Interview with Fordham English Major, Patrick O'Connell

What can you do with an English degree? The simple answer is, many things. But what does that mean? The Fordham English Major provides students with skills that can be put to use in a variety of different fields. One of these students is Fordham senior, Patrick O'Connell, who will be going on to Duke University School of Law after he graduates in May. Duke is one of the top ranked law schools in the country with a 19% acceptance rate. In this interview, we discuss Patrick's experience as a Fordham English major and how it prepared him to go on to a prominent law school.  -Erin Coughlin

EC: First of all, I want to congratulate you. You were accepted early decision to Duke Law, weren’t you? 

PO: Yes, that’s correct. Thank you.

EC: Of course, that’s a great accomplishment.

PO: It’s nice to know now, and not be worrying all semester. It does make Senior Slide a little bit more tempting, though.

EC: And Duke Law is a top Law School, so that’s very impressive. I wanted to talk to you in a general sense about why you became an English major, what the experience was, and how it ultimately led to your decision to go to law school. Who was your freshman advisor?

PO: My English advisor was Dr. Maria Farland and she was a great help, not only in how the English Major goes, but in drafting my personal statement, speaking with people about Law school. There’s been a lot of contact and [she’s been] very helpful. I also had her for a class. We have a good relationship.

EC: When you started undergrad, did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?

PO: In my senior year of high school, I took a couple of Creative Writing courses, mostly workshops. Small classes, 12 kids to a class, and I loved it. When I got to Fordham, I was more interested in Creative Writing. Then in my freshman year summer, I went abroad to London for a Creative Writing course through Fordham, at Heythrop College. It was called “Outsiders in London,” and it was taught by Professor Mira Nair. She taught at the Lincoln Center campus and also at NYU. That was another great experience with the Fordham English Department. I’m not sure when it switched from Creative Writing to Law. There wasn’t one epiphany moment, but I guess my experiences with college-level English courses, with more in-depth analysis and more persuasive writing techniques, and thinking about where I could apply them for a career, and law stood out. It seemed like a logical progression. As early as sophomore year, I was doing internships at law firms in various fields, and getting experience. Once I started seeing law in action, and shadowing different attorneys at different practices, it was cemented [as] something I would pursue.

EC: [Do you feel like] being an English major provided you with a malleable set of skills that could be applied to a variety of fields?

PO: Here’s a quick example. My internship for my junior spring was at a really small firm that was putting a lot of emphasis on their blog. I have a marketing minor, so when I was hired, the combination of English and Marketing was something that was appealing to them because, as an undergrad, you can’t really contribute to the legal aspects of a firm, but you can do other things. They had me do blog posts for them on a regular basis, but it was a divorce firm, and even though I didn’t know much about divorce law, the skills that my English major had given me as far as writing interesting pieces, structuring pieces, using the right type of source material, as well as basic research skills [were] key. Some of those blog posts are still out today. Generally speaking, the skills for an English major are ideal.

EC: Do you have an idea which area of law you’d be interested in?

PO: At this moment, I’m thinking Intellectual Property. My last internship was at an IP firm. In a general sense, I find that work, rewarding and engaging.

EC: Intellectual property is going to become an even bigger issue in years to come, in terms of all this content that’s available, who does it belong to, and who profits from it? I know you mentioned Professor Farland and Professor Nair. Are there any other professors in the English department who were helpful to you along the way?

PO: So many. I can’t give a shout out to all of them. Dr. Angela Monsam is wonderful. I’ve had her for two classes, and she along with Dr. Susan Greenfield wrote me recommendations for law school. Dr. Monsam knew me for all of my sophomore year and then we stayed in touch. I would go to her office hours. A recommendation from someone who knows you means so much more, and I think anyone reading a [recommendation] can tell if you’ve built a relationship with the [recommendation writer]. Dr. Greenfield’s class, “Homelessness" was a service learning class featured on Fordham’s website in Fall 2015. That was a unique opportunity, too. As part of the class requirement, you had to work 30 hours of volunteer time at Part of the Solution, which [offers] everything from a soup kitchen to legal representation to the people of the Bronx. Through that service learning class, I interned at POTS in the legal department.

EC: That sounds like Professor Greenfield. I’m not surprised she taught a class like that. Do you feel that the department in general has an approachable feel?

PO: Absolutely.

EC: I know that while you were looking at law school, you were also looking at Teach for America? Do you feel you would have equally prepared for that?

PO: Oh, sure. I found out about Duke before my interview was scheduled, so it never went through, but you have to go into your interview with a lesson plan prepared, and the one I was thinking of preparing was going to be English based. I was going to do close reading of a passage. I would likely have been an English teacher.

EC: I know law school was your priority, but it speaks volumes that you were prepared for two pretty different career paths.

PO: Definitely. I’m not so sure that Teach for America would have led to a career in that sort of work, but it would have been an incredible experience, and I’d recommend that to everyone who isn’t sure about exactly what they want to do after college, but still feel the need to give back. If I hadn’t gotten into Duke, I would have been pursuing that.

EC: On that note, what do you hope to take with you into the world that you picked up at Fordham? And also what advice would you give to students who are contemplating an English major, but aren’t really sure what its uses are?

PO: For me, the what is pretty specific and direct. As most people would assume, there’s a ton of reading and writing [in an English major], and there’s a ton of reading and writing in law school. I hope to bring good study habits, close reading, and similar skills that I’ve practiced many times. It will be ramped up, of course, but I think those skills will directly correlate with what I’m doing in law school. For people considering an English major, but aren’t sure what to do with it, law obviously is not the only route, and again, when I chose English, I thought I would be a writer. If you’re thinking English, but aren’t sure how to make it marketable, pick up minors. I’m graduating with a marketing minor and an economics minor. I completely know the feeling when you’re at a Christmas party with your family, and your uncles and aunts say, “What are you going to do with an English major?” It’s sometimes hard to explain what you’re going to do with it, but it’s a lot easier to market yourself if your academic record shows some breadth and balance. 

-This interview has been edited and condensed.