March 29, 2013

Alumni Spotlight: Interview with Meredith R. Conway, Professor of Law at Suffolk Law School

Meredith Conway
Summer Associate:  1998
Tax Group Associate:  1999-2004
Currently:  Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School
Meredith ConwayMeredith Conway has her dream job and tells us, without a shadow of doubt, she could not be as successful as she is without many of the lessons she learned at Drinker Biddle.  Meredith teaches Federal Taxation and Taxation of Business Entities as a Professor of Law at Suffolk University School of Law in Boston, Massachusetts.  She shares her career journey with us and some of the lessons she learned at the firm which have proven to be particularly valuable in her career.
Q:  Are there any skills or lessons you learned during your tenure at Drinker Biddle that have proven particularly valuable in your career or in life?
A:  Yes.  There are many.  I convey actual practice stories and lessons I learned at the firm all the time to my students. I think I quote Steve Hamilton (Tax Partner) on a daily basis.  I also recently got into a huge debate over something Bill Clark taught me about the use of the word shall.   I am on a special committee that is reviewing our law school’s tenure policies and I remember Bill Clark taught me that you should rarely if ever use “shall” in legal documents. Often when lawyers use shall, they intend to say “must” or “will” and therefore just use the plain English when drafting, not legalese.  I still remember this.   I am so fortunate to have had Bill Clark and Steve Hamilton as mentors.  I benefitted from the lessons they taught me and now my students and others at the law school are benefitting too.
When I told Jack Michel I was leaving Drinker, he also gave me great advice for teaching.  He told me to start every lecture by giving a roadmap to students, outlining the major points I planned to cover and I do this every day.  I start every class by stating the three main things I am going to cover.   It makes it easier for the students to follow.  Organization is key for being a successful professor.
Q:  You left Drinker Biddle in 2004 to teach at Texas Wesleyan School of Law in Fort Worth, Texas and later moved to Boston for a faculty position at Suffolk University.   Can you tell us more about your path to becoming a professor? 
A:  There is an established process for getting an academic job at a law school but it’s interesting because no one really talks about it.  Everyone who wants to teach sends their resumes to the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) and the AALS compiles everything in a giant binder called the Faculty Appointments Register. The AALS sends out binders of resumes four times a year but you need to make the late summer or early fall deadline so you don’t miss the annual Faculty Recruitment Conference that is held each fall at a hotel in Washington, D.C.  The AALS annual conference is where all the law schools convene to interview candidates over a few days.  If a school likes your resume, they contact you before the conference to schedule an interview time.  At the conference, each school has its own interview/hotel room.  You run from hotel room to hotel room; interview to interview in 20 or 30 minute slots.  It’s like on-campus interviewing or speed dating.   The conference is sometimes called the ‘meat market’.  After the conference, law schools call you for second interviews and that’s when you travel to the schools.  I actually entered the process late when I was first looking for a teaching job and I missed the annual conference.
Now, instead of distributing hard copy resumes to the AALS and binders to the law schools, everything is done online.  You fill out an online questionnaire and the AALS releases the information on their website to law schools four times a year. 
Q:  You mentioned you initially entered the process a little late.  How was the process different for you?  
A:  Well I missed the deadline for the annual conference because I didn’t submit my resume until January.  Everyone already had their initial interviews in the fall.  Texas Wesleyan saw my resume in the third binder which honestly most schools never even open and they were interested.  They called and ended up hiring me.  I had a great experience there but after a few years I really wanted to move back to the east coast.  When I decided to look for a new position after about three years, I submitted my information to the AALS in time for the fall conference.   I went to the conference and had about 17 interviews.  Then I had to fly all over for second interviews. This was all while I was still teaching at Texas Wesleyan.  It was crazy.
Q:  Did you always aspire to be a law professor?
A:  I think it was always in the back of my head.  I distinctly remember being in my contracts class at Rutgers and I mentioned I thought I wanted to be a professor to someone sitting next to me and he said something like “you can’t do that; you have to go to Harvard or Yale Law School to be a law professor.”   In my fourth year at Drinker I got what I call the ‘four year itch’ that I think everyone gets.  When you are an associate sometime around your fourth year you get this itch, and start evaluating what you are going to do with your life and your career.  It happened to me and to all my friends.   Some people ultimately decide they are happy right where they are. They stay the course and go on to become partner or counsel at the firm.  Others make transitions into government or smaller firms.   I decided to transition into academia.
The ‘four year itch’ is something I talk about this with my students.  I tell them it is normal and there doesn’t have to be one answer.  There are many other career paths that we talk about. The training and experience at Drinker is amazing but it might not be a lifetime career for everyone. No one should be afraid to talk about it.
Once I told people at Drinker I wanted to be a law professor and I didn’t want to be in private practice anymore, they were so supportive.  I got a ton of guidance and mentoring.  When you become a law professor they send you all the textbooks for your subject.   I received every basic income tax textbook.  Steve Hamilton came to my office one day and went through every single text book with me to help me pick out which I should use.
I told Jack Michel, Bill Goldstein and Steve Hamilton that I will never ever work for another law firm.  I promised them I would only leave Drinker to be a law professor and if I ever wanted to go back into practice I would only go to Drinker.   I am not coming back though!
Q:  What was the transition from private practice to teaching like?   Did you feel well prepared?
A:  The practice experience I got at Drinker really helped me in my teaching career.   I think the tax practice is very much like teaching and writing scholarship.  I use many of the same skills as a professor that I did at Drinker.  When I worked at the firm, I was in many ways like a resource to the corporate group or the litigation group.  My job was to identify the issues, analyze them and then translate them into plain English for other lawyers and clients.  That’s what I need to do for my students and in my writing. Part of what I think made me a successful associate at Drinker makes me a successful professor.  It is my ability to take complicated tax material, identify and analyze the issues and then translate and explain them so other people can understand. As an associate I had to research and write about topics based on what a client needed. As a professor,   I get to pick what I want to write about.  I get the luxury to just choose a topic that interests me and go explore.  Practicing law is different in that it is a reaction to client demand.  At the firm, the client’s needs dictate what you write about. 
Q:  What are some of the greatest challenges you face as a law professor?
A:  I’d say that keeping current is one of the greatest challenges I face.  When you are practicing, you are always current.  At Drinker, I went head to head with partners at huge New York law firms.  I got to work on sophisticated topics and cutting edge transactions.  In academia, it is harder to stay current on hot topics, new tax structures and deals.  To stay current, I make sure I attend the ABA tax section programs.  I also subscribe to some periodicals but you tend to gravitate towards the same topics that you know and enjoy.  I read a few blogs but there aren’t many that debate substantive tax issues; they are usually more procedural.
The other big challenge I face in my position is that I have to be self-directed.  There is something to be said for having deadlines.  I work on my own schedule and need to make self-imposed deadlines.  There are challenges but it is a dream job. 
Q:  What advice would you give to associates to help them succeed?
A:  Always say yes and find a way to make it happen.  It creates a great work ethic and you need that to succeed.
Q.   What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
A:  I am very involved, maybe too involved, in community service.  I volunteer for League of Women Voters which is a nonpartisan organization that seeks to encourage engagement and participation in government.  I also volunteer for FAN, the Family Action Network.  It’s a non-profit organization that provides parenting resources and support for families with infants and small children.  I was the President of that organization for a few years.  I’m also a member of the PTA and I love writing.  I come up with ideas for movie scripts all the time and I also have ideas for fiction and non-fiction books I want to write.

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