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A Conversation with Debbie Atlas— PDC Board Member, Career Services Director, and Rabid Michigan Wolverines Fan

In this PD Profile, we talk with Debbie Atlas – the Director of the Career Services Office at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and a board member of the PDC – who shares her views on working with law students, the role of law firms, and the future of the PD industry.

Hi Debbie. Thanks for talking to us about your perspectives on PD. To start, why don’t you tell us a fun fact about yourself.

My dream job is to be a cookie decorator.

You’re a baker? That must make you very popular. Turning our attention to your real job, what was your path into professional development like?

Like everything else – filled with happy accidents! After finishing law school, I joined Goodwin Procter in Washington, DC. While I never imagined or wanted to be a law firm partner, I enjoyed my time practicing but felt lonely and knew I would never be as excited about being a lawyer as the partners with whom I was working. When I joined the firm, it had just gone through a merger bringing together Shea & Gardner in DC and Goodwin Procter, a Boston-based firm. Goodwin had an already-developed professional development structure and wanted to bring it to the DC office. I felt uniquely qualified to help this happen because I had built significant trust with the partners in the DC office and felt the skills required for a PD position fit my education and my personality perfectly. So, I asked if I could have the job...and voila!

That does sound happy indeed. Now that you’ve transitioned to the academic arena as the Director of Career Services at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, do you find that PD at a law school is similar to PD in a law firm?

When I transitioned to the law school setting, I naively thought things wouldn’t be that different. Ha! I simply do not have the same resources – duh! – and that means I create a lot of programming and deliver it myself. Well, who wants to listen to the same person over and over and over again when there are so many incredibly dynamic coaches, trainers, and speakers in our profession who can bring an even deeper and wider perspective than I can? It is probably the thing that makes me saddest for my students. I want to be able to give them more than I can.

Joining the IU community must’ve been interesting for someone who graduated from the University of Michigan Law School. As a former Michigan Wolverine and a current Hoosier, who do you root for when Indiana meets Michigan in the Big Ten? Do you hide your Michigan affiliation from your students?

I absolutely do not hide my Michigan pride nor do I allow my Ohio State students forget it! I am a dyed-in-blue Wolverine and cheer unabashedly for them. When my daughter attended a university-run preschool and came home singing the IU fight song at age 4, I sent her back the next day prepared and ready to teach her classmates “Hail to the Victors.”

The exception I have made to this is we have come to love attending the IU Women’s Basketball games and we love these athletes. So Go Lady Hoosiers!

Can you tell us about an interesting or particularly successful program you’ve worked on at the law school?

I’m incredibly proud of the fact that I introduced and wrote the school’s Professionalism Oath. It is administered during orientation by a judge every year – last year by District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, a Maurer alum – and our students report how meaningful this experience is. It really drives home for them that they are joining a community governed by an ethical code to represent clients to the best of their abilities, to serve their communities, and participate positively in society. The students are taking their first steps to develop the knowledge and skillset to be the best kind of lawyer they can be, and I am awestruck each year during the ceremony that primarily young people continue to choose this pathway that challenges them intellectually, emotionally, and even physically to join us.

What is the Washington DC externship program you’re involved in?

The Washington DC externship program is an amazing opportunity for our students. They get to work full time for a government agency or non-profit organization and take a class from a Maurer faculty member that enhances their experience by learning more about the legislative process and administrative law. This program does not just benefit students who want to pursue a career in Washington, DC, although it certainly helps to have the additional time there to network! It allows students to build professional and legal skills in real-world settings. It allows them to dig deeply into real legal matters, shadow experienced attorneys, and improve their communication skills. Without fail, when these students return to Bloomington for their final semester of law school, they tell us this semester was the most challenging and most rewarding semester!

What do you think law schools are doing well, or could be doing better at, as far as preparing their students for a satisfying career in the law? One of the things I’m most proud of at Maurer is that we spend a lot of time asking students to EXPLORE. When I attended law school in the early 2000s when nearly everyone could get a law firm job who wanted one, I didn’t feel like my law school asked me to spend much time and effort asking what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, what kinds of clients I wanted to serve, what values were important to me in the workplace, or what challenges I wanted to tackle. Nor did I feel the law school exposed me to the wide variety of work I could do as a lawyer. Now, I recognize that it is more than possible that I ignored the many valiant efforts made at the time by my Career Services Office to do these things, but this is my memory of my law school experience.

At Maurer, from Day 1 of Orientation, we are talking to our students about the importance of self-exploration and encouraging them through interactive workshops to understand how their values, interests, passions, and strengths (always pay attention to your V.I.P.S!) fit in with the diversity of the legal profession. I want all of our students to feel supported in their journey and make deliberate choices about the kinds of jobs they’re pursuing. So, I hope all law schools are encouraging their students to seek out the kind of career path that brings them meaning and joy and giving them to tools that will help them with this important exploration of self and industry.

Wow, that sounds incredibly valuable for a budding lawyer. Let’s change gears and talk about your role as a board member on the PDC, the Professional Development Consortium.

Words cannot express how thrilled I am to be the first law school member to serve on the PDC Board. I think it is so critical that law schools be involved with any and all PD efforts being made in the industry. Some partnerships have been established and are flourishing, but I really want to encourage more of them. We have to work together to prepare students to enter the workforce at the level we want to see. Law schools cannot do this alone.

Any predictions on the future of legal PD (law students, lawyers, or otherwise)?

It is a time of a change, innovation, anxiety, and excitement.

The most exciting recent development to me personally is the increased focus on mental health, and I predict we will be doing more in this area in the near future. This attention is a day late, but I hope not a dollar short. It is critical that we destigmatize mental health struggles, make it easier to access help (shout out to Akin Gump!), and encourage attorneys to take care of themselves. While large law firms have the resources to help their attorneys most, we need to make sure we don’t ignore our public interest attorneys who in many respects are on the front lines of human suffering, and we know this impacts the attorneys who serve them. This particular population of attorneys may need the help the most, and so I’d love to see partnerships between firms with deeper pockets supporting public interest attorneys too. Wouldn’t that be a great way to support access to justice too.

Last but not least, we play the game of “Two Truths and a Lie” with all of our featured PD profile guests. Please tell us two truths and one lie about yourself so our readers can try to guess which one is the lie!

  • My dog and I were separately on the front page of the local Bloomington newspaper within days of each other shortly after our arrival
  • A Supreme Court Justice attended our wedding
  • I have traveled to all 7 continents

Thanks very much for your terrific insights, Debbie. We look forward to working with you and the rest of the PD community to further our common goals.

People can cast their vote on Debbie’s Two Truths and a Lie at the LinkedIn post here.

Past PD Profiles: Jennifer Little Don Smith