Laura K. McAfee wiped sweat off her pitching hand as she toed the rubber for her first collegiate softball outing. It was the end of the season and Carleton College wasn’t playing for much, but McAfee, a freshman, was churning inside.
McAfee had not played high school softball because her school’s coach “scared the bejeebers” out of her. But she had spent hours throwing the ball against a gym wall, and that was good enough to get a shot at Carleton — an NCAA Division III liberal arts school in Minnesota far better known for academics than athletics.
Still, McAfee quickly found she was outmatched. Several hits and a couple of hit batters later, her coach came out and took the ball from her.
“I gave up five earned runs and got all of two outs before he finally took pity on me and pulled me,” she recalls.
McAfee could have ended her softball experiment right there. But she went back to the gym and kept throwing the ball against the wall in the off-season, and for two more seasons afterward. By her senior year, McAfee made Academic All-Conference.
Now a 45-year-old lawyer and mother of two, McAfee takes the lessons she learned in her softball career and applies them to her profession.
“If you work harder than everybody else, you’ve got a shot to be good,” she says she learned. “But you’ve also got to love it. You’ve got to love something so much that you’ll put in that level of effort on your own time.”
To hear McAfee tell it, her successes in both college and law have been due to a mixture of that dogged perseverance and being in the right place at the right time.
Carleton was the right place to become a self-made softball player because the school was not an impatient athletic powerhouse. Her teammates and the coaching staff gave her time to succeed.
“They knew I’d been working hard and they were really supportive,” she said. “That was huge.”
Similarly, her law career blossomed because she continued to work even though she wasn’t always sure what she was working toward.
McAfee majored in English at Carleton, but decided she didn’t want to teach.
“So I was basically qualified to flip burgers,” she said. “That didn’t seem like a good option, so I went to law school and it turned out I loved it.”
McAfee earned her law degree from the University of Texas in 1991. Not knowing what kind of law she wanted to practice, she joined Venable, Baetjer & Howard LLP, a large firm where she’d have lots of options. She started in environmental law and again found she loved it.
In her fourth year as an associate she met Robert Brager, from Beveridge & Diamond, a D.C. law firm that specializes in environmental law. He said they were hiring. Right place, right time.
“I’ve always kind of stumbled into things,” McAfee said with a laugh.
But there’s also the other half of the equation: the work McAfee puts in to position herself to take advantage of that good fortune. Nowadays that work includes helping companies stay in compliance with the Clean Air Act, which changes with nearly every administration.
“The Clean Air Act itself is pretty short, but the regulations that implement it I’ve got stacked on my shelf here and they run to about three linear feet,” she said. “It was about half that when I started practicing.”
But reading and re-reading those documents is like chucking that softball against the gym wall: It prepares her to do something she loves.
Back when she had to choose a major in college, she was torn between English and chemistry. Now she has a job that challenges her to exercise both those interests every day.
“People don’t tend to call us for boring, everyday things,” she said. “They call us when they’ve already looked at something and can’t figure it out. … It’s cool to me that it’s an ever-changing thing.”