Working in Higher Education with a Law Degree Part II: An Interview with Amber Lammers, NDLS 2015

A few weeks ago, I got the chance to talk with Amber Lammers, Director of Investigations and Deputy Title IX Coordinator, in the University of Missouri’s Office for Civil Rights & Title IX. Amber graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 2015 and has worked at Mizzou ever since, building a successful career in Title IX investigations work. We had a great discussion about her career path, decision to pursue a JD preferred position in higher education, and the things she has learned along the way.

KMB: Tell me about life before law school.

AL: I went to Mizzou for undergrad, from 2008-2012. I worked as an RA while there, a position we called “community adviser” during my 2nd and 3rd year. I was involved with other things on campus too such as volunteering in the women’s center and a few other organizations. My primary involvement in college was in residential life.

KMB: Did you continue to work in student affairs during law school? 

AL: Yes. At Notre Dame, I worked as an Assistant Rector my 3L year. The AR position wasn’t a position we have at Mizzou and it was a welcome challenge because it was more focusing on supervising and helping to make decisions, which I enjoyed.

KMB: Did you come to law school thinking you wanted to pursue a career in student affairs?

AL: No. I came to law school leaning towards a career in criminal law, probably prosecution. I had interned at a public defender’s office in undergraduate, which sparked my interest in criminal law.

KMB: What kind of internships did you pursue in law school?

AL: So in law school, I was all over the place with internships. I interned at the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s office and externed at Notre Dame’s Office of Institutional Equity during the school year. I split my 1L summer between a legal aid organization in St. Louis that worked with parents in child abuse and neglect cases and a Judge in St. Louis.

I worked at a mid-sized (30 attorney) firm in St. Louis my 2L summer and it wasn’t really my jam.  If I was going to work for a firm, I would work there. I liked the work and really liked the people but my summer, the firm gave offers to their Kansas City summer associates but several summer associates in other offices, including myself, didn’t get offers because of logistical restraints. Had I received an offer, I would have gone there at least for a few years. It would have been hard to turn down, especially because of the money that would have come with it. I now see the fact they were unable to give me an offer as a divine sign that a firm is not where I was supposed to be.

KMB: So how did your job search progress during your 3L year?

AL: I didn’t learn that the firm was going to be unable to give me an offer until September or October of my 3L year. After that, I thought about my options. I started focusing on higher education jobs. I had my eyes out and saw what experiences people in higher education positions had. I took education law classes, I talked to other people on campus who had law degrees and built a career in a non-traditional route, either in student affairs or residential life. By the end of law school, I was pretty set on combining my interests in higher education and law.

It is way too early to be applying to higher education positions in the fall so it wasn’t until spring that I was actively applying. By spring of 3L, I was only applying to higher education jobs and wasn’t even looking for a job at a law firm anymore. I probably applied for 10-15 higher education jobs in my spring semester.

KMB: What do you mean that fall is too early to apply for higher education positions? Can you tell me more about the timeline?

AL:  The issue I ran into initially was that I was applying too early when I was applying in the fall. I wasn’t going to graduate until May and a lot of those positions hire in weeks or months. When a college posts a position, they are typically looking to have someone start as soon as possible rather than waiting for them to finish law school so I had to be patient and really send out a lot of applications towards the end of the semester. My main focus was on applying for student conduct and Title IX positions.

KMB: Getting into the nitty gritty of your application to Mizzou, did you know someone at Mizzou from your time there who was able to advocate for you as a candidate for the position or did you just apply and then hear back from your online application?

AL: I had networked in the higher education field before applying for jobs. I had met with a couple of people at Notre Dame with legal training who were working in student affairs positions and they gave me advice and connections. At Mizzou, I met with the ADA compliance person so she knew me when I applied. As soon as I started to really know I wanted a higher ed position, I met with people with legal training who had taken those less traditional routes and built a career in higher education. They really helped educate me on what some of the job options in higher education were. It’s a small world in higher education so knowing people helps.

I applied online for the Mizzou position and interviewed over the summer after graduating from law school. I started the position on August 10th.

KMB: Did you take the bar? 

AL: I did take and pass the bar and my position is JD strongly preferred. Recently, 4/5 of the investigators at Mizzou were attorneys and the other one had a master’s degree in higher education.

KMB: What is your position at Mizzou?

AL: I started at Mizzou as an investigator. I worked in the investigator role for two years and then in September 2017, the Director of Investigations left so I became the interim Director of Investigations, and I was promoted to be the permanent Director of Investigations on February 5.

