Getting to Know Law School Staff: An Interview with Christine Holst

By now, hopefully you have had the chance to read at least one of my lawyer stories series of blog posts where I interview Notre Dame lawyers and ask them questions about their career path, what their day to day life is like, and advice they have for law students. This blog post is another iteration of my lawyer stories series but it is the third in my series of interviews with your very own Notre Dame Law School staff. Christine is the Student Services Manager and we were lucky to have her as a member of the CDO before that.

Here is my interview with the CDO’s Christine Holst:

KMB: What made you want to go to law school?

CH: I earned a political science degree in undergrad and knew I didn’t want to do anything politics related. I had taken a constitutional law class in undergrad I really liked so law school seemed like a natural next step.

I didn’t do a lot of critical thinking before making a decision to go to law school. I was a strong student and it was a way to keep going to school and not deal with the job market yet.  This is not an approach I advocate! Ultimately, it ended up working out for me, but I would recommend students not commit to law school unless they know they want to be lawyers.  I liked law school, but didn’t end up liking the practice of law very much and may have made a different decision for my next step after undergrad if I had spent more time considering my options.

KMB: Tell me about your law school experience.

CH: I went to the University of Illinois for law school. I didn’t come into law school knowing what I wanted to do, so I took classes in lots of different areas.  But I didn’t do an externship or clinic and that’s one thing I regret — not doing more practical, hands on things.  I really liked the “school” part of law school.

KMB: You said you liked the school part of law school. What part of law school did you not like?

CH: I don’t know that there was anything specific to law school that I disliked.  But I didn’t do a good job of taking advantage of all of the opportunities I could have had to learn more about the actual practice of law.  I was a strong student and was good at classes and the academic work of law school, but I didn’t spend much time doing experiential learning, pro bono, or getting involved with student organizations.

I also went straight through from undergrad and had a lot of growing up to do.  I’m from western Michigan and went to undergrad in the same city where I grew up, so law school was the first time I was away from home and away from my comfort zone.

Looking back, I had an overall positive experience in law school. I made some good friends that I still stay in touch with and was successful academically.  But I think I would have gotten more out of the experience if I had been more mature and deliberate in my choices, both academic and extracurricular.

KMB: What did you do your 1L summer?
CH: I didn’t have a job lined up until very late in the year because of a family situation.  I lost my sister to cancer in March of my 1L year and that meant I hadn’t spent any time looking for jobs. I give all the credit to Illinois’ career office — I walked into their office a week before exams and said I needed a summer job. I don’t think I even had an appointment. During my meeting, the counselor I spoke to looked up Illinois alumni judges in Grand Rapids, picked up the phone while I was sitting there and starting calling judges’ chambers.  t must have been late afternoon in Champaign and after business hours in Grand Rapids because of the Central/Eastern time difference, because I remember one judge answered his own phone when we called because his secretary had already gone home! Anyway, those efforts paid off, because by the time I left the career office, I had an offer to work for a family court judge on the Kent County Circuit Court in Grand Rapids. I didn’t even have to submit a resume or interview.

Obviously, that’s not a typical process for 1L summer jobs, and I fully recognize now how fortunate I was to have the support of the career office and the Illinois alumni network.  My 1L job search experience is also something that I remember when working with Notre Dame students now.  It’s never too late to find a 1L summer job and you might be surprised who is willing to go above and beyond to help you!

The actual job itself was a very interesting experience. Family law wasn’t something I wanted to do long-term but I got to sit in on other trials in the court and do some interesting research for the judge. My judge also made it a point to engage law student interns in analyzing cases and I got to have one-on-one conversations with the judge where she asked my opinion and wanted to know what I thought. I was also back home with my family for the summer, which was important for me after our loss that year.

KMB: What did you do 2L summer?

CH: I worked for Barnes & Thornburg in Grand Rapids, which ultimately ended up being my post-graduate job. I got my job through the on campus recruiting process at Illinois.  B&T really only had summer programs in their Chicago and Indianapolis offices and sent attorneys from those offices to interview students. But I knew they had a Grand Rapids office, so I made a point in my interview to express interest in that office. The interviewer took note of that, passed on my information, and I got call from the hiring partner in Grand Rapids. So I didn’t do a callback with people who came down to interview at my law school. Being proactive about expressing that interest in Grand Rapids got me to an opportunity I would not have had otherwise.

KMB. Can you tell me more about your OCI experience?

CH: I was a strong student so I got quite a few callbacks. I focused my applications on Grand Rapids but I did apply to Chicago firms too. I did a couple callbacks with law firms in Chicago but got no offers, probably because they could tell I didn’t really want to be in Chicago. A couple of attorneys tried to sell me on Chicago, saying you want to start in a bigger legal market and you can make your move in the future but I just wanted to be in Grand Rapids so I was unable to convince them I was serious about Chicago. In Grand Rapids, I got 4 callbacks and I think I ended up getting offers from all of them.

KMB: Given your tremendous OCI success, I want to ask: what is your OCI advice?

