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Restless Compass

Ellie Austin

Since earning her JD in 2011, Ellie Austin has demonstrated that it is, after all, possible to be both footloose and sure-footed.

Soon after graduating, the Golden State native returned and began practicing at a firm that represents Southern California districts in special-education matters.

Though Austin continued with the firm for nearly four years, she worked remotely for much of that time, following geographic, professional and personal pathways in diverse directions.

She moved to the San Francisco area with her then-fianc√©, now husband, for a year and a half. The couple then moved to Eugene, Oregon, where Austin sought to burnish her policy credentials by completing a Masters in Public Administration. When her husband’s career took the couple to Washington, Austin left the law firm and found work as a budget analyst with the City of Takoma.

The job allowed Austin to put her training in public administration to work, but something was missing.

“I did a lot of soul searching,” Austin recalled. “I decided I wanted to return to being an attorney.”

In January 2017, Austin and her husband returned once more to California, allowing her to get back to practicing education law. Now, Austin works for School and College Legal Services of California, a joint powers authority that was formed in Santa Rosa to provide legal and labor relations services to community colleges, school districts and county education offices.¬† Austin’s practice focuses on collective bargaining and personnel matters, allowing her to provide a tangible service that she finds gratifying.

“I like helping clients in their day to day business. A question will come up, and we’re able to help them and give them clarity,” she said.

Austin is less than thrilled by the adversarial nature of relations with unions and their representatives, which she contrasted with her experience with opposing counsel she encountered as a student in Philadelphia.

“In Philly, my experience with opposing counsel was very good,” she said. “They understood that these were long-term relationships, so it behooves you to develop a relationship as opposed to coming in, guns blazing.”

In some ways. Austin’s post-JD journey has merely extended the meandering route she pursued through law school. Arriving as a 1L, Austin expected to pursue a career in environmental law. She took a detour with an internship at a non-governmental organization in Southeast Asia, which Dean Susan Brooks helped arrange.

“We were promoting the rule of law by formalizing legal education in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia,” Austin said. “It was a great life experience for me, learning about international development and international aid.”

For all her roaming, Austin has never wavered from her true north: a commitment to service that she summed up in the commencement address she gave in May 2011, when she said: “the great power we hold as lawyers is not only the capacity to sue, to argue before a judge or to settle a case in negotiations. It is to validate our fellow humans in their suffering and to defend and protect their sensibilities regarding the application of justice.”

Though Austin is content with the career she’s established so close to where she grew up, she still thinks fondly of her law school days.

“It’s been a very interesting lived experience for me as someone from California,” Austin said. “I’ve had more meaningful relationships on the East Coast than I’ve ever had here. My friends in law school and the friends I have in Philly are today still my best friends.”