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Prof. Chris Whitman, '74, presents Blue Jeans LectureProf. Chris Whitman, '74: Living a Meaningful Life Beyond Law School

By Lori Atherton
Nov. 14, 2014

How does one live a meaningful life after law school? The short answer, said Prof. Chris Whitman, '74, is to find value in what you do every day. And the key to finding that value is to make the right career choices, starting with one's first job.

"You're making a decision at this point about what to begin with, but it's not the rest of your life," Prof. Whitman told the Michigan Law students who attended her Blue Jeans Lecture, "After Law School: Starting Out Well and Ending Up Better." "What you are looking for is something for this particular phase of your life. Take the best offer and run with it, and don't make your choice based on what will impress your friends, because that will make you happy for only a few months."

Prof. Whitman, the Francis A. Allen Collegiate Professor of Law, delivered the Blue Jeans Lecture Nov. 12, prior to receiving the 2014 L. Hart Wright Award for Excellence in Teaching, which was presented to her at the Law School Student Senate's faculty wine and cheese reception later that day.

Prof. Whitman punctuated her talk with stories and anecdotes drawn from four decades in the law, which includes clerking for the Hon. Harold Leventhal of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and for Justice Lewis Powell of the U.S. Supreme Court, and later serving as vice provost for faculty and academic affairs at the University of Michigan.

Among the wisdom Prof. Whitman imparted to law students are these nuggets:

  • Throw yourself into your first job, however much you like or dislike it, and be as good as you can be in it. Don't just work hard—discover what your skills are, how to work with colleagues, and how to set yourself apart from others.
  • Make an impact in your first job by making sure your colleagues know who you are. "Never leave a meeting without ever having made a contribution. People won't know how to value you unless you've shown them that you are paying attention and have something to offer. Understand the goals of the institution and deliver on them, and show that you are there to help your employer rather than expecting it to be the other way around."
  • If you hate your first job, don't complain about it to anyone who could relay your complaints to your current employer or to another employer for whom you may want to work. "It's easiest to leave a place if your employer thinks you are terrific, so make the best of a bad situation until you can get out of it."
  • If you get a job offer that is appealing, make the move even if you weren't planning on it, as long as you like the people and it will grow your career. "A really bad reason to turn down an opportunity is because you think you don't know how to do the job. The really interesting jobs are always taken by people who don't know how to do them. People may have decided to hire you because you have good judgment, are organized, and can write or speak well, so don't be afraid to take that leap."
  • When you start a family, "remember it's the situation—not your partner—that is making life hard, and the situation is temporary. Figure out a way to create a community and a family beyond just your partner to help you raise your children."
  • Diversify—make sure your life is full of different things. "Don't put your sense of worth into any one thing. Everything will have a rocky period, and it's nice to have something else going on that's not quite so rocky. Then, when you get to the end, whether you are retiring in your 50s or your 90s, you'll be in a great position, because you won't be defined by your work."

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