Peter Menell and Andrea Roth | Different paths to an academic career

BCLT Careers in Tech podcast

How can you best preserve the option of pursuing an academic career? What courses and jobs should students be thinking about? 


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Episode Transcript


Wayne Stacy, Peter Menell, Andrea Roth


Wayne Stacy 0:00
Welcome, everyone to the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology’s Careers in Tech podcast. I’m your host, Wayne Stacy, the Executive Director for BCLT. Today, we’re going to be able to talk about academic careers, and what you need to do to at least prepare for getting to an academic career at some point. We have two of the leading professors in the country with us today and two of the BCLT faculty co-directors, Andrea Roth, and Peter Menell. Thank you both for joining us.

Andrea Roth 0:31
Thanks for having us.

Wayne Stacy 0:32
First thing I wanted to talk to you about is really the full scope of your work. When people hear “professor” they think “teacher”, and there’s so much more to what you do then get up in the morning and teach a class. I know that’s an important piece of what you do. But there’s a whole lot more. So can you let people know kind of the full scope of your work?

Peter Menell 0:51
My career, I think is mostly about public policy that entails doing research, working with legislative and administrative agencies, and trying to prepare students who are going to go out in the world and work and hopefully promote better public policies. That was my goal. I never went to law school to be a lawyer, I was doing a multidisciplinary academic preparation. It’s only after I became a professor that I got involved in consulting and expert work. And that exposed me a lot more to what lawyers do. I did clerk, which gave me a very good bird’s eye view. But my real focus is trying to improve public policy.

Andrea Roth 1:37
And I would say my focus is, you know, I was a public defender for many years before going into academia. I’m not a practicing attorney with clients anymore. But I’m hoping to improve outcomes in the criminal system, especially as technology changes it every day. And so to answer your question directly, what do I do all day. And it’s not just teaching, but it’s consulting with lawyers on the ground and learning what’s going on on the ground in real courtrooms. It’s doing research, including historical research on how technological advances have been dealt with in the past by the legal system and learning from the lessons of the past. It’s service, I serve on a legal task group of the National Institute of Standards and Technologies, organization of scientific area committees. So I actually work with scientists on the ground, to think of legal issues that are going to come up and how labs should be doing forensic work on the front end. Then everything in between. Service for the University Press inquiries, mentoring students who are interested in this work. It turns out to be a lot more than just prepping for class.

Wayne Stacy 2:50
The reason I was excited to have the two of you is because your careers to the academic or your past the academic world are very different. You know, Peter was dedicated to that path from day one. And Andrea, you went through a career and then came to the academic world. And both of them have been very, very successful. So I guess I would start that discussion for people that are thinking they might want to be a professor, or move into the academic world, is one path better than the other?

Peter Menell 3:21
I will say that, although I would have answered the question, what do you want to be doing 30 years later, when I was in law school to say that I would be sitting here at a university doing the kind of work I do, it’s been an exciting path. And I’m doing things that I couldn’t have imagined. And I think anyone who’s beginning a career in law and trying to navigate how the law is going to evolve, and being an academic or being a practitioner, pursuing a judicial career, it’s important to not be wedded, and to be very aware of the changing environment. And I think Andrea and I share that in that we both are working on things that are driven by technology. I was not focused on law in technology. I was interested in technology, but more in the environmental area when I was young. Computers were an intense interest and hobby, but the world gave me opportunities, and I seized on those and that’s how I got to the path that I’m on. It’s very important to follow the advice of Wayne Gretzky. When asked why he was the greatest hockey player in history, he said it’s not because I’m the strongest or biggest or fastest. It’s because good players play where the puck is, great players play where it’s going. And I think that’s just an important life lesson that things are changing. We live and they’re changing at an increasing rate. So the academic path is a great path for people who are interested in change and want to evolve, but you can’t go in there and say I want to be a constitutional law professor and not be sensitive to the fact that it’s not going to be like what you studied. So I was very interested in software before that was a hot area. But when students asked me whether they should follow my path, I say no. Software is pretty well developed. There are still interesting questions. But we’re on the cusp of all these extraordinary new things. And so I just think having an open mind is perhaps the most important advice to anyone who’s pursuing careers, whether they’re going to go into academia or practice.