KMB: What kind of work does your office do at Mizzou?

We respond to reports of harassment and discrimination based on the 13 protected classes. (The 13 protected classes include things such as age, race, color, national origin, veteran status, genetic information, religion, and disability, in addition to sex discrimination which includes sex, gender, pregnancy, gender expression, gender identity, and sexual orientation.) Investigators are the primary contacts for those reports and they respond to them. As the Director of Investigations, I help investigators figure out the investigative plan. There are a lot of ways it can go. It can be a need for accommodations, mediation, training, or education. Many investigations are resolved through those means. For a percentage of investigations, a complaint is filed and then there is a full investigation. That usually occurs when there are multiple reports about one person.

KMB: I have heard that Title IX has really grown in universities so offices are growing and expanding. Have you seen that at Mizzou?

AL: Yes.  Things have shifted in the office and in the campus community generally. The office is relatively new and was not in existence when I was an undergrad. A lot was going on so our office grew. We extended from just handling Title IX cases to handling all 13 protected classes at Mizzou. Our name change from the Title IX Office to the Office for Civil Rights & Title IX was made to reflect our growth

KMB: As Director of Investigations, how many people do you manage?

AL: I have five direct reports. A couple left recently so we’re about to hire for that position. I will interview candidates for our two open Equity Consultant/Investigator positions.

KMB: What will you look for when interviewing candidates for the new position?

AL: I would like to hire someone with either a legal or higher ed background, or both. I am not a super stickler on having experience as an investigator at another institution before coming to work at Mizzou. I am open to taking someone out of law school or someone with less than a year of experience. The willingness to learn is more important. This job is different at every school. You’re not applying the law; you’re applying the policies of that specific school. Passion for this type of work is more important than having tons of direct full-time investigation experience. Those are skills that can be learned. Drive and passion can’t be. It’s hard work. People can really be difficult and you work with faculty, students, staff, and all different kinds of people. It takes a special person to do that.

KMB: What kind of experience is best for someone looking for a job in higher education?

AL: A variety of backgrounds can land you in this spot. A lot of job postings say they want one year of experience but someone has to give you that year and I am sensitive to that, which is why I am open to hiring someone with no experience. After all, Mizzou took a chance on me right out of law school and I don’t think age or experience has as direct of an impact on someone’s ability to do the job.

KMB: What are your hopes for your future as you advance in your career?

AL: Just this week, I reached my goal of becoming the permanent Director of Investigations at Mizzou. In terms of longer term, higher ed is different from other careers. There is not a clear ladder to the top. You have to zig zag to the top and the timing has to be right. I thought I might want to be an upper level administrator but now I am not sure. Maybe I will pursue roles in middle level administration, the inclusion and diversity division, or residential life. I don’t stress about what my path will look like because it is hard to predict. I will keep my eye out.

KMB: How do you manage finances and paying back loans?

AL: I owe a ton of money. I did not get good scholarship assistance. I don’t let that deter me because of ten-year public interest loan forgiveness. I don’t think about it or struggle with it. I can do income based repayment programs so I make my payments every month and at the very least, there is forgiveness on income based payments after 20 years.

KMB: Did you hesitate to take a job in higher education because of loans and concerns over finances?

AL: Honestly, for all of the career paths I was interested in, money would be an issue. Government jobs don’t pay a huge salary either. My advice to students worried about loans is that if you do end up going in the more public service or higher education route, there are loan programs to help you. Everyone has that concern over money and loans.

KMB: Do you have any advice for law students?

AL: Don’t freak out if your grades aren’t perfect. There are more important things like work/life balance. It’s not life or death. You’ll find where you belong. Not everyone can finish at the top of the class. Are grades worth every minute of your life stressing about? No. You have to be more well-rounded than that. Don’t get wrapped up in numbers and what other people are doing.

All of my good friends and friend group in law school went to firms except one went to JAG. They were all on law review and I wasn’t. It’s easy to get tripped up in this idea that you have to be at the top or bust. I was very average, like median. It’s not all or nothing. People should not be deterred from what they want to do and don’t give into what everyone else is doing.

There a lot of different things attorneys can do and it can get easy to get sucked into this idea that there is one thing everyone is supposed to do. That’s not true. There are places for everybody. Stick to what feels right. You can always switch later.

Amber is happy to speak to law students interested in learning more about careers in higher education. If you want to get connected, reach out to me and I will share her contact information.  Also, the CDO is here to help you if you’re interested in a higher education career path. Schedule an appointment with a counselor to talk through this path.

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