Remember the stress of choosing a major in college? The pressure of making a decision that will steer the rest of your life? Some students are unicorns who arrive on campus knowing exactly which major is for them. For the rest of us, it’s equal parts exploration, trial, and terror … er, error.
According to the Law School Admission Council, some of the most common majors of law school applicants for the 2015-16 year were political science, criminal justice, psychology, and English. As if the traditional options weren’t enough, today’s students have an onslaught of emerging majors to choose from, like unmanned aircraft system operations and social media.
Check out how a few of our attorney friends navigated that path in recent years and now hold roles for which their bachelor’s degrees and JDs are a match made in heaven.
Law + Computer Science
“I grew up in the early days of the Internet and was very interested in computer programming and web design in middle school and high school,” said Tony Beasley, an intellectual property litigation attorney for O’Melveny & Myers LLP. “This was the mid-to-late 90s, and it was a fun time to be learning about computers, since everything was still relatively new.”
Tony decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a focus on database programming and information structures. The idea of law school didn’t occur to him until he was nearing the end of his time in college.
“I read an article about the lack of lawyers with computer programming backgrounds,” he said. “I knew I liked technology and that I liked to write, and I thought it might be a good fit.”
In his current role, Tony’s tech background has enabled him to quickly understand client needs and issues in their various technology business niches, and also to deliver focused client service in the e-discovery area.
His knack for quickly mastering many different e-discovery tools means he helps keep litigation costs to a minimum without compromising the quality of representation—though he gives credit to improvements in the e-discovery tools, which he notes have become more user-friendly and robust since he started practicing in 2008.
“I once wrote a program to convert mass amounts of proprietary documents to a readable format, which our vendor was unable to handle for a reasonable cost,” Tony said. “Nowadays, I highly doubt something like that would still be necessary.”
Tony has gotten to work with many interesting technologies. “The fun of patent litigation is always being presented with something new,” he said. Memorable cases have involved automated options trading platforms, gas drilling systems, graphics processing architecture, and transcatheter heart valves.
But if he had to pick a favorite?
“It would probably be a case involving airplane radar and traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) technology—very cool!”
Law + Chemistry
Sarah Biggs had always excelled at math and science. Her first-year chemistry professor inspired her to choose it as her major. Sarah thought she’d follow the well-traveled path to a PhD and research career.
“When I completed undergraduate research programs during the summers of my sophomore and junior years, I realized there were things I didn’t love about being in a lab,” said Sarah. “You could go an entire day without speaking to another person. I knew it wasn’t for me.”
She began exploring other options for applying her chemistry degree. Her interviews with patent attorneys ignited a spark.
“I liked that applying science was a major part of the job,” said Sarah. “One day I could be analyzing drug components, and another day, a process for treating rubber. And there was much more human interaction than lab work.”
Law school posed a new challenge. Where the STEM world is fairly black and white, law school is a study of grey. But one area came easily to Sarah: “Legal writing is very formulaic,” she said. “A science background trains you to approach things from an analytical angle, which gave me an edge. Some of my liberal-arts-trained classmates were accustomed to more creative and flowery writing and had more difficulty with the adjustment.”
Today, Sarah is a patent attorney and shareholder at McAndrews, Held & Malloy, Ltd., where she has spent her entire career. Her firm works on behalf of clients to submit and defend patent claims. While she has done her fair share of litigation, filing and defending suits for patent infringement, today her work is more focused on transactional and opinion work.
“When my clients develop a new invention, I help them explore whether they might be eligible for a patent,” Sarah said. “Or when they are thinking of launching a new product, I research to make sure they wouldn’t be infringing on existing patents. If I come across another company with a patent covering the technology, I might contact the company to explore a license agreement.”
The firm requires a science background for all their attorneys. Chemistry, biology, and electrical engineering are common undergraduate degrees at McAndrews.
“I leverage skills from my chemistry degree all the time, like with reading chemical formulas and knowing where to look when I need a better understanding of a technical concept,” Sarah said. Practicing law in complex industries like pharmaceuticals requires specialized knowledge, whether you’re strategizing on deposition questions or reviewing in-depth clinical studies during e-discovery.
“It gives me credibility with scientists and clients,” Sarah said. “I find they’re more willing to open up and speak candidly when they know you have the science chops to keep up.”
Law + Sociology
“I chose a sociology major because I fell in love with the coursework,” said Jill Roberts, assistant director for career development at Michigan State University College of Law. “Sociology explores the root causes of constructs like poverty, racism, and sexism—where they come from and how they’re perpetuated.”
In addition to communication and interpersonal skills, a sociology education hones research and analytical skills—vital to a litigation attorney or support specialist for evaluating ideas, theories, and evidence, interpreting data, and interviewing custodians. A sociology background could also help shed more light on the motivations and interactions that drive, say, email conversations about a contested employment decision, during e-discovery.
Jill’s key research project was on the causes of juvenile delinquency; she interviewed residents at a local juvenile detention center to discuss their life experiences and reflections on their current situations.
“Studying social inequality—especially poverty—motivated me to pursue law school,” Jill said. “I saw getting closer to the law as a way I could make a difference.”
Following law school, Jill spent a year as an attorney with the United States Department of Justice in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, Detroit Immigration Court. She later served as a supervising attorney, specializing in housing law, at Cabrini Green Legal Aid, a Chicago nonprofit that provides criminal and civil legal services to individuals facing barriers stemming from an encounter with the criminal justice system.
In her current role, Jill provides career counseling and facilitates employer interviews for public-interest minded Michigan State law students. “I work with students who want to save the world,” Jill said, “and I love helping them find the path to do it.”
After all is said and done, choosing a major still can be a stressful time. For any students entering law school remember to explore all of your options. If you can identify with the individuals in this article, tell us how did your educational pursuits turn out to be a match made in heaven?