Andrea Roth 5:41
I would add that it’s academia, especially legal academia, since we’re a professional school is a big tent. We need theorists, we need former practitioners, we need people who knew they wanted to be a law professor from the time they were born to people who didn’t realize this was their calling until they saw how these issues played out and were curious and wanted to research them and write about them in ways that weren’t necessarily client driven. So I would say, I, hopefully, am proof that you can, if you already know you are thinking about legal academia, I’m proof that you can go be a lawyer for many years and learn from that experience, and come back and there will be a place for you. And also that if you don’t realize it right now that keep it in the back of your mind. And when you go into practice, and you see how things are going and see where things are headed. And you feel like you have something to contribute, and that curiosity, go for it. Don’t be deterred. I guess the other thing I would add is, you know, what can you do now. I think it’s also just it’s hard to say this to law students, because I know they feel so busy. But you’ve got time now that you won’t have when you’re a lawyer to just read and know what’s been written about in your area and see where the gaps are, and see where the rocks are that haven’t been turned over yet. Find a spark, find what interests you and start turning rocks over. If you don’t find that fun, then this is the wrong profession for you. So go forth and turn rocks over.

Peter Menell 7:13
One big difference between what we do and what many of our students will do is that we don’t zealously represent other people or organizations. We are our own client, in that sense, that I think, is a really powerful, although somewhat less remunerative approach to a career. I everyday wake up excited about what I’m going to do, I don’t worry that some client is going to drop some, some set of facts or some position that goes against my moral and my values. In that sense, and that’s why I say I was never intending to practice law. Now, I’ve since been involved in some litigation as an expert or consultant, but I got to choose those projects. I just think it’s kind of a personality issue to some extent. If you enjoy debating, if you want to be an advocate, and you’re not as focused on the bigger sort of social picture, then I think there are a lot of law firms that are happy to have you. In fact, they would like you to be agnostic and willing to take either side. And so that’s an important question. And law school often doesn’t pose that question to you. I respect what lawyers and my students do. But I also recognize that that wouldn’t have worked for me.

Wayne Stacy 8:30
Andrea, your entire career has been dedicated to public service in one form or the other. Is there a path or is it precluded? If you’ve gone into big law? And I think what Peter wanted to say, but was kind enough not to sold your soul for the billable hour? Is there a path out of that back to the academic world?

Andrea Roth 8:52
I never worked in big law, I’ve never worked in a law firm. So I can only speak to how one might go from big law to the public interest world or from big law to academia or from public interest to academia. But it’s definitely the case that if you’re working in big law, you’re working on issues that legal academics write about, whether it’s transactional work or litigation. You also might be working on pro bono projects that deal with very complex criminal law issues that are not the bread and butter of your practice. Keep the pro bono projects alive. But yeah, there are numerous academics whose practice experience came from, quote, big law. And in fact, most of the academics in criminal law whose expertise is in corporate criminal law or white collar crime, came either from big law or from the US Attorney’s office, or both, because there’s generally a revolving door there So, you know, there are some things that are easier to learn about and be exposed to through big law. Some federal public defender’s offices actually look for people with big law experience, who have experience in financial crimes and document review. So the bigger picture is, wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, know why you’re doing it. It may be for the money and may be for the experience, it may be because you just really love what you’re doing. But know why you’re there and think about where you want to be in five years,

Wayne Stacy 10:33
You make a really interesting point about the pro bono opportunities. Most law firms are very supportive, donating hours and time to pro bono projects. And those are a great place to explore the other areas of law that maybe you don’t get to see in the the day to day hourly billed practice that you’re in. So it’s important to try to explore those opportunities and use that time.

