, single or partnered—but knowing what the choices my mom made to raise us girls and seeing the sacrifices my friends and sisters have made to be the amazing mothers they are, I decided raising children myself wasn’t the right decision.  I know the changes I would have to make in my life to be the kind of mother I would want to be, and I just don’t want to make those changes.  I have struggled with this decision, as sometimes I have wondered if it is selfish, but the conclusion I keep coming to is that what would be selfish is to have children and either not make those changes or resent making them.  I know I am important in the lives of children, though, as a very involved and invested aunt.  My sisters’ babies are the loves of my life, and if at the end of my life, I have made a positive difference for them, I will have done my life’s work.

I graduated from Great Falls High in 1996 (Go Bison!) and left Montana to go to undergrad at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.  Although my BA is in psychology and philosophy, what I really learned to do at a liberal arts college is to think critically and express myself well, a skill that has served me well in life and that I use almost daily.  Whitman saw enough potential in me to help me financially afford to go to a private school.  Consequently I have a strong desire to invest in the current and future students the way Whitman invested in me, so I serve on Whitman’s board of overseers and have been a donor to the college since all I could afford to give was $20.

After Whitman, I went to law school at Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon.  Lewis and Clark is known for their environmental and natural resources program, which is why I chose to attend, but I also went into it knowing it would be an education in how “the other side” thinks.  Growing up in Montana, I know that people who make their living from the land–be that through agriculture, forestry, or extractive industries—have the most incentive to take care of that land, so I went into the law knowing I wanted to represent those folks.  Needless to say, most of my classmates did not feel the same way.  I got an interesting reaction when I presented my thesis paper analyzing whether designation of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument was proper under the Antiquities Act and suggesting that a resource management plan for the Breaks be developed along the lines of the Montana Stockgrowers’ Undaunted Stewardship program to facilitate multiple uses.

After law school, I was lucky enough to be able to come home to Montana.  I went into private practice right away with an emphasis on natural resource and water rights.  I have been blessed to be able to do work I love for some great clients with amazing colleagues from whom I learned so much.  I don’t for a day forget that I have so many advantages in my career, my family, my community, and my life that I need to use for good.

Your photo here was taken on a beautiful fall day at the entrance to the Montana Capitol Building. Tell us about your work here.

I have been around the Montana Legislature since I was little.  Growing up, my parents were good friends with our representative in Southwest Great Falls, Dick Simpkins.  When the legislature was in session, Dad would bring me to Helena where Dick would let me sit on the floor with him during debates and push the voting buttons for him.  Somewhere in some box in my garage, I still have the card signed by the entire House for my 17th birthday.  I was paging that week, and the whole House floor sang to me.

Part of why I wanted to come to Helena after law school was because I wanted to represent my clients holistically—both in the legal and legislative realms, as the two are so closely intertwined.  I started representing the Montana Association of Realtors on water issues in 2007 and have been with them ever since.  Over six sessions, I’ve added the Montana Building Industry Association, several small health care professional organizations, and three social justice groups—the Montana Innocence Project, the Montana Abolition Coalition, and the Montana Association of Christians.

What I love most about my work in the Capitol is the people—my clients, the lawmakers and staff, and the Montanans the legislation affects.  Having a citizen legislature means that individuals can make a huge impact.  I wouldn’t want to do this work in a larger state, but I love it here because of the direct impact we can all see and feel, for good and bad.

My clients are all incredibly passionate about the policies we work on.  It makes all the difference in the world to work with constituent groups who are personally invested.  I can talk in the halls all day long, but in the end, it is the people behind me that are the driving force.

Working on a broad range of issues, I’ve gotten a chance to develop relationships with legislators across the board.  I don’t agree with all of them all the time (or even some of them any of the time).  However, I respect each and every one of them because they genuinely want to do good work for the folks at home.

The session is crazy, and during the interim, there is still a good chunk of work to do to lay the groundwork for the next steps.  At the end of the day, though, I can look myself in the mirror and know that I have done the best I can for the people I represent and the state I love.  To get to feel that way about my work is a gift.

Describe your perfect day.

I have this silly adult fantasy of getting just sick enough that I can’t go to work for about a week, but not so sick that I can’t stay in bed watching Netflix and catching up on my reading.  But seriously, my perfect day is not so much about specific activities, but a feeling at the end of the day.  If I can crawl into bed knowing that I have accomplished some good, done right by those around me, and maybe gotten a little treat for myself, that’s a pretty damn good day.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

When this whole law thing goes belly up, I’m going to be a florist.  My green thumb is a bit brown, but I adore being surrounded by flowers and would like to think I have a good sense of aesthetic.  I could make some amazing wedding bouquets.

If you could choose anyone, who would you pick as your mentor?

I have actually had some really incredible mentors in Helena, women who I admired from afar, called up to asked if I could take them to lunch, and have developed into trusted friends.  Janice Doggett taught me how to pursue your passions while taking care of yourself.  Jackie Lenmark has shown me by example how to advocate with grace and elegance.  I am forever grateful that these women have shared their time and insight with me.

