Katie Thomson’s heart was set on a legal career in international trade when Angus MacBeth, former head of Sidley’s environmental team, pitched her career a curveball.
MacBeth, who is now retired, called her the summer of 1990, just before Thomson was slated to join the firm’s trade group in the fall in Washington, D.C. “He said, ‘The environmental unit is very busy and we would love your help for a few months,’” she recalled.
Thomson, who had never studied environmental law and lacked a background in science, but who did minor in Japanese, didn’t immediately see how her skills would be relevant to the environmental team. Yet the months she worked on environmental matters slipped into years—19 to be exact. Thomson says she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I say this all the time to young people who are beginning their practice: What you do in your life is important but who you work with is equally important.” Thomson credits the relationships she had developed with members of the environmental team with effectively transitioning her into a legal discipline she’d never considered.
She benefited from the team’s partners, who were at once hands off and supportive. They gave her freedom and the challenge of high-level work but also provided back-up. The work, too, was equally impressive in its diversity—a mix of everything from civil and criminal litigation to compliance counseling and regulatory advocacy, with an emphasis on the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
Not to mention that Thomson met her husband, Chris Lu, her second year at Sidley, when he was a summer associate. Lu, now Deputy Secretary of the Department of Labor, also served as the White House Cabinet Secretary and Assistant to the President in Barack Obama’s administration. Both Lu and Thomson maintain strong ties to the firm that include decades-long friendships with former colleagues.
Since leaving Sidley, Thomson has held three posts with the U.S. Department of Transportation, most recently becoming its General Counsel on April 9, 2014. Prior to that, she was Acting General Counsel and also the Chief Counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration.
What Thomson has found most gratifying in her post-Sidley career, is the work she has done to raise fuel economy standards. In particular, she helped establish the first-ever fuel economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, as well as doubled those standards for passenger vehicles. Thomson predicts the policies she set in motion will have a lasting impact on the energy industry and on the environment, as well as save people money at the pump.
“Nobody thought we would be able to do it because of the tension between the automobile manufacturers and the environmental, safety and labor groups,” Thomson recalled. “This was one of those times where I thought, ‘I have now done something worthwhile and lasting.’”
Thomson is now focused on another high-profile issue—the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the country’s airspace, popularly known as “drones.” That integration involves numerous complex issues, among them, aviation safety, security and, most notably, the concern that drone technologies could invade the privacy of U.S. citizens.
Thomson finds the intricacy of such subjects invigorating. “For me, it has always been about doing the job. I love interesting issues; working on really challenging matters,” she said, while stressing her distaste for Washington’s environment of punditry and gamesmanship. “I love the law and policy—but I hate politics,” she said, laughing. “My husband and I are on the opposite sides of the coin on that one.”