How a post-bar backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail led to a career in outdoor education
During my many years in private practice, I would often joke that my dream job would mean wearing jeans every day and bringing my dog to the office—something I might pull off on the occasional Saturday. I didn’t predict that one day I would trade my briefcase and heels for a backpack and hiking boots, and find a deeply rewarding career outside of the law.
Family backpacking – Lauren, Eric, Audrey, and Will
When I was growing up in Colorado, I was vaguely aware of organizations like Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School that led students on outdoor expeditions. I craved that kind of adventure, challenge, and leadership training, but life never presented the opportunity and I plunged headfirst into college and law school. After taking the bar exam in February and starting at my first firm, I found myself with a free summer before I started my clerkship, and resolved to put together my own backpacking expedition on the Pacific Crest Trail. After planning to travel on my own, my father—a career judge advocate general who was working for the Colorado Springs DA’s office at the time—said “no way” to my solo trip and offered to join me. Neither of us had shouldered an overnight pack before. Together, we hiked for 30 days and over 300 miles in the Sierra Nevada, and I was hooked. I was struck by the awesome power and beauty of the mountains; the satisfaction of ending each day exhausted, but having overcome a challenge; and the simplicity of knowing you can survive, and unpretentiously just “be,” with only the things on your back. I hiked out south of Yosemite National Park physically and mentally stronger and with a renewed sense of clarity, and confidence in my ability to navigate life’s hard challenges.
As it turns out, a career in the law—and, eventually, young kids—don’t leave much room for long expeditions. I put on my pack when I could, and found joy in being outside through hiking, skiing, biking, camping, and climbing Colorado’s peaks. But I never lost my passion for the power of a transformative outdoor experience. When the Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) asked for pro bono legal assistance, I raised my hand to help. To me, COBS represented the epitome of Colorado nonprofits, combining two of the things Coloradans love most: the outdoors and education. In 2012, I joined the COBS Board of Directors, and served the board for six years, including two years as board chair. I saw firsthand the power of an Outward Bound course for our students and left every board meeting uplifted and inspired by the Outward Bound community and our group of passionate, talented outdoor educators.
Colorado Outward Bound School Leadville crew (Summer 2022)
In late 2019, the Board of Directors asked if I would serve as COBS’s interim Executive Director while we launched a search for my successor. We often say in Outward Bound that when you are needed, you answer the call, and I agreed to step away from the law for a few months to help facilitate COBS’s transition. We also teach our students how to adapt to changing circumstances: how do we stop, regroup, and plan when life (or nature) changes in unexpected ways? For the world, for COBS, and for me personally, that moment came in March 2020 when COVID hit. My re-group and new plan was recognizing that COBS needed stable leadership to navigate the pandemic, and the “interim” plan quickly became permanent. Notwithstanding the many challenges the pandemic has posed for the outdoor education industry, it is a daily privilege to lead this incredible organization and our phenomenal group of outdoor educators—and yes, with my jeans on, and my dog by my side.
COBS Leadville “Office”
The pandemic has exposed a need in our youth and adults alike that make the skills learned on an Outward Bound course more relevant than ever. For 60 years, COBS has used the wilderness as our classroom to teach outdoor skills—but more importantly, life skills—to students of all ages. From day programs to semester-length expeditions, our students learn the power of their own potential and critical skills like leadership, teamwork, resilience, and compassion, which they transfer from their course experience to their daily lives.
Colorado Outward Bound School Moab crew (Summer 2022)
In the words of our founder: “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”
Colorado Outward Bound School (“COBS”) runs outdoor programming and expeditions in Colorado and Utah for students ages 12 – 25, in addition to serving local youth groups, corporate groups, and veterans. To learn more about COBS – including course offerings and ways to support – please visit www.cobs.org or contact Lauren directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lauren Schmidt is the current Executive Director of the Colorado Outward Bound School, a position she has held since 2019. Lauren received her law degree from the University of Michigan in December 1999 and her undergraduate degree from William & Mary in 1997. Following a clerkship in the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico, Lauren worked as an associate in the Washington, DC office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and as an associate and partner at the Denver office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck from 2005-2017, where she was also Brownstein’s first Pro Bono Partner. Lauren served as the Director of the Civil Litigation Section of the Denver City Attorney’s Office from 2017-2019.
Lauren and her husband, Eric Olson, are active members of the Colorado legal and philanthropic community. Lauren has served as the Board Chair of the Colorado Outward Bound School, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, and the Denver Dumb Friends League and as a member of the Colorado Access to Justice Commission. She is a current board member of the CWBA Foundation and the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation.