Linda M. Collier Finding her calling was a matter of debate

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Ms. Collier heads the award-winning debate program at her alma mater, the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), where most of her college debaters go on to be—you guessed it—lawyers.

"It's almost ironic in that now what I do instead of practicing law is basically prepare students to go to law school," said Collier, who is also an associate professor in the communication studies department.

As a professor and debate coach since 1986, she uses the skills she honed in law school and in her practice to mentor students, improve their communication skills, and lead them to championships. Collier earned her law and undergraduate degrees from UMKC.

Q: When you were in school, what did you envision doing with your law degree?

I envisioned practicing law. I discovered things I wasn't interested in while I was in law school. I knew I wasn't interested in a criminal practice. I didn't think I was interested in tax or corporate. I was more interested in civil and found as I practiced that what I really liked was entertainment law.

Q: What did you do after law school?

I started out with a firm that did mostly civil litigation representing plaintiffs. Then I wound up practicing on my own, trying to do mostly entertainment-related work. That's when the folks from UMKC came to me and said they needed a part-time person to teach argument and to sponsor a new debate program on campus. I wound up absolutely finding my calling in life. The fact that I had a Juris Doctorate made it possible for me to eventually become tenured faculty.

Q: What's your advice for graduates who want to do something different with their degrees?

A J.D. is a wonderful education. You shouldn't limit yourself to a very small area and think you only have the expertise to be successful or find careers in that very narrow field of work. What law school teaches you is how to do better critical thinking, better writing, and better research. Those traits are applicable across practically every job I can think of.

Q: What about law school debt? Does that hold graduates back from stretching their imaginations about careers?

Definitely. That and the fact that—let's face it—being a lawyer is a high-prestige career. That is almost as attractive as the money is. From my own personal experience, my parents thought I had lost my mind when I said, "I'm going to resign my practice and take on this university job." They thought, "But you worked; you put yourself through law school. This was your goal." But I don't think I would have had nearly as happy or successful a life if I had kept myself confined.

I don't think law school debt is unique anymore. I know people who are graduating from Ph.D. programs who will come out with a six-figure debt hanging over their heads. If you let the money stop you, you risk diminishing your life, and you risk [not] finding a rewarding and satisfying career.

Q: Do most law schools have resources for students interested in alternative careers?

I can speak with the best accuracy about the University of Missouri, Kansas City. They actively do a couple of things to help students. They have programs where if the students are interested in nontraditional careers, they look for mentors like me in the community, who have taken on nontraditional careers. We're given opportunities to talk with the students and discuss the pros and the cons.

Q: If those resources aren't available at a particular school, what recommendations do you have?

The best first step is to take a personal inventory. Sit down and do a brain-dump of what your goals, aspirations, expectations are. Then, there are places like your website that folks can turn to for advice.

There are lots of tools out there. There are tools on the Internet. There are tools at the law schools. If your career center doesn't offer those, go in and talk to them. The people who are in those offices, it's a win for them when they serve their clients—and that would be you, the student—and help you find your appropriate niche. Just because you don't see it listed, that shouldn't deter you from going in and making a connection with the person in the career center.

Q: What do you enjoy about what you're doing now and what was lacking in your previous career that you've found in this one?

The joy of teaching. It is lifelong learning. As a debate coach, I coach on a different topic every year. Last year, my college students debated issues concerning our dependence on fossil fuels. This next year, we're going to be debating the United States' relations with China. [I enjoy] that kind of turnover and use of my research tools and critical-thinking skills. Plus—and probably most important—I noticed when I was practicing law that most people don't come to lawyers because they're happy. Most people come to lawyers because they have a problem. It really sometimes becomes quite wearing to have people who really need your help sitting across your desk from you. I think both [law and teaching] are very necessary and essential professions in our world, but the opportunities to work with young minds and help them find their way is much more satisfying to me.

It's all about finding the career that pushes as many buttons as you possibly can. I don't know if I were a teacher, and only a teacher, if that would satisfy me. Being a debate coach means I get to work more closely with students. The competitive need to win is what attracts a lot of people to law school. I get my competitive juices and needs satisfied. This past year, at the national debate tournament, in the elimination rounds—it's the equivalent of the NCAA basketball tournament—my team took down Harvard, the second-ranked team in the country. We then quietly walked outside and went crazy. So my competitive drive is satisfied through debate. I'm not sure there are other careers that are like that.

University of Missouri-Kansas City


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