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Professor Maureen Carroll Imparts Career Advice to Students in Blue Jeans Lecture

By Jordan Poll
December 4, 2018

In her Blue Jeans Lecture, Assistant Professor Maureen Carroll shared a glimpse into her career journey with students, many of whom selected her as the recipient of the 2018 L. Hart Wright Award for Excellence in Teaching in only her second year at Michigan Law. “I thought about all kinds of weighty and slightly depressing things to talk with you about,” she began. “But it occurred to me that maybe this is a time when we could all use a little hope in our lives, so I decided to talk about my career’s bumpy rides and how—despite the odds—they turned into even better opportunities down the road.”

She started at the beginning. Before the launch of her career in law and academia, Carroll was an electrical engineer creating innovative circuit designs for Hewlett-Packard (HP) in Silicon Valley. "It was an interesting time before the dot-com bubble burst, working on the cutting edge of technology and developing new things that pushed the boundaries of what we thought could be done," she reminisced. However, a massive corporate layoff put an end to those dreams. "It was hard and unexpected. A lot of my friends and colleagues, people I liked and respected, lost their jobs that day," said Carroll, who was affected by the layoff even though she was one of the few who remained with the company. "They didn't know what would happen next, it was a stressful time, and my heart broke for them. But everyone found new jobs—really good, and in some cases, even better jobs." It meant that when Carroll was ready to leave HP, she had a network spanning companies up and down Silicon Valley, and people who—because they knew her and her work—were more than willing to aid in her search. 

Through one of these connections, Carroll joined a startup in Silicon Valley before moving on to consulting work. After four years, she decided to act upon a long-held interest in law by attending the University of California, Los Angeles. However, Carroll would later learn that if she had stayed at the startup, instead of pursuing new avenues of opportunity, she would have a chance to become a millionaire. “What I didn’t know at the time was that the startup was given a buyout offer and—because of the stock I had in the company—if the founders had accepted the offer, I would have gotten $4 million,” she said. “But because my options weren’t fully vested yet, I would have had to keep working at the startup for years in order to receive the full amount. I would not have gone and done different work in different places, and I probably wouldn’t have gone to law school at the time and place that I did. Had I not attended an OUTLaw barbeque at the beginning of my 3L year, I would not have met a 1L who was attending that very barbeque and introduced myself to her. That woman is now my wife, and there is no amount of money that would make changing that circumstance worth it.”

Engineering turned into a passion for civil rights litigation for Carroll, who teaches Civil Procedure and Complex Litigation at Michigan Law. However, she almost turned away from this path fresh out of law school. While clerking for The Hon. Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Carroll applied for a Skadden Fellowship. “I had what I thought was a good interview, but then the decision day came and I didn’t get it,” she said. “Because I mistakenly thought the fellowship was the only way for me to launch my career in public interest law, I didn’t see myself making it.” What she didn’t know then was that the rejection would be the spark that ignited her legal career. “It turned out so much better than I could have imagined,” said Carroll, who was offered a staff attorney position with Public Counsel. “If I had gotten the fellowship, then I would only have worked on the project that I had proposed. I wouldn’t have been part of the organization’s impact litigation team, working on class actions, civil rights cases, and much more, which is what I ended up doing. I loved it.”

Years later, and even though it was a difficult decision to leave litigation, Carroll shifted her sights from practice to academia. “I realized the things I loved most about litigation were the interesting questions that arose in my research, but I couldn’t delve into them like I wanted to do because you have to go where the case takes you,” she said. “I also enjoyed working with student interns, seeing what they were excited about, helping them think about their paths through different types of careers, making their writing better, and understanding how litigation works. It was tremendously valuable to me.”

Carroll leapt into academia with the Bernard A. and Lenore S. Greenberg Law Review Fellowship at UCLA, and—two years later—went on the job market, interviewing with law schools from all over the country at a conference in Washington, D.C. It was an exciting time, said Carroll, who was beyond ready for the next phase of her career. However, when she finished the hiring process without a single offer, she was devastated. “Take how I felt about the Skadden Fellowship and multiply it by a million,” said Carroll, who returned to UCLA and spent the third year of her extended fellowship teaching Civil Procedure for the first time. Later that year, she returned to the market and accepted an offer to teach at Michigan Law School. “Everything that went wrong along the way, hurray for that,” she said. “Because now I am here at such a special place, soaking up your wonderful intelligence, thoughts, and aspirations.”

Reflecting on her career, Carroll reminded students that, while every wrong turn presents a new opportunity, it is up to them to turn the outcome into something positive. “Everyone in this room has a wonderful career ahead of them,” she said. “You’ll have a million choices to make and a lot of bumps in the road. There will be times when things seem bad, but don’t lose hope and don’t let hoping be the only action you take. Choose your battles, but make sure you are choosing them, and never stop fighting to fix the things you have the ability to change.”

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