How I Found Higher Education after Law School and Film School
The Bencher—July/August 2019
By Sean Coleman
When people would ask my late mother, an attorney, how her son went from working at a large law firm to working as a university administrator, she would say, “Sean had an early midlife crisis and went to film school.” Sometimes she’d say this even when she wasn’t asked.
Although I dispute the “early midlife crisis” part of my mother’s analysis (age 32 hardly qualifies as even “early” midlife), she was right about one thing: Film school did play a role in the transition. That is because in my third year at the University of Southern California, my law firm savings depleted, I took a part-time job as a receptionist for a new nonprofit in K–12 education in downtown Los Angeles. My thought was I could get paid for basically doing my homework. Boy, was I wrong! As soon as the head of the nonprofit realized she had a lawyer manning the front desk, she started having me draft memorandums of understanding with school districts—everything from $1 to $25 million grants. When I told her I had been a litigator, not a business lawyer, at my former firm, she said, “You’re a lawyer. You’ll figure it out.” And so I did, with the help of the nonprofit’s pro bono outside counsel.
Film school graduates rarely enter the workforce earning enough to pay the rent, so I ended up working for the nonprofit after graduation, gradually taking on more responsibilities and eventually helping to wrap up its operations when it closed as planned five years later. When I moved back to Pittsburgh after 10 years in L.A., I found the education employment part of my résumé was easier to explain than the law firm part. (It probably did not help that my mother had been spreading the “early midlife crisis” angle around town for a decade.) So I decided to reposition myself as an education administrator with a legal background.
In Pittsburgh, I became special assistant to the president of a then-college. Looking back, I think I was hired solely to shepherd the college’s application for university status through the daunting state bureaucratic process. On my first day of work, I found on my desk a half-inch–thick pile of papers—the application—which needed to be filed exactly six months later. (The final application was submitted in a binder more than a foot thick.)
Years later, I asked the president why she charged me, a novice to higher education and to the college, with such an important undertaking. She said she knew I was a lawyer and she was confident I would figure it out. Although parts of the application, such as amending articles of incorporation, did require a lawyer’s expertise, it was mostly a matter of marshaling a lot of facts and documents in support of a desired outcome. This, come to think of it, was what I did as a young associate at my former firm, whether supporting experienced litigators in the courtroom or assembling documents for closings.
As in Los Angeles, I have taken on more and more responsibility during my time at the university. I now hold three titles: vice president of planning, secretary to the board, and Title IX coordinator. (It is not unusual in higher education, especially at relatively smaller institutions like mine, for staff to wear more than one hat.) The last of these positions is where my legal background has been most helpful. However, I have dealt with a wide range of legal issues in areas such as employment, contracts, intellectual property, and the First Amendment. I don’t know what it says about the state of higher education these days, but not a day goes by when my legal education and expertise do not come in handy.
My legal education and background allow me to identify legal issues and know what kind of legal expertise to consult. Acutely conscious of legal fees, I have also been known to write memos to outside legal counsel, laying out the facts and issues, to save time and fees.
Far and away though, the thing I learned in law that has served me best in every job I have had since leaving the law has been the ability to make persuasive arguments on someone’s behalf. I trace this skill back to trial practice courses in law school, where we would be given one set of facts and have to argue those facts from both the plaintiff’s and defendant’s perspective. I found that knowing or anticipating what the other side would argue helped hone my own argument.
The former president of the university used to tell people that my law and film school education was the perfect background for the chief of staff role I played early on. She was alluding, I think, to what most people would think of as right brain (film)-left brain (law) skills, especially the “storytelling” skills she, like most people, assumed I developed in film school. In truth, although film school was a tremendous experience, I cannot point to many skills I learned there that have been useful to me afterward. Law school, working at a law firm, conducting jury trials are where I learned the art of persuasive argument—persuasive “storytelling” if you will—that has been my most valuable and translatable skill in post-law firm employment settings. At the university, for example, it helped persuade a foundation to gift the university nearly 400 acres to establish a new campus. It helped persuade the board of trustees to establish a School of Sustainability and make sustainability part of the university’s mission. It has even come in handy when trying to persuade luminaries to accept honorary degrees from the university, although it did not work with a certain U.S. Supreme Court justice who turned us down flat!
I would like to leave with some advice for anyone wishing to transition from a law firm to higher education—or any field outside traditional law firm practice. I have served on any number of search committees over the years, for everything from admissions directors to institutional researchers. The one constant has been that the large pile of résumés we sift through always includes a fair number of those from lawyers seeking to leave law firms for higher education. Lawyers seem to think they are capable of jumping into every and any role on a college or university campus.
As a former practicing attorney, I appreciate that lawyer “can do” spirit, that litigator-paratrooper confidence that one can parachute into any situation and hit the ground running. Unfortunately, that lawyerly “can do” spirit is just as likely to leave you and your parachute tangled up in the power lines off campus. Just as every lawyer is not cut out for every area of the law, not every lawyer is cut out for every area of or position in higher education. Although I have seen lawyers lead athletics, fundraising, alumni affairs, and planned giving during my time at the university, each of those individuals had legal and/or professional experience that lent itself to those positions.
So, if law firm practice ever becomes unfulfilling, please do not apply for every and any job out there. My advice would be to identify those positions or areas outside law firm practice where one’s legal skills—persuasive writing or speaking, drafting contracts or wills, for example—can best benefit an employer and allow you to build a professional life that is meaningful and sustaining.
I’m lucky. Through a process that was by no means planned or deliberate (you were right about that, Mom!), I landed in a job where I can bring my diverse work and life experiences to bear in support of a university that I am proud to be part of and whose work and mission fulfill me. This might not have been the job I anticipated when I left law school, but it has turned out to be the best job for me.
Sean Coleman is a graduate of Brown University, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. He is vice president for planning and secretary to the board at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.