Yesterday I had an opportunity to talk about being an agriculture lawyer to an undergraduate agriculture careers class in Wisconsin via Skype. I remember being that age and not really knowing what I wanted to do.
To tell you the truth, I grew up looking up to Colleen Callahan and wanted to *be* her…with a career in agriculture journalism/communications. For a brief moment, I was particularly interested in agriculture literacy with school aged children. I even started my undergraduate career at Texas A & M University majoring in agriculture journalism. Perhaps it was because I was attending a renown animal science department (second only to Cornell .. arg) but the animal science world pulled me in. I loved using that part of my brain. To date, some of my favorite professors were in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A & M University and I don’t regret for a second obtaining my bachelors of science there.
And then graduation hit and I was faced with the question that every graduating senior has — what next? I used to kid people about how “if I wanted to make money in this lifetime, I should go to law school.” But the truth is, I didn’t have a clue what attorneys did nor did I know many attorneys growing up. I especially didn’t know any agriculture lawyers. It wasn’t until I spent time in Washington D.C. with this internship program that I become particularly interested in law and policy. At that point, I had already accepted an offer to pursue my masters studies at the University of Illinois in beef cattle nutrition. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and grab an opportunity when you can to see life from a different perspective. I learned a lot that summer. I learned a lot about politics including why the Potomac is green…I learned to like powersuits and late night talks about agriculture policy… and I met a few lawyers who inspired me a bit about the practice of law and somehow trying to make difference. That experience sparked something inside of me that is very much part of who I am.
I am continually asked, “how did you get here?” Well, it took a lot of hard work. I didn’t ace the LSAT or coast through law school. I didn’t start my law practice with a fat bank account, a decade of experience or a single client. It’s been pure doggedness and good ol’ fashioned work ethic that got me through law school and got me to the point where I have a solid agriculture law practice. The type of work ethic that you learn growing up on a farm walking beans, bailing hay, cleaning the barn, and rinsing cattle… when your friends are enjoying the beach. Yep – that’s how I grew up. And that part of me is with me every single day… no matter where my address is.
Here are some of the questions that I received yesterday and my responses:
What should I study in undergrad if I want to go to law school?
Doesn’t matter. Study what you want to study. Unlike medical school, veterinary school, or even some business schools, law school doesn’t require any particular classes or majors. That being said, because of my bachelors and masters in science, I am eligible to take the patent bar. If you are interested in being an intellectual property lawyer and being admitted to the patent bar, I suggest looking at the science requirements with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”).
What is the best way to prepare for law school applications?
Take a LSAT prep course. Listen, I abhor standardized tests. I think it’s a horrible way to sort people and evaluate somebody’s ability. However, it’s the way of the world and you have to learn to play the game. Is the bar exam like practicing law? Nope. But it was a threshold I had to cross. So is the LSAT. In my experience, law schools put more emphasis on LSAT scores than undergraduate GPA’s. Do as best you can and let the chips fall where they may.
Additionally, I suggest thinking about letters of recommendations and start building relationships with instructors, employers, or others who you have a professional relationship who may put in a good word for you. Please take the time to thank these people. They are taking time out of their busy schedules for you.
What was your biggest challenge in law school?
I was top of the class in undergrad. Law school was the first time when I shoved in a class with other “top students.” And there was a mandatory curve in my first year. It was easily the most competitive and challenging academic chapter of my career. I spent my nights reading court cases and my weekends outlining my notes. It’s a huge commitment emotionally, mentally, and socially.
What exactly is “agriculture law?”
I get asked this all the time. If only the definition was so simple. The way I look at it is this: agriculture law touches upon every kind of law, it’s just geared towards a specific industry. It’s contract drafting, estate planning, environmental law, food labels, criminal law, corporate law, property rights, zoning, tort litigation, commercial transactions, partnership law, and international law. Nearly every kind of law touches the food and agriculture industry. That’s what I do. In a sense, I’m a generalist.
What is the best way for farmers in a dispute to stay out of court?
Go to mediation. I’m a fan of Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”). I was just in family court yesterday and petitions were flying back and forth and every direction. Litigation can break down family relationships, not mend them. Is there a dispute between a family farm, neighbors, or business partners? Try having a conversation via a neutral mediator. Even better, hire me to mediate! (kidding)
If you could do it again, would you do anything differently with law school?
I’m very thankful for my education from Pace University, School of Law. Pace has an outstanding environmental law program and was located just north of New York City in Westchester County. However, I have a lot of law school loans that I will be paying off for a very long time. Somedays I wish I would have chosen a more fiscally responsible legal education with a state law school.
Congressman, if you are reading this blog, it is shameful that only $2K interest on my loans is tax deductible. Please fix this.
What has been your biggest adjustment to living in the “Big City?”
New York City is really like 20,000 small towns shoved up against each other. My coffee guy knows me. My dry cleaner knows me. My postman knows me. My neighbors know me. I run into friends, colleagues and clients at random places throughout the city. New York City is really just a big small town. It’s not that scary.
How much do you work?
I work too much.. more than I wish. I have spent the last several weekends in my office. I am striving for more balance in my life as my business continually grows. Anyone who starts a business, no matter if it is a law practice, a farming operation, or a graphics design company, needs to be ready to put in a couple hard years. But I promise that it’s worth it.
How much do you go to court?
Most attorneys spend very little time in court. On average, I’m in court 1-2 times a week. Some weeks I am not in court at all. It really varies on the type of practice you have. A lot of what attorneys do is research and writing. I spend a lot of my time visiting with clients.
Do you plan on relocating back to Illinois to be closer to family?
There’s no question that Illinois is a big part of me. I have lot of family and friends there. Once I am bar licensed in Illinois, I hope to open a satellite office there so I can travel back and forth between New York City and Illinois. Besides, I need a reason to go see my cows.
Interested in learning more about law school and being an agriculture lawyer? Will be speaking about it again via Skype on June 1st.