Ms. JD Interviews Lawyer- Turned Professor and Health and Wellness Coach

Danielle Kocal is the Director of Academic Success at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, runs a thriving health and wellness business, and is a real-life superhero mom to two young girls. However, this is not what Professor Kocal thought her career and life would look like today when she applied to law school in 2003. Back then, she was on a mission to become an environmental lawyer. But, life did what life does, and while in law school, Professor Kocal realized her true passion: teaching.

It’s lucky for her students that she had this realization! Since beginning her career in academic support, Professor Kocal has taught, mentored, coached, and sometimes even pushed and dragged thousands of law students to success in their law school exams and the bar exam.

As Professor Kocal’s former student, it is my absolute pleasure to share her story and advice with you. She guided me through three stressful years of law school, held my hand through the bar exam, and even gave me my start in the academic success field.

In addition, Professor Kocal acted on her long history in the fitness field and runs a successful health and wellness business. In this capacity, Professor Kocal uses many of the same skills she uses with her law students to keep her clients motivated and accountable to reach their goals. Professor Kocal’s story is an excellent reminder that you can use your law degree to have a successful and fulfilling career in a non-traditional path.

1. What attracted you to law school in the first place?

I was an environmental science major in undergrad, and I wanted to do something to combat the Bush administration’s rollbacks of many environmental regulations. I felt that I was more suited to helping the environment on the legal side, rather than on the science and research side.  Robert Kennedy Jr. had come to speak at my undergrad and he inspired me to pursue environmental law.

2. What was your career as an attorney like? (how long did you practice? what type of law?)

I practiced for three years in a very niche legal market – I was a reproductive attorney, meaning I wrote contacts between egg donors and intended parents, and surrogates and intended parents.  I also did some adoption work.  It was like nothing I had ever done before or had thought I would do when I was in law school, but I loved it. It was also extremely rewarding. You can’t get much better than helping people realize their dreams of having children and being parents.

3. Why did you stop practicing?

When I was in law school, I worked as a Dean’s Scholar, which is like a teaching assistant for 1L classes. During that time, I realized that teaching was actually my passion, and I was fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of an opportunity when it was presented to me.

4. Do you regret not practicing environmental law?

Yes and no. Yes, because I spent 7 years of higher education focusing on environmental law and science, and I really did think that was what I would do for my career.  No, because while I was a law student, I worked for our Environmental Litigation clinic and realized I did not want to pursue litigation. It is great and important work, but my personality is better suited for teaching!

5. What attracted you to working in Academic Support?

My work with the Academic Support program as a student made me realize how important a program like this is to students while in law school.  I am not an expert in any particular area of doctrinal law, but I consider myself an expert at taking a difficult skill and breaking it down into easily understandable steps, and explaining those steps in different ways so that people with all different learning styles can benefit.  This is what we do in Academic Support.

6. What things do you find most challenging/rewarding about preparing students for law school and bar exam success?  

Most challenging – students who do not want help.  So many students think they can do it on their own, and most of them are right – they CAN, but they can do so much better and have an easier time of it if they take advantage of the help we are offering them. Most rewarding – when students who struggled through law school pass the bar exam on their first try. Despite all the “predictors” that said they were considered at risk for failure, when they work hard and utilize the resources available to them, and pass, it’s such a rewarding feeling.

7. What inspired you to start your health and wellness business?  

I have been a dancer my whole life. I actually started teaching dance and fitness classes before starting law school, so it was just natural for me to continue that during law school and after.  It has evolved from there.

8. How, if at all, do you feel like your training as an attorney helps your run a business?

It’s not so much my training as an attorney that has helped me run a business, but it’s that the skills necessary to succeed in law school and as an attorney are similar to those needed to succeed in business.  Being organized, determined, and not willing to give up easily are all necessary for attorneys and for entrepreneurs.

9. Your schedule must be very busy! How do you manage it all?  

I am selfish with my time at 5am! I wake up between 5 and 5:30 every day.  That is the time when I can get my work done for my health and fitness business, as well as get my own workout in, all before my kids wake up around 7.  Then, it’s a mad dash out the door to school and work and the day gets too busy for any more “me” time.

10. I would be remiss if I didn't ask you to give advice to law students and bar exam candidates! What is your best advice to each group?

Law students – realize that this is unlike anything you’ve ever done before. I went into law school thinking it would be just more college, and I was very, very wrong! No matter how well you did in undergrad, this is going to be different, and it’s going to be hard. Struggling isn’t failure – just use the struggle to recognize where you need help, and seek out that help from faculty, staff and friends. Bar exam candidates – similar advice! This is not like a law school final! This is a true endurance test, and it’s not about how smart you are, it’s about how efficiently you can study and manage your time so you don’t burn out.


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