What is one of your favorite quotes?

“Be the heroine of your own life, not the victim”  –Nora Ephron.

When you have 30 minutes of free-time, how do you pass the time?

On the phone with my sisters.  My youngest is in Great Falls, and the middle two are in NYC, so we don’t get to see each other in person as much as I would like.  Days when I get to talk with them are the best days.

What was the last movie, TV show or book that really impacted you and why?

I’m reading Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “My Own Words” right now.  I have long admired her, even if I don’t always agree with her.  Seeing her evolution as a thinker, an attorney, and a woman in her writing over time inspires me to do more and be more.

Do you have a favorite author?

I know this sounds a little silly, but it’s J.K. Rowling.  I am a huge Harry Potter fan.  I started the first one when I was studying for my comprehensive exams my senior year of college and have read them through law school finals, the bar exam, and one of the biggest trials of my career so far.  She is a fantastic story-teller.

Where do you most want to travel, but have never been?

So many places!! I keep telling myself the work will be there when I get back, but have a hard time tearing myself away.  However, when I do finally work up the nerve to leave my office for more than a few days at a time, the Mediterranean is one of my first stops—Portugal, Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, Croatia, and Turkey.

Describe one of your happiest memories.

When I was a kid, each summer, my dad would take each of us girls with him for a week on the road, just me and Dad.  I always went with him on his Hi-Line loop—north from Great Falls to Havre, across the Canadian border to North Dakota, down to Sidney, and then back through the Big Open between Jordan and Lewistown.  There are little memories like Dad trying so earnestly to do my hair each morning, letting me drive where I would hit nothing but tumbleweeds, and getting me Necco wafers when we stopped for gas, but what I treasure most about those trips was that Dad shared with me his time and his love of the state we call home.  He would tell me that the prairie was his favorite part of Montana because you could see the seasons change so starkly out on the grasslands.  I learned to love places in Montana that are often forgotten about.

Tell me about a woman you admire.

I can’t pick one—it’s my three sisters.  They all do amazing things in the lives of little people as mothers, a teacher, a nurse and doula, and a lactation consultant and birth assist.  They hold the future in their hands every day.

How would your friends describe you?

When I get to the end, I hope they can say with sincerity that I was generous with my time, resources, and love.

What do you value most in a friendship?

Genuineness.  If that is present, friends can talk frankly and openly with good intentions and true caring.

Coffee or tea?

Tea.  I mainlined coffee in law school and then completely lost my taste for it.  I perpetually have a cold cup of tea on my desk that I have forgotten about.

Chocolate or vanilla?

Chocolate—the darker the better, and a little touch of sea salt puts it over the top.

Introvert or extrovert?

A mix of both.  I couldn’t do my work well and enjoy it if I wasn’t comfortable and natural at being outgoing, but I also treasure the occasional night at home.

Rural or urban?

What does Helena count as?  Because that’s just about the right size for me.  I do love a week in NYC, though.

Dress up or dress down?

When I go out to visit clients on the job site or ranch, I can rock shitkickers and a worn-in Carhartt I inherited from an amazing ranch woman in Sweet Grass County, but given my druthers, it’s dresses and heels.  When I bought my new house, I turned a whole small bedroom into a closet, and everyone at the session has a favorite pair of my heels.

Cats or dogs?

Cats if I had to choose, but I have trouble keeping houseplants alive, so it’s probably best that I not be trusted with an animal.

Sunrise or sunset?

Nothing beats a Charlie Russell sunset.

Detailed or abstract?

Detailed.  I’m a list maker extraordinaire!

Classic or modern?

A healthy mix of both, as reflected in my wardrobe, art collection, playlists, and library.

Call or text?

I text far more often, but for some business, nothing substitutes for a live conversation.  And I need a good sister talk every once in a while.

Fiction or non-fiction?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s book and Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them are both on my bedside table right now.

Salty or Sweet?

If I had to choose one, it would probably be salty, although with my family history of high blood pressure and heart attacks at relatively young ages, I’m sure my doctor would prefer sweet.

What do you love most about Montana?

The possibilities!  They are as endless as our sky.  I have never felt limited in this state by anything other than my own capacities.  Once you show a Montanan that you know what you’re doing and are committed to doing it well and right, they’re going to give you a chance.

What is a lesson you are currently learning?

Gratitude and grace.  I sit on the board of YWCA Helena, which has an amazing program for women struggling with homelessness, addiction, and other challenges—WINGS (Women Initiating New Growth and Stability).  The women in this program have gone through so many experiences in their lives that would absolutely incapacitate me, and they manage to get up every day and move forward in a positive direction.  If they can do that, with all the blessing I have been given in my life, I have no excuses and have every reason to be thankful every day.

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

Opportunity.  Some I have squandered, some I have taken advantage of, and I still receive more than I deserve.

 

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