Ms. Thomas, a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, currently serves as of counsel at Lewis Roca Rothgerber in the Regulatory and Government practice group, as well as the Tribal Affairs and Gaming practice group, where she provides strategic legal advice to Indian tribes, tribal utilities, tribal housing authorities and tribal enterprises on tribal energy policy and planning, renewable energy project development and finance, and federal and state energy regulatory, programs and policy efforts. She returned to Lewis Roca Rothgerber in January 2015, after serving four years at the Department of Energy as Deputy Director of the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs and one and a half years at the Department of the Interior as Deputy Solicitor – Indian Affairs, in Washington D.C. Prior to her recent federal service, Ms. Thomas was of counsel at Lewis and Roca, Chief of Staff and Interim Attorney General for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and a trial attorney at the US Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division, Indian Resources Section.
Ms. Thomas received her undergraduate degree in economics from Stanford University. She also holds a certificate in direct marketing from DePaul University. She received her J.D., magna cum laude, from University of New Mexico School of Law, with a certificate in Indian law. She is a member of the New Mexico chapter of the Order of the Coif.
Ms. Thomas holds memberships in the Federal Bar Association, National Native American Bar Association, Native American Bar Association – Arizona, Native American Bar Association – DC, and the Energy Bar Association.
She is admitted to practice in the State of Arizona, as well as the Court of Federal Claims.
Q& A With Pilar Thomas:
- Where are you from?
That’s a complex question. I was born in Germany, where my dad served in the U.S. Army. I grew up in Southern California. My mom’s family is from Mexico and Arizona, so we spent a fair amount of time coming to Arizona to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Since graduating from college, I have lived in seven different states. Thankfully, I’m settled down now, and intend to stay put in Arizona for a while. So, I guess I can say I’m from the Southwest.
- How did you decide to become a lawyer? Did you always want to practice Indian law and/or work for a tribe? Why or why not?
I’ve think I’ve always known I wanted to be a lawyer, but while I was in college I just couldn’t stand to stay in school any longer. I needed to get a job, make some money and eat. I worked for 15 years in the financial services industry for very large company that offered me a tremendous opportunity to grow professionally. But, at a certain point – maybe a mid-career reflection – I decided I needed to leave, and that is when I revisited the thought of going to law school. I also started paying more attention to tribal issues, especially within the Pascua Yaqui, which gave me extra incentive to become a lawyer – I wanted to work with my tribe and other tribes on economic development.
- To date, what do you think is your most notable accomplishment – either legal or personal?
I’m not sure about what would be considered the most notable accomplishment. There are a number of important tribal legal issues I have worked on, including water rights, treaty rights and energy development. I guess, if I had to choose what I am most proud of so far, it would be a tie between first, my involvement, through interagency negotiations with the Department of Interior, the Department of Justice, the State Department and the White House, on the U.S. adoption of the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and second, promoting and legally supporting the Department of Interior’s tribal lands leasing reform, including its new leasing regulations and the recently enacted HEARTH Act.
- Is there anything in your career that you have not yet accomplished that you have set as a goal for yourself? If so, what is that? If not, do you plan to retire at some point or try another career?
There is much I have yet to accomplished, so I just keep at it. One of my most closely held career goals is to help as many tribes as possible deploy as much renewable energy infrastructure as possible, and to see them reap the benefits. I worked on those issues at the Department of Interior, and of course, focused on them at the Department of Energy. Now, back in private practice, I want to continue helping tribes navigate many of the challenges and opportunities around clean energy development. In addition, though I do not expect to retire anytime soon, I would like to try my hand at teaching.
- Why did you join NNABA? What would you like to see the organization do or accomplish in the near and/or distant future?
I joined NNABA a few years back, but admittedly went on a hiatus when I went to the Department of Energy. Now that I’m back in private practice, I’ve rejoined. I think NNABA is unique for native lawyers because we tend to be so regionalized and compartmentalized. It’s especially important for a national organization to promote the Native Bar across a wide range of opportunities. I would like to see more young native lawyers join (and have a reason to join), so developing programs or services that can assist young lawyers could be one near term goal.
- Do you have any advice for new lawyers? If so, what is it?
I think I have spoken to a few National Native American Law Students Association chapters at several law schools, and one piece of advice that I always give is: “Don’t be afraid to take risks with your career, especially when you’re young. Get lots of different experience, meet lots of different people and don’t be afraid to move.”