Bar News - April 15, 2015
Practitioner Profile: Couple Swaps Law Firm Jobs for Nonprofit Work
By: Carol Robidoux
Any day Gilles and Reagan Bissonnette can go to their respective jobs in hiking boots and jeans is a good day. It happens a lot, these days.
Gilles and Reagan Bissonnette moved to New Hampshire to work in public interest positions and take advantage of New Hampshire’s opportunities for outdoor fun. Their dog, Hobbs, seems to approve of this decision and can be found often at the office of the New Hampshire chapter of the ACLU, where Gilles Bissonnette serves as legal director.
Attorneys Gilles and Reagan Bissonnette talk about life in New Hampshire during an interview at the ACLU office in Concord.
He is legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, and she is director of easement stewardship for the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests. The couple’s mutual decision to leave their previous positions with notable corporate Boston law firms to work in the nonprofit sector was quite calculated.
“It’s amazing how things have fallen into place. We’re so lucky to be able to do work we both love, while having the lifestyle we’ve always wanted,” says Gilles Bissonnette.
They met at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and then moved to California, where Gilles attended University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.
Gilles, 34, from Rhode Island, and Reagan, 33, a southern California native, found that they both missed the changing seasons they’d enjoyed together in Missouri, so they decided to move back east, closer to his family, where Reagan enrolled in Boston College Law School.
About five years ago, they shifted their focus on their long-range goals which, for them, meant staying connected to one another and to nature, all while keeping the kind of reasonable work schedules that didn’t confine them to an office for 80 hours a week.
Gilles found that in his career experience he favored constitutional law cases, and says the work he did prior to accepting the position with the ACLU has been invaluable.
“We both wanted to do work we knew was meaningful and that we were inspired by, and since Gilles had been practicing longer, we decided he could start looking first. That’s how we found our way to New Hampshire,” says Reagan.
After working hard to pay off their student loan debt, in July 2013, they both resigned from their jobs on the same day; Gilles left his position as a litigator for Cooley LLP in Boston after landing the ACLU job in Concord; Reagan left her job with Ropes & Gray doing corporate mergers and acquisitions for publicly traded companies.
“It was really fun, but it was deal work, so it was also fast and furious, with a few lulls in between,” Reagan says of her law firm job. “I left without a job lined up, but that was okay. I wanted to wait for the right opportunity to come up.”
So she took a break to handle the practicalities of the move – a new home in Henniker, a new car, new surroundings. She studied for the New Hampshire bar exam and kept her options open. She started looking for volunteer opportunities close to home that supported her interest in the outdoors, and joined the board of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire.
Then one day, while hiking down the street from their home, she saw a little tag posted on a conservation easement that mentioned the land was protected by the Forest Society.
She went home and Googled the organization. Intrigued, she joined their mailing list. As luck would have it, they were looking for volunteers to help monitor protected properties.
While at a volunteer training session she mentioned her background as an attorney and her “love of operational efficiencies.” She found out the organization was looking for someone just like her, to oversee easement stewardship.
“Compared to what I used to do, the work I do now is more on the compliance side. When we place these conservation easements on a property, we have to make sure the restrictions are complied with forever,” for the 700 or so properties they oversee.
“It’s interesting, because I wanted a job where I could use my legal background without necessarily practicing law full-time,” she says. “They’ve never had an attorney in this position, but so much of what we do deals with legal contracts.”
They find it fortunate that as a couple of lawyers they speak the same language, even though their thought processes are divergent.
“I always thought litigation was very boring,” says Reagan.
“And I don’t know what corporate due diligence is,” says Gilles. “But I spitball with Reagan all the time about negotiation strategy.”
“And then if I have a litigation matter at the Forest Society, I can chat with him about his gut reaction to something,” Reagan says.
Since making the move to New Hampshire, Gilles says he’s concluded that being an attorney here is quite different from the experience of being a lawyer in Boston, where the pool is bigger. It’s much harder to be anonymous in New Hampshire.
“And I think that’s a good thing. Here you quickly develop a reputation, and you quickly meet your colleagues,” Gilles says. “I really do enjoy my experience dealing with other attorneys – not only those I work with, but also with my adversaries.”
He also has found that doing civil liberties work in New Hampshire means dealing with people of every differing political persuasion.
“The ACLU is a non-partisan organization. We’re right now doing some sophisticated privacy work with the Republican majority on a whole host of bills. The political diversity here is so strong and so significant, which makes it such an amazing place to work, and to live.”
When asked, he says one satisfying case over the past 18 months was a settlement for Jeff Pendleton, a homeless man in Hudson, whose constitutional rights to free speech as a passive panhandler were systematically being violated by the town, Gilles says.
“Jeff was homeless. Jeff was hungry. Jeff was living in a tent, and he was told that what he was doing was illegal. If it wasn’t illegal, they told him he needed a permit to do this, and this wasn’t just happening to Jeff,” Gilles said. “This is speech that is no different than a church group seeking donations, or a politician seeking signatures, or a fire department holding out a boot at an intersection.”
“There are a lot of people who don’t care for this form of free speech, and the appropriate response is not to suppress that free speech, but rather to counter it. And the best way to do that is by not giving money,” he says.
Another interesting case garnering national attention has to do with “ballot selfies” and how the First Amendment applies in a digital age.
The Bissonnettes are content to live in the moment, suppressing their inner long-term planners for the time being. They’ve arrived at a unique juncture of job satisfaction and quality of life. Living in this moment includes tending an organic garden and keeping five chickens on their own patch of New Hampshire.
It also means pursuing their mutual love of frugal vacations, here and abroad, using www.homeexchange.com, which has allowed them to travel to places like Paris and Spain.
“It makes it so much more affordable to travel,” says Reagan. “I don’t think we could have justified going to Paris for two weeks, except that we had a free place to stay.”
They are looking forward to celebrating their 10-year wedding anniversary this year, hopefully with an exciting and cost-efficient house swap. Being practical is one of the many factors that, for them, helps define success.
“For us, it also means having jobs working with fantastic people doing work we really believe in for organizations whose missions we believe in,” says Reagan, “and doing work that’s energizing rather than draining – and then to still have time to relax and sit by the fire pit, and enjoy a beer.”
Working at respective organizations with long histories of public service is also satisfying.
“We’re finally at a point where we can say we truly love our jobs, so it’s challenging to figure out what’s next. While I don’t know that either of us thinks we should stay in our current jobs for the next 30 years – we’re big believers in the value of new people coming in with fresh ideas – I don’t know what we would do next, but right now we are in a really good place,” says Reagan.
“We both marvel at how everything fell into place – it took a lot of hard work, but we love our quality of life and the work we’re doing, whether protecting civil liberties or protecting the environment, they’re all important things,” Gilles said.