The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Dartmouth Students Learn About Careers in Law with the Rockefeller Center

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On Tuesday, May 5th, 2020, N. Bruce Duthu ’80, the Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth, Sue Finegan ’85, a Partner and Chair of the Pro Bono Committee at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky, & Popeo, PC, Shirley Jefferson, the Associate Dean for Student Affairs and Diversity at Vermont Law School, and John Mott ’81, a Former Associate Judge on the DC Superior Court, participated in a virtual panel on careers in law cohosted by the Rockefeller Center and the Center for Professional Development. The panel was intended to help undergraduates get a better grasp of what studying and pursuing a career in law entails.  

First, the panelists discussed why they went into law and what they enjoyed the most about it. All of them emphasized that they had a strong desire to positively influence issues of social justice and were attracted to law as a tool to do this. Jefferson, the first woman of color to graduate from Vermont Law School, grew up in the segregated south and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. She studied law because she saw it as a powerful way to positively change people’s lives. Finegan affirmed this, enthusiastically saying that “I get to help make a difference in the world from an individual and policy standpoint.” Duthu added, “for anyone interested in being a creative problem solver, law is a very worthwhile career.”

Asked what kinds of degrees students should pursue before law school, the panel unanimously stated that students should follow their passions. Judge Mott argued that “there is really no pre-law path that you should try to follow,” aside from pursuing your interests in-depth. Law schools would often rather have a math major or a philosophy major than “someone who is just another of the many people who have studied history or government, unless that is their true passion,” Mott concluded. 

Discussing when students should study law, Finegan and Mott both advised students to take their time. If anything, they said, law schools look more favorably on students who have tried new things and gained more experience after college. Finegan spent two years in marketing after graduating before committing to law school, while Mott traveled and taught history. “Don’t gear your experiences towards getting into law school,” Finegan said, encouraging students to do what is best for them. “Absolutely don’t rush,” Mott added. Taking a few years to learn more about themselves after college allowed Finegan and Mott to get the most out of law school when they eventually enrolled. 

Regarding the nuts and bolts of actually gaining admittance to law school, Jefferson, as an Associate Dean at Vermont Law School, encouraged students to be specific and talk about “what attributes you would bring to the school.” She also strongly advised students to seek out faculty mentors, whose recommendations often make all of the difference when evaluating student applications. To do this, Duthu suggested that students pursue independent studies or a senior thesis with a professor mentor. These projects provide an opportunity for faculty to get to know a student’s personality, writing skills, and ability to analyze complicated issues in-depth.  When a mentor knows these attributes, a law school recommendation practically writes itself.

Addressing a common characterization of lawyers as overworked and overstressed, Mott pushed back saying that “most lawyers I know are fulfilled.” Ultimately, like in any other career, those who find the law fulfilling put themselves in positions where they are interested in and enjoy what they are doing. “Following what you love is what it’s all about,” he emphasized. Additionally, Mott advised students to find a balance between work and life in their careers, and to make time for family, friends, and fitness.  

Finally, the panel enthusiastically encouraged students to seek out mentors in the law. While stuck inside due to the coronavirus, students should use resources like the Rockefeller Center, the CPD, and the Dartmouth Alumni Network to connect with lawyers and determine whether a career in law is right for them. 

-Written by Ben Vagle ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences