The Business Journalist Who Decided to Go to Law School

Natascha Schreuder, a graduate foreign masters student at Columbia Law School, center, studies for a final exam outside Philosophy Hall on the Columbia University campus in New York, U.S., on Friday, April 23, 2010. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Over the past two weeks, we noticed a couple of stories on Talking Biz News that piqued our interest: two business journalists were about to go to law school.

Victoria Stilwell of Bloomberg News will become a student at Yale Law School next month and Shane Ferro of the Huffington Post left this month to study law at Columbia University. Both journalists covered the U.S. economy.

Ferro took us up on a Q&A invite, filling out a series of questions we posed to her by email. In it, she shared her thoughts on the transition, gender parity issues facing women in the law, and student debt.

Ferro had worked with the Huffington Post for a year, covering the economy. She previously worked for Business Insider and Reuters.

Below is a copy of our exchange.

Big Law Business: You’ve established yourself as a journalist writing for national publications like Huffington Post, Reuters, and Business Insider. Why law school?

Ferro: Law school was always the plan. The better question might be why I stayed in journalism so long. It has been incredible to get paid to learn new things every day, then explain them to other people. But there is something that draws me to the law that I cannot quite explain. I gave it five years to see if it would eventually go away, but I can now say that I’m happy to finally be following my passion. I have gotten so much advice that essentially boils down to, “Don’t go to law school unless you really want to be a lawyer.“ It’s unclear to me why I’d choose to go to law school for any other reason.

Shane Ferro, formerly of Huffington Post
Shane Ferro, formerly of Huffington Post, will study law at Columbia University.

Big Law Business: You’ve covered the economy and general business news. Any stories on the legal industry or law firms in particular?

Ferro: My coverage of the legal profession has mostly been in the context of gender parity and work-life balance issues. The news isn’t great. I’ve been particularly attentive to the research of Claudia Goldin, who is an economist at Harvard studying the gender pay gap. Some of her recent research has shed light on the non-linear relationship between hours spent at work and compensation — in other words, people who have 80 hours a week to spend at work make 10 times more, not just twice, what people who only spend 40 or 50 hours at work make — which is very relevant to client-based industries like law and finance. That has major implications for people who are the lead parent in a family, which, let’s face it, is usually the woman. There’s essentially a structural wall that women face when they go into the law, where incentives are working against biology, and it doesn’t seem like there’s an easy way around it. It terrifies me, but at least I’ve started to grapple with it now, and it won’t just hit me in the face a decade from now.

Big Law Business: You must have spoken with some lawyers for stories. Your impression of them as sources? Positive, negative?

Ferro: I like to talk to lawyers because I’ve been interested in the law for a long time, so they are often talking about the kinds of things that I’m naturally interested in. But more generally, I think that they are pretty good at coming up with colorful turns of phrase — at least those lawyers who are seeking out the press.

Big Law Business: Generally speaking, what would you say have been your favorite stories (or favorite type of stories) to work on as a reporter?

Ferro: I am really interested in the labor market. I think that partially comes from my age: I was in college when the financial crisis hit, and became interested in business journalism as a result. My interests in the labor market are tied with my own anxieties about employment. But I also just find that it’s the most direct way to engage with people about the economy. It can take a couple of steps to get people to understand why Fed interest rates affect them, for example. But employment and wage data is something that most people experience in their daily lives.

Big Law Business: Any idea what you’d like to do with a law degree? Do you want to practice law? If so, do you want to work in Big Law?

Ferro: I have a few ideas, but I don’t want to rule anything out. I have been interested in litigation for a long time, but I was a member of the Writers Guild at the recently unionized Huffington Post and participated in all of the contract negotiations, and that was fun, too. I plan to try a bunch of different things while I’m in school and see where life takes me.

Big Law Business: Are you planning to stay with journalism in some fashion, or will this lead you down a totally different path in a law career?

Ferro: Well the point is career change, although I think the nice thing about journalism is that once you’ve learned how to write and know who to pitch, the door is always open. I definitely plan to continue writing through school, and we’ll see where life takes me after that.

Big Law Business: Any concerns about the prospect of the debt that comes with law school student loans? There’s been a lot written about this challenge facing law graduates.

Ferro: I’ve read all the horror stories — literally all of them — about students taking on loans they had barely any hope of paying back. I think that the fear is always there, but I also realize that I am lucky to be going to a very good school with excellent post-graduation employment statistics. Quite frankly, if I didn’t get into a top school, I wasn’t going to go at all.

Big Law Business: Any other general observations of Big Law as a reporter?

Ferro: Not necessarily as a reporter, but as a person who knows her fair share of lawyers, I don’t know any who haven’t burned out of BigLaw. I’m just not sure if I consider those experiences to be cautionary tales or a personal challenge. Probably the latter, but who knows.

Big Law Business: How do you see life as a lawyer ahead of you being different from your life as a journalist without a law degree?

Ferro: I wore jeans a lot as a journalist. I probably need to invest in a few more suits.

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