This past Wednesday, March 1st, 2017, our peer mentor group coordinated attending a Lives in Law and Policy Speaker Series that was advertised to focus on Law and Policy Challenges in 2017 & Beyond. The event was sponsored by Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and led by Dan Urman, the director of the undergraduate minor in law and public policy at Northeastern, who has a JD from Harvard Law School. His guest speaker was Susannah Barton Tobin, managing director of the Climenko Program and Assistant Dean for Academic Career Advising at Harvard Law School. Let me first mention that despite what this event advertised as its focus of discussion, the reality of what was discussed was rather focused on Susannah’s path to becoming a lawyer, and on what kind of reasons one should have for seriously pursuing to become a lawyer, while being highly critical of the idea that one shouldn’t do it on a whim, nor underestimate the dedication one must have, nor of the challenges one is likely to face in doing so.
Susannah’s original plans were to pursue her PhD in academia, but became disenchanted with the long hours of solitude, and tedious focus in a narrow subject, which led her to become more motivated to pursue her law degree, despite the mixed advice she received from others to do so. She noted that in earlier years, as opposed to today’s landscape for law school applicants, it was more of a thing that individuals just did because it had an expected payoff, which is no longer a guarantee today, especially with the amount of debt that is easily incurred along the way. There was a longer list of top law schools in the country, whereas that list has certainly shortened to a select few by today’s standards. Still, she was successful enough to in her efforts to graduate cum laude from Harvard Law School.
Susannah mentioned that as a woman, it was difficult to be taken seriously and respected in the same ways that her male counterparts were, and one of her earliest experiences practicing law with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) exposed her to even being discriminated against by her own clients, who were Klan members arrested under Massachusetts state law for illegally passing out leaflets, which were passed out to promote their views. Despite their intolerance of her as a woman, not even making eye contact to explain what had happened, she was a true advocate and impassioned for first amendment rights of free speech, and chose to represent and defend them for their case. She also mentioned that shortly after, during her time with the Ropes and Gray firm, she took what limited opportunities she could in choosing to take up sports law cases just so that she could get more exposure as a lawyer.
In addition to pointing some of the direction of the storytelling and prompting questions to Susannah, Dan Urman was the hilarious comic relief during the entire conversation between the two that evening. He made light of some of the more serious points of the life of a lawyer, but also helpfully added to the major points being made, particularly on the importance of what matters most for a person interested in becoming a lawyer must do, which is get high grades on the LSAT. It is the single most important thing that matters for any future potential lawyer looking to be accepted into a significant law school. Also, the odds of being hired by top employers are even further scrutinized once in law school, in some cases with only the top graduate of his or her class being hired into a highly successful position or firm. Both Dan’s and Susannah’s major takeaways concurred with the idea that law school is realistically only for the most competitive and dedicated. Not that they wanted to discourage anyone from pursuing their goals to become a lawyer, but rather they wanted to provide a very real and sober understanding that it isn’t easy, and really should be pursued only for the right reasons.
Sometimes going to law school doesn’t make sense for individuals pursuing particular paths, who think it will help them or is an assumed qualifier for certain careers, such as working in government, private sector, or business jobs. Except for very specific intentions, they even warned against pursuing combined or dual business and law degrees, like the JD-MBA, because it gives an impression of questionable motives to some companies, and will deter them from hiring you. Ultimately, the accomplishments that Susannah has made through all her hard work and diligent will-power to do whatever it took to be successful at her endeavours continues to set an inspiring example for other women also interested in her field, who still to this day at fighting against a disparity of unequal representation amongst their male counterparts, although with the acknowledgement of great progress made. In one such instance after 130 years of its existence, the Harvard Law review recently elected its first black female president ever. As more women continue to break down barriers in a male dominated work force, the more examples like this and overall progress will come to light.
While I’ve already researched a bit about law school and what a path toward becoming a lawyer might look like out of my own curiosity, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the evening’s event, and even learned a number of new things that I had not known before. I have great respect and admiration for individuals like Susannah and Dan, who find the love, joy, and passion for what they do, and to do it well. Having said that, I remain quite sure that I’ll never pursue becoming a lawyer, as it is just not my cup of tea, as they say.