By Ani Torossian • November 02, 2015•Law School, Pre-Law
Ms. JD Pre-law has launched an exciting new platform titled 'Office Hours' which will comprise a series of Q&A blog posts with professors across the country. This week, I had the immense pleasure of learning from Professor Janet Siegel Brown, a lecturer and director of judicial clerkships at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, Illinois.
Below, you will find her interview.
What first drew you to law school?
I spent five years working in non-profit development in between college and law school. I was inspired to become a lawyer while serving as Grants Manager for Communities for a Better Environment, a grassroots environmental justice organization in California. There I saw how lawyers can empower people and bring about positive change. I also viewed lawyering as an opportunity to use my analytical skills in new and challenging ways. So I applied to law schools with strong public interest programs with the goal of becoming a public service environmental lawyer.
How has your career trajectory evolved to include teaching law, and why did you take that route?
I was a judicial law clerk for four years and a litigator for eight years before leaving the practice of law to join Northwestern Law School. I always enjoyed training and mentoring law students and newer lawyers, so teaching was a natural evolution in my career. I find it particularly rewarding to see people have that “aha!” moment where they grasp a new concept or skill. I also feel that I’m making a meaningful contribution to the profession by guiding new and aspiring lawyers. An opportunity presented itself to adjunct teach an appellate advocacy course at Loyola Law in Chicago, which I did for several years and fully enjoyed. When the chance arose to teach and advise students full-time at Northwestern, I was ready for it.
Pre-law students often receive varying advice: (1) know what to specialize in before law school or (2) come to law school with an open mind and you will figure out the rest later (what area of law to practice, to become a litigator or a transactional attorney and so on). What is your input?
As an initial matter, before investing the time and resources into law school, I strongly encourage you to learn what lawyering entails and assess whether it’s a good fit for your interests and personality. That may mean simply knowing that you enjoy crafting and presenting persuasive arguments, or that you like working directly with individuals to help solve their problems. Doing so will help you decide whether law school is a good choice in the first place. Once you decide to attend, it’s perfectly fine to have a specific goal or to figure it out when you get there! I went to law school planning to pursue public interest environmental law, but I still took other courses and attended a variety of programs to broaden my perspective. In the end, my experience confirmed my initial choice, but perhaps it might have steered me in a new direction I’d never considered. There are so many possibilities! So make sure you’re exploring and keeping an open mind while at law school – this will allow you to discover new interests or reaffirm that your first instinct was the right one.
Aside from the standard grading system, what does it mean to succeed and thrive as a law student?
Law school is both an intellectual challenge and a test of your ability to manage and prioritize multiple demands on your time. Although difficult, I encourage law students not to worry about how they’re doing in comparison to their classmates. Instead, focus internally. The most meaningful way to gauge your success in law school is to ask yourself: Am I intellectually engaged and excited about the law and lawyering? Am I learning the concepts and skills I need to be a capable lawyer? Am I figuring out what I’m good at and enjoy doing? Am I discovering what kind of work environment suits my personality and work style? If you’re making progress on answering these questions, then you will get more out of your law school experience and you will also make smarter career choices.
What would you recommend pre-law students do to prepare for the first year of law school? For instance, do you have any book or film recommendations?
My best suggestion is to pursue college classes and extra-curricular activities that equip you with strong critical thinking and analytical abilities, and that develop your written and verbal communication skills. These are key elements of both law school and lawyering. Be forewarned that your criminal law class won’t be anything like “How to Get Away with Murder”! But do seek out inspiration to get excited about attending law school. If you’re considering a career in criminal law, for example, read Bryan Stevenson’s powerful book “Just Mercy” about his efforts to reform the criminal justice system and bring compassion to society’s treatment of its most vulnerable. If you’re considering becoming a trial attorney, watch “My Cousin Vinny” for some surprisingly stellar insight into how to select a jury and cross-examine a witness. You’ll do better and be happier in law school if you keep your inspiration and end goal in mind.
Tell us about your role as Lecturer and Director of Judicial Clerkships at Northwestern, and what would you say to a pre-law student who is interested in clerking?
A judicial clerkship is a post-graduate job in a judge’s chambers for one or two years. In addition to providing exceptional training in legal research, analysis, and writing, it also offers behind-the-scenes insight into judicial decision-making, as well as mentorship from an experienced jurist. In my role, I educate students about the value of clerking, help them determine if it is a good fit for their interests and goals, advise them on an application strategy, provide feedback on application materials, and conduct mock interviews, among other things. I also teach advanced legal writing courses and other programs to ensure that students are well-prepared for clerking. For example, this fall my students in “Writing for the Court” are using the real case file in a pending federal court appeal to learn how to write a bench memo and an opinion, as if they were a law clerk to a judge on that case. I did two clerkships myself, at different points in my career, and found them to be fun and rewarding. I strongly encourage aspiring lawyers to consider pursuing a judicial clerkship, both for the experience itself and for what it can do to advance your career goals.
How do you integrate work-life balance in your own endeavors?
This is a constant challenge for most attorneys, no matter what they do or where they work. It’s a demanding profession and work can easily dominate your life if you don’t manage it. When I practiced law, I struck a balance most of the time through a combination of efficiency, strong time management, and clear boundaries. Especially early in your career, however, there will be times when you’ve got a big assignment or a looming deadline and working late is unavoidable. You must meet your obligations and show that you are a team player. But it’s up to you to work smartly and strategically by clarifying expectations, prioritizing, and avoiding procrastination! As you gain experience, you’ll continue to be more efficient. And as you build credibility with your colleagues, you’ll be given more autonomy to manage your time, including (graciously) saying “no” on occasion.