"Literature gives life a story": Sean Southern on finding your path

Alum Sean Southern

Alum Sean Southern

Sean Southern graduated from Ball State University in 2000 as double major in English and History. After college, he earned an M.A. in English at DePaul University in 2002 and a J.D. in Law at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law in 2007, where he graduated cum laude.

Following law school, Sean practiced law in both the public and private sectors. First, he joined a large Chicago law firm where he focused his practice on commercial leasing and other real estate matters. Thereafter, Sean represented indigent criminal defendants at the Office of the State Appellate Defender, obtaining favorable decisions on both direct appeal and in collateral proceedings.

Then in 2011 he joined the Office of Professional Development at Indiana University’s School of Law, where he now serves as Associate Director. Sean’s responsibilities include developing and maintaining effective relationships with legal employers and the greater legal community, assisting alumni and students with job search strategies and resume design, and administering the on-campus interview program.

How did your English major lead to your career in law–as well as your job as a career counselor? What skills did you learn as an English major that helped you transition? 

Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.”

Looking back, I can connect a few dots from my English degree up to my current role.  They both involve finding people and their stories interesting and worth encouraging.

Literature may largely be the study of made up things, but, ultimately, literature gives life a story.  This story encourages us to view ourselves as working toward goals while confronting challenges in the road.  For me, this is the basic guidepost of a career counselor.  Without my English degree, I doubt I would approach or appreciate my work in the same way.

I keep an article on my desk titled, “In the Minds of Others.”  The article summarizes prior research and notes that reading fiction improves our ability to understand others.  In reading fiction, we enter the characters’ minds, and this experience teaches us to appreciate the views and perspectives of others.  This ability is important when counseling law students.  Law school is stressful and challenging, so a little bit of empathy is needed.

On a more nuts and bolts level, I edit resumes and cover letters routinely, so my writing skills are important in this task.

Drafting a single page document is a unique challenge that requires an eye for detail and a willingness to prioritize.  A little brevity helps too.

I also create presentations on a routine basis.  My English degree helps me to accumulate information and organize it into a structured and understandable product.  I possess a keen appreciation for quotes in presentations.  I attribute this to my English major.

What’s a typical day like for you?

genericlogoIn a nutshell, I work with law students in all aspects of their career search, so this requires me to engage in a variety of tasks, from one-on-one counseling sessions to event planning to large scale data collection.

More specifically, I conduct one-on-one counseling sessions, review resumes and cover letters, discuss potential practice areas, and coordinate events for students to meet attorneys.

I also run our On-Campus Interview Program and collect data for our annual employment survey.

Our office is always looking for new ideas, and we wear a lot of hats.  In a day, I might talk with several students about their career goals in the morning and spend the afternoon working on an upcoming event.  I like the variety in my work, and I enjoy working with the students.

Do you have any advice for English majors who are trying to figure out what comes next in their lives?

As a career counselor, I have thought about my English major, my career, and the careers of others quite a bit.  Today’s English majors have strong critical thinking, research, and writing skills.  They also possess a thoughtful approach to human interactions.  These are all important skills in today’s working world.

If an English major is unsure about the future, he or she should use these skills to research potential careers, to talk with individuals in those careers, and to make smart decisions based on the available information. Bring along a willingness to try new things and a determination to always grow.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to be practical.  An empty resume is never persuasive.  An opportunity may not be ideal, but it could help build to the place you want to be.

Thanks Sean! Remember, you can connect with him on LinkedIn.

What are you going to do with your English major? Anything. Read our “Life After Ball State” posts.

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