UNM Law Alums Help Lead Interior’s Solicitor’s Office

Pilar Thomas
Pilar Thomas was keynote speaker
at the UNM School of Law’s 2009

When Pilar Thomas (`02) was named deputy solicitor for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior last September, her highest priority was to have lunch every day. It wasn’t long before she knew she would rarely meet that goal.

Thomas is part of a new cadre from the UNM School of Law community to join the upper echelons of the Office of the Solicitor in Washington, D.C. Hilary Tompkins, a former UNM adjunct law professor, leads the office as solicitor and Vincent Ward (`01) is a counselor to Tompkins, who is the third ranking official in the Interior Department.

For Ward, this is the second time he has responded to a request by Tompkins to work for her; previously, he served as her deputy when she was Gov. Bill Richardson’s chief legal counsel. In his current role, he never knows what to expect day-to-day, as it depends on what issues Tompkins happens to be working on that day.

Vince Ward and Family
Vincent Ward with wife, Renee,
and daughter, Callia

“It’s exciting to practice law at the highest levels of government and participate in debates on the rule of law and principles of law every day,” he says. “Contrary to what a lot people think, these political jobs aren’t all that glamorous, but I enjoy doing public service and helping political leaders make informed decisions.”

Some initiatives he has worked on so far include a landmark class-action settlement in the 14-year-old Cobell lawsuit and the department’s new focus of pursuing renewable energy projects on public lands.

As deputy solicitor, Thomas spends a lot of her time troubleshooting and putting into action priorities of the Obama Administration as it relates to tribal relations.

“I’m excited that in this position I have the ability to influence certain policy from a legal perspective and to help fulfill the president’s vision to empower tribes,” she says.

Already on her plate are issues related to gaming, renewable energy and economic development, and land into trust reform, and how those issues will be impacted by last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, 129 S.Ct. 1058 (2009). In part, the ruling limited the Secretary of Interior’s ability to take land into trust on behalf of tribes, which brings into question how that would impact economic development activities on newly acquired Indian lands.

Thomas also is faced with water rights adjudications re: tribal lands and how Indian Country can take advantage of renewable energy.

She has enjoyed her return to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division from 2002-2005. She left to become general counsel for her tribe, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson, at the request of the first woman to lead the tribe. She was also of counsel to the Tribal Affairs and Gaming Practice Group at Lewis Roca in Phoenix, before being tapped for the deputy solicitor’s position.

Thomas credits the connections she made at the UNM School of Law for making it easier to acclimate on her first move to Washington, D.C., and the school’s Indian Law Certificate Program for preparing her for her first job after graduation.

“When I went to the Department of Justice, I had a head start understanding legal issues,” she says. “Because of my Indian law experience in law school, I was able to do work during my first two years of practice that took others a long time to do.”

Her advice to up-and-coming Native American lawyers: “Don’t be afraid to take a step back to move forward, to stand up for what you believe in, to go someplace different and to make money.”

“This job is an opportunity of a lifetime,” says Thomas. “I think we are at a great turning point for tribes and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

Ward also embraces the chance to perform public service at the highest levels of government. After earning his J.D. in 2001, he joined the Navy Judge Advocate General Corps and was two weeks shy of completing officer training school on Sept. 11. He was on active duty for the next three years and then returned home to Albuquerque to join the Rodey Law Firm.

Six months later he received his first call from Tompkins, which resulted in a job in the Richardson Administration. After Tompkins left, he stepped into the position of chief counsel to the governor. With a toddler at home, Ward wanted to spend more time at home with his family and he went back into private practice in Albuquerque. As he was settling in, Tompkins called again and off he went to Washington, D.C.

Ward, who was raised in a single-parent home by his mother, credits the influence of Ray Hamilton and Tommy Jewell (`79) with his decision to go to law school. He credits the small size of the UNM School of Law with providing him a place to develop personal relationships and self-confidence.

“These personal relationships are what make practicing law in New Mexico special,” he says. “For example, when I got my current job, many of those people reached out to offer support and I know I can call them anytime for their advice.”

Ward looks forward to returning home after his Washington, D.C. stint, but in the meantime, he is enjoying the excitement of working in the Obama Administration alongside his New Mexico colleagues.