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Winter 2024: Environmental Health & Safety

Perspectives: The Real Yellowstone: Practicing Law in Montana

Pamela C Garman


  • A Montana attorney working with industrial clients in complying with environmental standards appreciates how these competing interests can work cohesively.
  • Montana has a constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment that provides protections many other states do not have.
  • Although not as dramatic as the TV show Yellowstone, Montana has a long history of balancing mining and industrial development with preserving the environment.
Perspectives: The Real Yellowstone: Practicing Law in Montana
“Yellowstone” © Pamela C. Garman, photograph reprinted with permission.

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The first law conference I attended after pandemic-related cancellations was a memorable one for a lot of reasons. Most notably, it was the first time I realized how frequently people’s associations to Montana were shaped through television shows. The conference was in Arizona, and every person I met—starting with my Uber driver—commented about the show Yellowstone the second I mentioned I was from Montana. It became a joke between a coworker and me throughout the conference. While it was interesting to hear how many people’s first thought was to reference the show, it reminds me that practicing law in Big Sky Country has allowed me to have a unique experience, and one not often seen accurately in depictions of Montana through movies and television shows.

At its core, practicing law in Montana is no different than anywhere else. The law is the law, but Montana’s history and the people who live and work here do make it unique. Montana has a constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment that provides protections many other states do not have, while also balancing a long history of mining and industrial development. I frequently work with industrial clients in complying with the applicable environmental standards, to ensure they are operating in a responsible and sustainable manner. This allows me to appreciate how these competing interests can work cohesively.

One of the many beautiful hiking trails in the Beartooth Mountains southwest of Billings leads to Mystic Lake. This lake forms the reservoir for one of Montana’s hydroelectric dams, providing a valuable source of energy in the state. The dam itself tends to fade away in the background along with the natural contours of the landscape, and no one leaves without fully enjoying and appreciating the beauty that surrounds the lake. In many ways, the cohesive balance between nature and the structure of the dam is what makes the hike to the lake so beautiful. Montana values its water resources, and what visitors to the lake cannot see is the stringent regulatory process and oversight that goes into any project of this magnitude. Although the show Yellowstone may suggest otherwise, altering the flow of water, for example, is not as simple as one landowner deciding to dynamite a canyon to create a new path for a river to prevent a developer from accessing water.

Contrary to the questionable ethics and portrayal of lawyers in the show, the Montana bar is also generally made up of friendly, law-abiding attorneys, making it a fun place to practice. My mentors and the other lawyers I work with have played a significant role in my career. It is often hard in the practice of law to find the time to step back and teach the next generation of new lawyers, especially with the ever-looming pressure of billable hours. But one mentor’s advice has always stuck with me, emphasizing how important it is to avoid unnecessary stress, whenever possible. When I am working with him, I know we will always have our work completed early to avoid any last-minute scrambling, and this has naturally created opportunities for him to provide extra advice and tips on how I can improve. This type of mentoring has been so important to my development as a lawyer, and I look forward to passing these lessons on the next generation of young lawyers.

In discussing my Montana experience, I should caveat that I have not actually watched the show Yellowstone, beyond sampling a few episodes for informational purposes in drafting this article. Although most of the show is filmed in Utah, and the dramatic plot twists (and speed with which the characters are able to travel between far-flung locations across the state) may be complete fiction, the state is every bit as beautiful as it is depicted in the show. So, while the show’s depictions of life in Montana may not ring true, Montana is a great place to live and practice law, and I am lucky to call it home.