Pitt seminars prepare students for marrying career and real world
Alyssa Buonagura, a first-year law student at Pitt, appreciated the chance to network during a recent session held by the Pitt Law Academy.
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It wasn't your typical sales pitch.
Speaking to a room full of University of Pittsburgh law students last month, Laura Ellsworth chose to speak about one of her least favorite workdays.
It was a Friday afternoon several years ago when, after traveling weeks on end for a case, she realized she would be stuck in Rhode Island for a weekend that she had planned to spend in Pittsburgh with her then-9-year-old son.
As partner-in-charge of the Pittsburgh office of the Jones Day law firm, Ms. Ellsworth is accustomed to tough negotiations in multimillion-dollar cases. But that phone call to her son telling him that she couldn't come home left them both in tears.
Ms. Ellsworth's speech was part of a new required program for first-year students at Pitt's law school called the Pitt Law Academy. It might as well be called The Real World 101.
"Most of what you're learning in law school is the substance of law," said John Burkoff, a Pitt law professor who organized the academy. "This gets them thinking about what comes after."
The session that Ms. Ellsworth participated in was called "The Litigators' Life: Is It For Me? Can I Try Cases For a Living & Still Recognize My Family Members?"
Other past and future sessions include "Public Interest & Pro Bono Practice: How to Do It and Still Be Able to Pay Your Rent & Buy Food," "If I Only Knew Then What I Know Now" and "Handling Job Stress Without Becoming a Drug Addict or an Alcoholic."
The idea behind the program is to encourage students to start thinking about their professional development early on in their law school careers.
"As we encourage our 1Ls to be aware of the diverse roles that attorneys play, we also encourage them to start thinking early about what kind of path is most attractive to them," said Mary Crossley, dean of the law school. "In that way, we hope to better prepare them both to take upper-level courses relating to their area of interest and to begin exploring job opportunities in that area."
Law school faculty also provides opportunities for socializing between students and panelists after each event, with the hope that the students will begin networking.
"It's really great to be making connections so early, and to have them brought to us instead of having to go search for them," said Alyssa Buonagura, 22, a first-year student from New York. "I have friends at other schools and they haven't done anything like this."
The Pitt Law Academy consists of 10 sessions throughout the school year. First-year students must attend at least four. The events are open to (and well attended by) upperclassmen as well.
While some of the things that students hear from the lawyer panelists will sound appealing, some of that won't. And that's what Mr. Burkoff hopes will help students make informed decisions about their futures.
"The key is having your eyes open," he said. "I don't want to paint this fake, 'Oh, you can have it all' picture, because it's just not true. For real people, you have to make choices."
In Ms. Ellsworth's case, she's sees litigation as a "joyful, joyful" career. She loves that litigation is both cerebral and theatrical, and she sees every case as the opportunity to solve a mystery. She often wakes up at 3 a.m. having an "obsessathon" with herself about her cases, eager to get in the door of her office.
But there are sacrifices. "If you like certainty, this is not the job for you," she said. "Your life is not your own. You can't dictate when a client's plant blows up, when a judge needs you to fly to Paris, when your opponent files a brief."
Ms. Ellsworth has been able to balance her career and a family life by having a supportive husband, hiring help when needed and carving out quality chunks of time for her son, now 14.
She believes that by working so hard and so passionately, she is setting a good example for her son and teaching him important lessons. After that weekend that she was stuck in Rhode Island, for example, she told him that she had made a promise to protect someone and that he was helping her keep the promise. But she knows it's not the life that would work for everyone.
Ms. Buonagura already knew she didn't want to go into a law firm. She thinks she wants to go into government work but learned at one of the panels about other opportunities, such as working as an attorney for a company, that she hadn't thought about before.
Such career advice is valuable for incoming law students because the financial stakes are high, said Maureen Kelly, a U.S magistrate judge who spoke at a panel titled "Public Law vs. Private Law Careers: What's the Difference? What's Best for Me?" that was held in September.
"Many law students have no one in their family who is an attorney or no mentor in guiding their career paths," she said. "Yet, most law students will leave law school with over $100,000 in student loan debt."
Judge Kelly was pleased by the number of students who asked questions about engaging in public service once they have their law degrees.
For students who do want to practice in big law firms, panelists provided concrete advice as well. Kenneth Argentieri, a partner with the 700-lawyer firm Duane Morris, recommended students seek out the most skilled lawyers in a firm as mentors, even if they don't work in the subject area that students are interested in.
As for the program as a whole, he thinks laying such information out for students in a comprehensive fashion is a much needed service.
"This is an idea that is long overdue," he said.
First Published March 5, 2012 12:00 am