Shakira Pleasant is a 2004 McGeorge alumna who is now a Professor of Legal Writing & Lecturer in Law at the University of Miami School of Law. She began this career following several years at other academic institutions and as a litigator with the D.C. Office of the Attorney General. “I enjoyed the competitive nature of litigating,” says Shakira, “but over time I found that I got more joy out of teaching.” Having participated in BLSA and SBA while at McGeorge, Shakira now serves on McGeorge’s Alumni Association Board and shared her experience as a law student, imparting a few words of wisdom for current students. Among the topics of discussion were what students can do when looking to follow a similar career path and the importance of mentors.
It’s been noted by several lawyers in our blogs, but it bears stating once again that a career in law is not linear. Like Shakira, you may start in litigation and find more enjoyment in another field. The important thing is to be comfortable with your decision and confident in your ability to learn a new field or profession. When asked about her own transition from litigation to academia, Shakira said, “Honestly, I’m still sorting out how to guide people through that process; in particular, people of color because in the legal writing community, we need to do more to increase the representation of diverse individuals. If a student is interested in getting into academia – I think it’s important to note that the requirements are very different from practicing law.” Practicing law puts an emphasis on the results and satisfying your clients’ needs; a switch to any other law-related career may be more philosophically-oriented, such as education. Shakira continues, “Having a mentor to say, ‘Look, here are the things you’re going to have to do,’ is beneficial and it is great to have that kind of awareness.”
While it’s important to have confidence in yourself and your abilities, you should also be aware that it’s rare for a successful lawyer to get to where they are without any help. “Surround yourself with a bunch of great mentors,” Shakira says. “And I say ‘mentors’ with an emphasis on it being plural because I don’t think I received everything from just one person.” The resources available to students at McGeorge will not only aid in the technical preparation and knowledge required of new lawyers, but can also be the foundation of a support network. Mentors have already survived law school and experienced the anxiety that can accompany early career decisions. If law school has you feeling overwhelmed, a mentor who has been where you are may be exactly what you need to make it through.
The mental toughness necessary to succeed in the legal field can’t be learned simply through “determination”; you need to have someone with experience to guide you and explain where you might improve. It is invaluable “to know that there is someone to support you when asking, ‘what are the steps [I] need to take? What are the things [I] need to do? How do [I] need to prepare to position [myself] to be successful?’” says Shakira. If you’re unsure where to look for a mentor (or find additional ones), make an appointment with one of the CDO advisors so we can connect you with the right people, or at least point you in the right direction.
With shout-outs throughout the interview to mentors like Elizabeth Berenguer, Wanda Rouzan, Ana-Maria Martel, Dr. Shiela Harmon Martin, Dean Mary-Beth Moylan, , and Professors Christine Jones, Fred Galves, and Thomas Main, Shakira shows that the impact of mentorship can last far beyond law school and a first job. How did the aforementioned individuals’ leave such strong impressions? Shakira explains, “What was helpful and what I needed them to say (which they did) was, ‘OK, Shakira. Here is where you can have some freedom, but here is where I need you to have some structure and this is what it could look like.’ Those are the most important things I’d say to someone if they want to follow a similar path to what I’ve done.” You need to find mentors who are not only capable of guiding you, but actively want to aid in your development. Mentors can be found in your current workplace, law school, or at the agency/firm you want to eventually work. An easy way for McGeorge students to find such role models is through the Alumni Advisor Network, a group of hundreds of McGeorge alumni who have volunteered to share their time and knowledge to give students informal advice and aid in their professional development.
At the end of the day, you reap what you sow. If you put in the effort, seek out and develop relationships with experts in the field, and have confidence in your decisions you’ll be more likely to succeed as a lawyer. Ask for help if you need it – that’s a sign of maturity and self-awareness, not weakness, and both traits are necessary to be successful in any career path you choose.