From Liberia to Liberty

The Gibbons environmental lawyer arrived in America from Liberia to follow her dreams

Published in 2013 New Jersey Super Lawyers — April 2013

As a young girl growing up in Liberia, Uzoamaka Okoye was influenced by the many challenges her mother faced, including divorcing her Nigerian husband and living through civil unrest, which forced her family to immigrate to the U.S. Through it all, Okoye was inspired by her mother’s resolve and adaptability.

“I saw my mother lose everything, but importantly, she was able to immigrate to the U.S., go through the medical licensing process and re-establish her career,” Okoye says. “She could do that because she had a transferable career; she is a brilliant doctor, enjoys and excels at what she does and works very hard. Those things have motivated my career choices.”

Arriving in America when she was 15, Okoye started following in the footsteps of her science-oriented parents—her father was an organic chemist—by earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry from American University. After working for nearly two years at a pharmaceutical company, she decided she wanted to do something more practical and enrolled at Polytechnic University. There she earned a second degree in environmental engineering. Okoye joined the engineering firm Metcalf & Eddy, which helped with the design and construction management of environmental facilities dealing with water and wastewater. While there, her colleagues worked on the Croton Water Filtration Plant project, which was created to filter a portion of the drinking water provided to New York City.

The project, which spawned litigation, opened her eyes.

“It really piqued my interest and [was] completely outside of everything that I did at work. I started to see this concept of, ‘You’re building these facilities, but they have to go into neighborhoods; we’re in a highly populated area, and there’s conflict,’” Okoye says. “[I thought], ‘This is an interesting area where I can combine the science and the engineering and the things that I enjoy and potentially bring this other interesting part into it: law.’”

So she began looking at law schools, but not just to satisfy her interest in litigation—she wanted to be challenged. “I always tell a story,” she says. ”A guy was retiring and he had been on the same project for 20-some years. And I said, ‘Would I [want to] be working on the same project for 20-some years?’” The answer was no. She chose Rutgers, her sights set on environmental law.

After graduating, Okoye started at Gibbons in commercial litigation. “I’ve been able to combine, in some technical cases, an understanding of what’s going on with the equipment or with the plans; or if I look at a set of drawings, I know what the thought was in terms of what they were trying to build, and what the end result looks like compared to what the design was,” Okoye says of the construction issues that come up. “On the environmental side, we talk about contamination at different sites. There’s a different understanding that comes along with having that technical background.”

Like her career, her practice has evolved. She’s transitioned from full-on commercial litigation to adding more of the environmental litigation that she’d originally hoped for. It can be challenging, but Okoye relishes the work.

“I find it interesting … the fact that I do a cross between different topic areas. I really think that’s one of the reasons I switched to the law, because I was really concerned about doing the same thing forever and being bored,” Okoye says. “Litigation is litigation, right? Whether you’re writing a brief here, a summary judgment there, or doing discovery, different cases are the same, but the topic is different. The story is different and it’s interesting.”

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