Andrea Roth 10:57
That’s right. And you know, if you know you’re going into big law, and you imagine that in a few years, you might want to take another path, I think you can also set that up during law school through externships. At nonprofits or government organizations, through clinics, and learning from clinicians what that work is, from pursuing a certificate, I know we have something called a social justice certificate, which to me is just every course in the building as a social justice course. But you know, there are ways to signal to future employers that this was something that has interested you from the start.

Wayne Stacy 11:38
Well, Peter, that’ll leave you with the last question then, kind of following and building on that, what would you recommend students start thinking about from the 1L period on, if they’re even contemplating an academic path.

Peter Menell 11:53
we are in the academy, multi disciplinary. Law is not a substantive framework in the way that social science and history and philosophy are. Bringing knowledge into law is, I think, critical to dealing with the challenges that the legal system is trying to resolve and public policy. So that was something that I started early on. I was pursuing a PhD in conjunction with my law degree. And if you look at the Berkeley faculty, we are probably the most interdisciplinary faculty in the United States, certainly one of the top few. It’s partly because of the GSP program. But it’s partly because we’ve always valued interdisciplinary quality of public policy that we can’t improve outcomes unless we understand models, and were able to study the real world. You don’t have to do a PhD. In fact, PhD may be overkill, but you should be trying to, if you’re doing business law, for example, you should be interested in economics, accounting. You’re not going to excel in those fields, even as a lawyer, without that kind of interdisciplinary. Psychology is an extremely important social science for a lot of things that we do in law. So that for me is just part of bringing the full range of abilities into legal analysis and public policy work. I recommend doing a wide variety of things. And as I said at the outset, having an open mind that things are evolving very quickly. We thought, five years ago, the world was doing okay. And then we hit this completely new world in which social media, which we thought was good, was changing our whole political system. That’s going to be with us, I go back 20 years prior to that we had Napster. And that completely changed the copyright world. If I go back before that, we had software. So we’re constantly hitting these new challenges, often driven by technology. And that’s why I think all of our students should be learning about law and technology. I’ll note that when I was in law school, intellectual property was a backwater. The major law schools weren’t doing very much at all. And that’s what enabled our law school to be a leader in this field is that we decided that this was going to be worth investment. And we made those investments and we’re reaping those investments. There are going to be other investments that you can make now. So I ask students when they come to me to talk about careers to talk about academic work, I say, you know, where do you think the puck is going? How are you going to build a career that will make you happy and contribute? And that’s, I think, a great gray area. I’ll give one example and this is close to home. My spouse is a practitioner. She also teaches a course at the law school. She’s also the author of a leading treatise. What does she study? Well, she works in the area of whistleblower law. Well, whistleblowers are incredibly important. And this is just an exciting area. Her work is incredibly interesting. She doesn’t have the problem of working for clients she doesn’t want to work for. Her firm is able to select the cases. And every day, she feels like she’s contributing to society. And this is an area that didn’t exist when we were in law school. This is an area that is now at the center of so much. And I just think, you know, the work that Andrea is doing, you know, being able to understand how AI and technologies can be used in the criminal justice system. I mean, that’s a growth industry. People should be thinking, where are those growth industries.

Andrea Roth 15:46
The fact that the co-directors of the Law and Technology Center include experts in labor law and admin law and criminal justice shows what Peter is talking about that every area of law is law and technology, and it’s just a matter of whether you are recognizing it as such, and in thinking about the implications of technology for your field.

Wayne Stacy 16:13
Out of the many takeaways, the two I’ll highlight for the conclusion is the one about take advantage of the robust course catalog in the skills classes, the clinics, those types of things. Look for that cross disciplinary education to prepare you for Peter’s advice, you know, play where the puck is going, which applies not only in the academic world, but I can say firsthand it applies to big law and and how partners develop over a 30 year career. So a lot of wisdom there. So thank you both for your time.

Andrea Roth 16:48
Thank you so much.

Peter Menell 16:49
Thank you Wayne.