CH: My advice now is different than my approach was then. This advice applies to any employment situation: know what you’re looking for. I knew I wanted to be in Grand Rapids but I was less sure about what kind of law I wanted to practice. I didn’t really fully educate myself about what a job in a large law firm would look like so I wasn’t as prepared for the demanding nature of that job.

If I had done research for alternative career paths, I may have had an interest in those areas. OCI is the easy way to get a job, especially when you have the grades. Students need to know what they’re interested in.  Don’t make the same mistakes I did. You don’t have to send applications to Chicago just because. If you’re interested, apply but don’t feel either (1) like you have to participate in the OCI process as a whole or (2) send in applications to certain firm just because everyone says it’s a good idea. Think about whether you actually want to work for this employer. Have good responses for questions such as why you are interested in Chicago (or whatever city you’re applying to). I couldn’t sell why I wanted to be in Chicago.

KMB: When you say you didn’t sell why you wanted to be in Chicago, what do you mean? What was your answer to the question “why do you want to be in Chicago?”?

CH: I said long-term I want to be in Grand Rapids but I think it could be interesting to be in a larger legal market at first. You can’t do that. You have to be interested in that city.  Even though lots of attorneys start in a larger market and then make a move to a smaller market like Grand Rapids, firms don’t want to hear that is your plan.  I’m sure I was perceived as not a good investment, since I wasn’t dedicated to staying in Chicago

KMB: What was your summer at Barnes & Thornburg like?

CH: I was 1 of 2 summer associates. I worked in the litigation group. The Grand Rapids office of B&T was small, 20-25 attorneys. The office was partner heavy so there were not a lot of younger associates, which benefited me as summer associate. It meant that I got to do projects that would have gone to younger associates at bigger offices.

Throughout the summer, I assisted the litigation group with research, memos, briefs, discovery, and got to sit in on a couple of depositions and hearings. Because there were only two summer associates, there wasn’t an established program with official events, so the summer was more focused on the work. The firm did a good job of trying to get me projects in different areas so I got to work with several different attorneys in bankruptcy, labor and employment, etc.

I remember it was my first experience of being in a real job, in an office environment where I had to wear business attire and be a professional. Because it was my first professional level job, that came with a steep learning curve. I had to learn to work with a secretary, how to prioritize projects and manage my time, and do things like record my time.  I didn’t know anything about a lot of administrative things that you don’t think about but that are key pieces of the practice of law in a law firm.  Like how things are billed to clients, including legal research charges for using programs like Westlaw and Lexis.  There are many things that are not explicitly spelled out that you have to pick up.

For example, there was one situation where I needed copies made and sheepishly said to my secretary “where can I copy this?” and she gave me a crazy look like I can do it for you.  It was her job to do things like that and I should not have been spending my time making copies.  Those are the types of things I had to learn!

I also remember getting asked by my secretary about whether I did a proof of service for a litigation filing and having no idea what she was talking about. It was just one of those procedure things you aren’t taught in law school (especially when you don’t do practical classes like externships and clinics). Fortunately, B&T had very supportive staff and the secretaries really helped me out. My secretary would tease me later when I was an attorney there about how young and green I was.

KMB: What was legal practice like and how long did you work for Barnes & Thornburg?

CH: I worked at Barnes & Thornburg for 5 years. I graduated in 2010, which was one of the worst years for legal jobs during the recession, so I had lots of friends who didn’t have jobs, even strong students. I felt very fortunate to be in a law firm. The firms were still adjusting to the needs of legal practice after the recession.

I had worked mostly with the litigation group as a summer associate but somewhat unexpectedly ended up with the labor and employment group in practice.  After I graduated, I went to B&T’s summer picnic right before the bar exam. At the picnic, the head of the labor and employment group asked how I felt about that practice area. They had gotten 8-10 new cases from a big client that summer and had only one associate who was totally overwhelmed. I had expected to join the litigation group, but told the partner I was definitely happy to help with whatever they needed.  I had worked with some of the L&E attorneys during my 2L summer and enjoyed the projects I worked on.  So, I initially split my time at the firm between litigation and labor and employment and then ended up being an official part of the labor and employment team shortly after starting. Because of the climate with the recession, I was ready to do whatever the firm needed.

KMB: How was firm life different in the recession era?

CH: I can remember working with one of the associates that graduated 5-6 years ahead of me and she talked about how the firm environment was different before the recession. Her first year with a large firm in Chicago, she got a big raise. They were trying to keep people happy. My first year, they increased billable hours.  That was the difference.  I was just happy to have a job in Grand Rapids.  And I was very fortunate that I ended up working for attorneys who were great mentors and gave me great projects that let me continue to develop as a lawyer.

KMB: Tell me about practicing law at a large law firm. 

CH: My first year, I worked mostly on the employment discrimination side of things. I had taken a few employment classes but did not have a strong background in it. In that first year, there was lots of learning the law. I worked mostly with partners, which was nice as a first year associate. They got me direct client contact. I completed basic projects that you do as young associate like employee handbook reviews and basic discovery.

