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[Note: The Editors of the Temple 10-Q believe that it is helpful for students (and sometimes practitioners) to learn about the paths that business lawyers have followed in order to chart or assess their own. We are thus launching an occasional series, “Pathways in Business Law,” with a reflection by Margaret Callahan, LAW ‘88, who is general counsel to Arcadia University. If you would like to share your pathway in business law, please contact us at https://www2.law.temple.edu/10q/contact/.]
Many students enter law school unsure of what type of law they want to practice or what kind of attorney they want to become. I think that I was even less sure than most when I started at Temple University School of Law thirty-five years ago. I was a first-generation college student; of my six siblings, I was the first of only two who would graduate from college, and the only one to attend a graduate program. As an undergraduate at Temple, I knew that I wanted to go on to law school, even though I was not sure what being an attorney really entailed. But as a child, I had once answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “a lawyer,” and the impressed reaction I got from adults told me that a lawyer was a job that commanded respect.
It was not an easy road to law school. I had no attorney role models in my orbit, and my academic counselor was discouraging, advising that I consider becoming a paralegal instead. Rather than deter me, his advice motivated me, prompting me to intern for a year at the Superior Court of Pennsylvania after graduation to gain experience and build up my qualifications for admission to law school.
It was that determination that got me through law school. As an introvert then and now, I struggled with the harsh spotlight of the Socratic Method. Still, I studied hard and excelled academically, landing a summer associate position at a large law firm in Philadelphia. After graduation, I accepted a full-time offer and began my legal career as a real estate lawyer in the corporate department of Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish, & Kaufman. I was thrilled and believed that I would spend the rest of my career at that firm. While law students today may find this an anachronism, at the time, the idea of a “career path” was not familiar, and it was far more customary to follow a linear trajectory through the ranks of a single employer.
As an associate, I realized that the work was not satisfying in the way that I had envisioned. I did not know if it was the real estate or corporate work itself that was not fulfilling, or whether it was the long, tedious hours spent at the office, but it was clear that I desired something different. I had always valued building strong business relationships and it paid off when I was extended an offer to work as an underwriter at a prominent title insurance company client of the firm. Continuing the pattern I had followed in my legal career so far, I was not sure what I was getting into, and I knew I was bucking expectations by not staying at the firm and fighting on to partnership. Still, I was willing to take the risk.
While in this position, my personal life began to conflict with my professional life. I had my first daughter a mere eighteen days after the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was passed and returned to work full-time only eight weeks after she was born. I had my second daughter two years later and was confronted with how difficult it would be to continue my career and raise a young family. Supportive work practices are still regrettably unavailable for many workers today, and they were not available to me at all. I offered several reasonable proposals to my employer, such as a work-from-home day or a temporary reduction in hours, but nothing worked out. I chose my family and left my job temporarily. I wholeheartedly planned to return to work in a few years, so I made sure to keep my law license active. I had not worked as hard as I did to only let it all slip away.
A few years turned into sixteen, and during that time our son was born. I felt extremely fortunate to be able to dedicate all of my time and focus on my family. I relish every moment of having been a dance, soccer, bowling, track and field, baseball, and PTO mom, and so much more. Throughout those sixteen years, I began to think more and more about giving up my license – paying for annual dues and CLEs became expensive, and with each year that went by, it felt more unlikely that I would return to the profession. Although I had fought so hard to become a lawyer, and knew I had it in me to succeed, I feared that I would face too much competition trying to reenter the job market.
But, when my youngest son started middle school, I thought about what my future would be like once he was out of the house. I updated my resume and applied for some non-legal jobs for something to occupy my time and allow me the ability to feel that I was doing something meaningful. I was rejected over and over again, often receiving the ironic response that I was “overqualified.” I felt under-qualified for legal work and was deemed overqualified for non-legal jobs.
Then, a chance encounter offered me a way forward.
My sister mentioned that I was looking to reenter the job market to a mutual acquaintance who was serving as the first General Counsel of Arcadia University. At that time, he was looking for someone to help him at Arcadia part-time. Although I had been looking for a way back in, I was reluctant to take the position: it would be hard enough to return to practice after sixteen years away, let alone emerge into an entirely new field, higher education. Did I dare?
The then-General Counsel was confident that I would be a great fit, and I hoped my work ethic and transactional skills would supersede my lack of higher education experience. I accepted the offer for part-time work but within weeks, I was working full time as Associate General Counsel. And, at a time when most of my friends and acquaintances were thinking about retiring, I was reentering the workforce, engaged and energized, and discovering a renewed sense of confidence in myself.
I fell in love with the practice of higher education law. Higher education attorneys get to work with a variety of constituencies at their institutions, including boards, presidents, provosts, senior administrators, deans, students, and faculty. I get to draw on my past practice in real estate, corporate, and transactional work. I also get to be involved with issues such as governance, labor and employment, student affairs, campus security, athletics, financial and business affairs, risk management, government and community relations, intellectual property, international law, and various forms of dispute resolution. Every day is different from the last, and I feel like I am always learning.
In just under five years, I was appointed the second General Counsel of Arcadia University. I would never have envisioned myself in this role as a precocious child who was not sure what a lawyer was, just that she wanted to be one; as a law student hoping not to be cold-called; as a big law firm associate; or as a full-time mom. But, I love my work, and while I struggled with every decision in the path that got me here — to go to law school, to leave the firm, to stay home with my children — I would not have ended up where I am if I had made different choices.
It is easy for a law student or young attorney to get discouraged when their career path does not look quite like what they envisioned, or for someone who has been out of legal practice to feel fear about plunging back in. My three decades of experience have shown me the real power of a JD, and that with that education in hand and a willingness to work hard and take risks, a fulfilling second act is possible.
As a result of the recent coronavirus pandemic, I have had to work on matters that I could never have anticipated, in some cases far from my realm of knowledge. Things like the financial and legal implications of bringing students home from study abroad programs, assisting faculty and staff with the rapid move to remote learning platforms, establishing safety protocols for those students remaining on campus unable to return home, navigating the various force majeure clauses in University contracts for ways to handle cancellations, and familiarizing myself with the many federal stimulus laws, such as the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, quickly and with very little government guidance, have all required me to pivot quickly and adjust to this new normal.
Collaboration with various departments and colleagues across the campus has been essential, and my background, experience, and the skills gleaned throughout my career have served me well to adapt to each day’s needs. My path to General Counsel of Arcadia University was anything but typical, but my legal education and the experiences I had along the way have equipped me with the skills necessary to help lead the University through this unprecedented time.
May 1, 2020