I connected with Jill through one of my colleagues and mentors and I am so so happy that I did! Jill has an amazing career journey that is sure to inspire. Thank you, Jill!!!
How did you determine what you wanted to study in college?
Government and history were always big interests. I was a US Senate page one summer in high school. As a page, it was my job to be on the Senate floor running errands and delivering messages (in the days before email and texting). The job allowed me a front row seat to learn about government, and I loved it. I originally thought I would be a political science major, but then I gravitated towards the history department. The opportunity to study early American history at Penn in Philadelphia was just too good to pass up. I ended up with a major in history and a minor in political science.
What led you to law school? How did you decide to pursue this path?
The funny thing is, I fought against law school even though everyone always told me I would be a good lawyer. I thought about pursuing a PhD in history, but I wrote a senior honors thesis and I found the process to be very lonely. I went to work at a law firm for a year after college to make sure law was for me. Even after that, I chose a law school experience that allowed me to get a master’s degree at the same time. I earned a JD and a MS in public policy in 3.5 years. I did not completely realize it at the time, but I was looking for a way to combine law and government.
Walk us through your initial job search strategy and how you landed your first full-time role.
My first full-time job after college was for one year as a paralegal at a law firm in New York City. I applied for a bunch of paralegal positions in New York City during my senior year of college. I ended up at a smaller law firm.
How did you go from that first role to your current role—what was that journey like for you?
The best career advice I received was not to plan out my whole career. This was excellent advice for me because I am a planner. Seriously, I love to plan and make lists. Anyway, the advice was to set goals for 1, 3 and 5 years, but also to be open to unexpected opportunities that will crop up as a result of hard work and talent. Where I have ended up and how I got there was not a part of some grand, decades-long plan. It happened more organically in smaller chunks of time.
Being a law professor was not on my radar during law school. I did well in law school and had some great experiences as a summer associate at some excellent law firms. I worked for a federal judge for a year after I graduated from law school because I was eager to have another type of front row seat to government in action. After my year of clerking for a federal judge, I started working as an immigration lawyer at a big law firm. I chose immigration law because I saw it as a way to help people and to combine my interests in law and public policy.
What I learned about immigration law and policy as a lawyer drove me to find ways to become more engaged with the topic. I wanted to explore the larger phenomena behind the law. As a lawyer representing clients, I did not have as much opportunity to do that because my clients’ legal needs set the agenda.
I started thinking about what my next career move might be, and I decided to talk to others who had jobs that sounded interesting to me. I talked to people who worked in immigration law policy in Washington, D.C. I also talked to a friend who is, and was then, a law professor. She was very patient and kind. Talking to her and shadowing her made me realize that I wanted to be a law professor.
Spending time with this mentor allowed me to understand some major career revelations. A law professor has the amazing role of teaching students about the law. That may seem obvious, but I realized that I would love being able to help students develop their knowledge and interests. Also, I enjoyed the time I spent as a student in my law school classrooms. Being a law professor meant that I could continue to be in a law school classroom and could continue to learn about the law while teaching students about the law. Students may not realize that their professors learn through their classroom experiences, even if the professor is teaching a topic he or she has taught many times before. Finally, until I spent time with this mentor, I did not understand what law professors did outside of the classroom. Shadowing this mentor allowed me to see the research component of a law professor’s job. I realized that law professors set their own research agendas. This was appealing to me because I would be able to study immigration law and policy. I also saw that law professors are very engaged with the legal community and that it is not an isolating job.
Next, I had to tackle the question of how I might achieve the goal of becoming a law professor. I went back and talked to my law professors. I wrote an academic paper. I left my attorney job and completed a clerkship with a federal appeals court. I taught a class as an adjunct at a law school. I did all of this to prepare to apply for professor jobs. It took 3 years from the time I decided I wanted to be a law professor to when I started a job as a law professor.
Now, I am a law professor at Widener Law Commonwealth. I teach government law courses, including immigration law. Also, I run the Law and Government Institute, which helps law students develop their interests in government law and hosts programming to educate the public about government law issues.
What advice do you have for young women who want to pursue a career in law, or academia? How might you decide what path is right for you?
One of the wonderful parts of my job is that I help students get started on their own career journeys. It is hard to give blanket advice because every person’s experiences and interests are unique. Here are, however, five universal principles.
- You do not have to plan out your whole career. Your first job will not be your only job. Be willing to change course or to follow opportunities, even if the destination is not obvious.
- Be geographically flexible, if possible. I’ve seen students take first jobs in locations they were not thrilled about, but then ended up where they wanted to be, in the job that they wanted, within 5 years. Or, perhaps you will end up in a job you love in an unexpected place.
- Networking is a skill you can learn. When you see individuals who seem to be very comfortable networking, they may have worked hard to learn that skill. You can be excellent at networking even if it is difficult for you.
- Jump at opportunities that mentors and others provide. A big part of finding a job is that employers need to know about your hard work and skills. If you have the opportunity to interact with others in your desired field, take advantage of those opportunities. Think of it as planting as many seeds as possible in a garden. You do not know which ones will grow and bloom.
- Be on top of your etiquette. For example, always let someone know in advance if you will be late or if you will miss a meeting. Remember, everyone you interact with potentially is a gatekeeper to future opportunities.
Did you face any career “hurdles,” and if so, how did you navigate them and what did you learn?
One thing that worried me about being a lawyer was that I wanted to have a life outside of my job. Being a law professor allows me to have flexibility in my schedule. The flexibility works really well for me because I have the discipline to get tasks done when they need to be done. I’ve talked to others who have told me they need a more structured day.
I do want to mention that women confront challenges in legal practice. Female lawyers still face challenges that male lawyers do not, as in many professions. Everyone’s experiences are unique, but too many female lawyers still face inappropriate commentary on their looks or on their ability to practice law as a woman. Unfortunately, female lawyers still need to spend far too much time thinking about how they will be treated at a particular law practice, by an opposing attorney, or in a particular courtroom because of their sex. That being said, I know many women who are lawyers in a variety of contexts and are thrilled with their careers. It is an amazing profession; lawyers help protect individual rights and they help businesses succeed. The profession, however, still has work to do.
The last hurdle I will mention is that when I decided I wanted to be a law professor, a few people told me that it would be impossible because I did not attend a top 20 law school and that I should give up. Others told me that it would be difficult but helped me figure out a path to at least attempt to become a law professor. That experience taught me to try to block out the truly negative voices, but to be open to the honest advice of others that might not be exactly what you want to hear.
If you are open to connecting with our readers, how can they reach you?
Email: email@example.com or readers can follow the Law and Government Institute on Twitter: @widenerLG