As a teacher, you can make a lifelong impact on students while also deepening the skills that can set you up for success in a law career.
January 29, 2020
At Teach For America, we know it takes leaders working in all sectors to change the inequitable systems that prevent all children from receiving a high-quality education. After working as teachers, our corps members go on to many different careers, continuing to impact children’s lives from any number of industries. In this series, we explore the skills corps members gain from the classroom that help them succeed and deepen their impact as they pursue a variety of careers.
Being a Teach for America corps member is a life-changing experience that will help you develop skills for your future career. Many TFA alumni have said their experience in TFA provided them with skills and perspectives that proved highly useful in pursuing successful careers as lawyers. Here, we highlight the talents strengthened during your time as a TFA corps member that will prepare you for a career in law.
Perspective is a powerful teacher. As a corps member, you forge meaningful relationships with your students, and for many corps members, this experience becomes the catalyst for pursuing a career advocating for students and families as a lawyer.
You will learn firsthand what your students’ lives are like outside the classroom and what challenges they face. You’ll also deepen your perspective on the systemic issues that impact low-income communities, such as limited access to healthcare and transportation, and a lack of resources such as new textbooks or computers at schools. To be an effective advocate, you must understand all these systemic inequities.
Julie Baker (Rio Grande Valley ‘05), now a labor and employment associate, reflected on how this insight shaped her views on the inequities that exist in low-income communities: “Poverty looks very different in Texas than in Chicago or D.C.—it’s not as visible. I wouldn’t have understood that unless I worked there.”
Being a corps member can help future lawyers feel confident when standing up in front of a courtroom to present a case.
As a teacher, you’ll gain public speaking skills every day as you lead lessons and present new concepts to your students.
“I’m not sure what has felt weightier, clerking for a Supreme Court Justice or being responsible for the education of 12-year-olds. In both, you must break down complex topics into digestible formats,” said Caroline Van Zile (New York ’06), now an associate attorney in Washington, D.C. “In moot court at Yale, a professor asked me if I had been in debate. I hadn’t. My ability to parcel out information and speak directly and with poise was all from teaching.
Advocate for your students, from the classroom to the courtroom. Apply to Teach For America today.
“My ability to parcel out information and speak directly and with poise was all from teaching.”
Teachers and lawyers both must be detail oriented and work under budget and time constraints. Project management requires forethought as well as the ability to improvise if things do not go as planned.
“A teacher’s role is similar to a project manager with set goals and milestones,” said Peter Stephan (Greater Delta: Mississippi & Arkansas '06), associate counsel at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. “For example, at the Department of Justice, I oversaw implementation of statewide settlement agreements. My TFA experience has been invaluable in monitoring this type of large-scale systems reform.”
A career in law requires a person to have the ability to easily connect with others, regardless of their background. Likewise, building relationships with students and families is a fundamental part of your role as a teacher.
Christine Florick Nishimura (Los Angeles ’06) used this skill regularly in her position as a special education attorney when she met with teachers, principals, and special education directors. “On a day-to-day basis, I review student records. I think it helps that [school administrators] know I’ve been in their situation,” she said. “We can then work together to figure out what's going to be the best outcome or plan for a particular student.”
Teachers and lawyers have to contend with the unknown and unexpected. No two days are the same for a teacher; they become skilled at pivoting on the fly to respond to students’ needs.
Lawyers must remain updated on all current law changes and amendments and be aware of new precedents, while also thinking on their feet to counter their legal adversaries’ arguments.
“There's not much that can surprise you as an attorney,” said John Bales (Colorado ’10), now a corporate in-house attorney. “Being in the classroom, you prepare for the unknown constantly.”
Patience Under Pressure
The ability to take time to think about the best judgment call is an asset for teachers and lawyers. Corps members learn to keep calm and make quick decisions in the moment—a skill that will serve them well should they pursue careers in law.
Associate Attorney Thomas Garza (New York ‘09) compared the two professions aptly when he said, “Being a litigator requires you to think quickly and be cool under pressure. Teachers must do this every minute in the classroom. The stakes are different, but the core skills required are the same.”
Leadership and Responsibility
Teachers and lawyers must be able to engage, inspire, and lead others. Leading a classroom and leading a courtroom both involve tremendous responsibility and accountability for optimal outcomes.
Matthew Aiken (St. Louis ‘10) experienced this going from the high school classroom to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He says, “Professionally, my organizational skills, speaking ability, and leadership skills all grew exponentially. I led in a number of capacities that I never thought I would, specifically with my 9th graders and as a JV football head coach. The responsibility and ownership of your successes and failures is unparalleled in preparing you for any future leadership experience.”
Teaching grants you the skills that yield many benefits beyond these listed here. If you are considering a career in law, see more about the journey from TFA to law school or apply to the corps today.
It's not just law! Teach For America alumni are excelling in other industries as well. Learn more from our alums about how they took the skills they learned in the classroom and transformed them into successful careers in business, nonprofits, education, media, tech, policy, and medicine.
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