Eventually, I found a niche in the traditional labor side of law practice, dealing a lot with unions. We represented management in unfair labor practice charges against the NLRB, engaged in contract negotiations, and handled arbitrations. A couple partners I worked with had a strong background in that area and spent time teaching me the law and giving me work in that practice area. There was a strong union presence in Michigan so there was plenty of work. I ended up being the right-hand person to one partner and we worked as a team to handle work from local healthcare and manufacturing clients.

KMB: Why did you leave the firm?

CH: I ended up in a large law firm in the first place by default. It was the simplest way to get a job for me. I went through OCI, got the offer, and it paid well so I took it. I never loved the lifestyle and it ultimately became that I didn’t like the work enough to make it worth the lifestyle sacrifices.

As far as long-term, I was not good at and had no interest in client development and building a book of business. B&T had resources to help you to do that but I didn’t take advantage of those.

After a few years, I was looking to make a move. I stepped into a non-partner-track staff attorney position first, with more flexibility, lower billable hour requirement, and less business development expectations. Even there, I was not happy in the long-term and in that role, there was not a lot of growth potential.

I had always liked school so I looked at academia. I considered getting a PhD and getting into teaching because I was very interested in working with students. But that job market is impossible and I was more interested in teaching rather than scholarship, so I was not sure that was the right move. The year before I took this position, I actually looked into PhD programs at here at Notre Dame, but hadn’t committed to anything yet.  I was exploring options and I kept my eye on job postings, networked with people in Grand Rapids outside of law firms, and met with someone leaving another big firm in Grand Rapids to go work as a clinical professor.

Out of the blue, I saw a posting for a career development position at a different law school, applied for that, and that got me interested CDO positions. I found the posting here at Notre Dame and applied. I didn’t go to Notre Dame and had no ties here but was very interested in Notre Dame because it was still in the geographic region I wanted to be in and it was a chance to work with law students at a prestigious law school. Also, I came from a Christian background and went to a faith-based college for undergrad so I identified with the University’s Catholic mission.

KMB: How has your lifestyle changed now that you are no longer working for a firm?

CH: I don’t have to think in six minute segments anymore!  My firm, like most firms, billed in tenths of the hour, so it became second-nature to think about how much time I spent on tasks in that way.  Once I came to Notre Dame and didn’t have to deal with billable hours, I felt like I could actually focus on what I was doing and not have the additional stress of needing to meet hours requirements. It was an immediately noticeable difference.

In this role, I get to work with students and I feel like I get to use some of my strengths like getting to provide advice in a way that I think I didn’t always get to do in practice. In terms of lifestyle, leaving the law firm came with financial consequences. I make less now but I have a lot more flexibility with taking time off. I work 40 hrs each week rather than 55-60. I am healthier. I left the law firm and lost 70 pounds because I had the time to take care of myself. I take University yoga classes and run now.

KMB: How is paying off loans going?

CH:  I was fortunate to have a full tuition scholarship to law school, which is much of reason why I chose to go to Illinois. I had also gotten into higher ranked schools like Michigan and Virginia, but I felt like it was financially smarter to go where I had a full ride. I wanted to minimize my loans. I did take out loans for living expenses but ended up with a small amount compared to most law students, maybe $35,000. Once I finished law school, it was a priority for me to get that paid off. I had no additional lifestyle enhancements as an associate. I used my law firm money to pay off my law school loans. I ended up paying off my loans and saving for enough for a down payment on a house in Grand Rapids within about two years of graduating.

KMB: Do you have a piece of advice you would like to give to law students?

CH: The most important thing is remember it’s your life and your decisions. Go after what you want and not the easy way or what you think you should be doing. I took the easy way. I eventually got to a place where I feel fulfilled but it took me five years to get there. I would have had earlier opportunities to take non law firm positions if I had been more proactive in exploring those options and not so focused on doing the expected thing or natural thing.

KMB: Do you think the law school culture makes students think they have to go a certain way?

CH: Yes. As a law student, I was a strong student and on law review so I felt like the expectation was of course I would take a large law firm job. For some reason, I would have felt like I was failing if I had pivoted from that. But I was wrong. I want Notre Dame students to know that you’re not doing anything wrong if you come here and decide that’s not a path you want to take and if you decide to work somewhere other than a law firm, you may be happier and healthier.

KMB: What else do you want students to know about you?

CH: I took a stab at clerkships my 3L year. At that time, the clerkship hiring guidelines were in place and you couldn’t apply for federal clerkships until your third year. I only applied to Michigan federal judges. I got a couple of interviews and it was again a matter of me not being fully prepared for those interviews. I remember one interview where I got asked about my strengths and weaknesses and I remember answering the question and having the judge give me a weird look indicating it was a bad answer. If I had thought more about what I was doing and why, I may have secured more of those opportunities. That was a good lesson to learn.

I’m still a Michigander at heart so anyone from Michigan should come talk to me!

KMB: What are some of your hobbies?

CH: Since I started at Notre Dame, I am more focused on physical health so I’m in a running group for new runners. I do yoga here on campus. I like baseball and I am a big Detroit Tigers fan. I like being outside.

If you don’t know Christine, go in and say hi. She would love to chat with you about Grand Rapids, law careers, and the Detroit Tigers.

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