My Path to Law

Choice and Fate: Why I'm glad my first job offer was rescinded

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Photo courtesy of Vanessa Williams

#MyPathToLaw is a guest column that celebrates the diversity of the legal profession through attorneys’ first-person stories detailing their unique and inspiring trajectories.

From the age of 10 until I was about 21, I dreamt of being a journalist. That was even with six months of law school under my belt. Attending law school was a way to avoid getting a job right after college. However, I didn’t think through the fact that I’d borrow more than three times the cost of my undergraduate studies to attend law school.

I also hadn’t given much thought to what it meant to be a law student. I did not find law school enjoyable. It was not a continuation of my undergraduate life at Alabama—working at The Crimson White, sorority meet-ups to watch A Different World and a 1992 national college football championship. The life of a William & Mary law student was all about laminated study aids, case outlines and seeing who could identify torts happening around us first.

I chose William & Mary Law School because of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law. I had an offer of a full scholarship to the University of Alabama School of Law and acceptances into law schools ranked higher than William & Mary. However, I based my decision on my desire to work in the media and what I thought was a need to be well-versed in constitutional law. (Spoiler alert: In 24 years of practicing law, I’ve had only one First Amendment case.) I didn’t have any lawyers in my family or in my circle, so I did not get any cautionary tales about law school rankings or the impact of law school debt. I was a first-generation college graduate, and I entered the law school admissions process without true goals for the type of work I would do upon graduation. Luckily, William & Mary Law School turned out to be a great choice for me.

The first semester of law school was challenging. My age was one of the many things that made me uneasy about my choice of the law. I was only 20 years old. I didn’t have work or many other life experiences. All of my classmates were older and seemed to have law school all figured out. Many of them worked before law school or had a parent or family friend who was a lawyer who could offer sound advice about thriving as a 1L. I wasn’t looking to thrive; I just wanted to survive.

By the end of the first semester, I was leaning toward not using my law degree. I thought I’d be a court beat reporter or television legal analyst. Then Maria Shriver visited our constitutional law class. I had the opportunity to speak with her afterward, and she offered me a compelling rationale for becoming a practicing attorney: After all the effort and hard work to finish law school, I should use my degree. It was then I decided to figure out what a career in law could offer me.

The summer between my first and second years of law school changed my life. I decided that I could suffer through law school since practicing law could give me the opportunity to change the world, one child at a time. I received a Public Service Fund grant from the law school, which allowed me to work for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. Along with a law student from the University of San Diego and a lawyer from the National Institute of Mental Health, I spent the summer working with the ACLU to improve the Alabama foster care system. This became a passion that I have continued to pursue over my career.

As I prepared for law school graduation in the spring of 1995, I was still without a job offer. My pursuit of public service as a full-time career was not materializing. The summer before my third year, I worked for a small law firm and the Federal Communications Commission. But because of U.S. government budget issues, a job at the FCC—my top choice—did not happen.

A ray of hope

I moved to Michigan to take the bar exam and began searching for law firm jobs. I finally got a job offer from a solo practitioner after the bar exam. Super-excited to just be among the employed, I prepared to go home to Alabama for a short visit. Two days before my flight, the job was rescinded. “What the what?” I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I wondered if maybe he had.

With no closure, I grabbed my suitcase and took a sad journey home to Alabama. Upon my return, I was granted an interview with the Detroit office of Plunkett Cooney, at the time an 80-plus-person law firm with offices in several states within the Midwest. I was a litigation associate for Plunkett Cooney over the next five years, doing insurance defense, municipal liability and employment discrimination litigation.

As luck would have it, we represented a corporate client in a case filed by the solo practitioner who rescinded my job offer. I was completing my first year at the firm and getting considerable litigation experience. I could not wait for the first motion hearing or deposition so I could let him know that I ended up with a great job.

When I finally had the opportunity to encounter the attorney, he approached me first, stating something like: “I am glad to see that you landed with Plunkett Cooney, it’s a really good firm. I withdrew the offer because you deserved a job like this and needed to wait for it to come along.”

I was humbled by his sincere remarks, just nodding and withholding the retort I’d practiced all night.

After starting a family, I left Plunkett Cooney to work as staff counsel for a property insurance carrier. While at Plunkett Cooney, I had been encouraged to take on leadership roles in local bar associations and then sought appointments in the ABA’s Tort Trial & Insurance Practice Section. I would eventually become the editor-in-chief of The Brief (employing my love for journalism) and chair of the ABA’s Commission on Youth at Risk, where I continued to advocate on behalf of foster kids. Shortly after the birth of my second child, I decided that I didn’t want to litigate any longer. I went back to school to get an MBA and ultimately landed a job as in-house corporate counsel.

I have been in-house at IHS Markit for more than 13 years, and I continue to advocate for at-risk youth, primarily through my involvement with Jack and Jill of America. I absolutely love what I do every day at work and in the community. As division general counsel for transportation, I collaborate with business leaders on legal and business issues. My responsibilities include legal and operational teams, which adds variety beyond commercial transactions. There are also those occasional times when we have issues before the FCC and life seems to have come full circle. It’s confirmation I made the right choice—and I am glad my first job offer was rescinded!

Vanessa Williams is vice president and division general counsel for transportation for IHS Markit and lives in Detroit.

This article ran in the February-March 2020 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Choice and Fate.”

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