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Careers in History: Law

Erik Graney ('02)

Attorney at a small firm in Farmington Hills, MI

Erik GraneyI graduated from Calvin in 2002 with a degree in European History. After Calvin, I went to law school at Michigan State University. I now practice law at a small law firm in Farmington Hills, Michigan, focusing mainly on litigation. I am convinced that studying history at Calvin provided me with an edge in law school and that it has provided me with a lifelong advantage in my profession.

Why did you choose to major in history at Calvin?

Calvin’s history program has a great reputation, and the judge that presided over my admission to the Michigan Bar Association commented on the history department’s strong reputation for excellence. The main reason I chose to study history is because I am interested in how people think and behave and in what motivates people to make the decisions they make. It is also fun to learn about all the strange things people do, no matter what time period they lived in. Also, learning about the past is a good way to get a sense of what might happen in the future. After all, the present is the end product of the past, and today is tomorrow's past. By being able to compare the past to the present, one might be able to at least have a better idea of how things might turn out in the future based on what is happening now. 

I chose Calvin in particular because I wanted a smaller class size that allowed for more interaction with other students and professors than larger colleges. I also wanted easy access to professors outside of class time.

How did your time at Calvin prepare you for what you are doing now?

The story of history is the big picture or the whole, while the people, circumstances, and events in that story are the moving parts. During my time at Calvin, my professors taught history in such a way that I was constantly forced to put the bits and pieces of history together myself to put together the story, to make sense of the whole and to explain how the pieces came together to make that whole. In other words, I learned how to tell the story. Some might call this critical thinking and analysis.

The study of history has helped me to develop a way of thinking that allows me to see the big picture in any given situation at work, as well as to see all the moving parts. In my profession, those are the facts, circumstances, and the law in any given situation or case that make up that big picture, and how those moving parts fit together make the story. I use the critical thinking skills and thought processes I developed at Calvin on a daily basis at work with the added task of first having to identify the moving parts and which of those parts I need to properly put the puzzle together to be able to tell the story or argue my client’s position to opposing counsel, a judge, or a jury.

What are some of your memories of the Calvin History department?

My very first history midterm exam for which I had to write a 4 page essay in less than an hour that covered a 300 or 400 hundred year period. Taking a class trip to the scriptorium in Grand Haven and reading the medieval texts and standing underneath a replica of a Gutenberg press while there. I’m still sorry I missed the trip to the monastery. I also remember a history project where I was able to interview a Vietnam vet—I felt like I was on the History Channel. I’ll never forget performing a play in the Calvin Chapel, where I played the villain. That must have looked like a scene from Monty Python! I hope it’s not on video somewhere.

Do you have any advice for current students or those thinking of majoring in history at Calvin?

Expect to be challenged at Calvin and do not be afraid to challenge your professors. Calvin history professors are passionate about their fields of study and just as passionate about teaching others about history. My profs were always open for debate about various issues, whether in person or via email over an extended period. My history profs were just as curious about all things history and were just as excited and motivated to learn during the semester as the students were. Profs were most excited about learning from their students. Therefore, you should never walk into a classroom and accept that the professor has all the right answers. The profs definitely know more about historical facts and different possible interpretations of those facts, but as you will learn, history can often be just as much interpretation as it is fact. 


Jacob Hunter ('06)

Law student, University of Michigan

In May 2006, I graduated from Calvin College with a B.A. in History.  I spent the next year working at Schulers Books and Music in Grand Rapids while applying to a number of graduate school programs in Middle Eastern History.  Over the next two years, I studied Iranian and Central Asian religious and political history in Indiana University’s Central Eurasian Studies Department. This fall following my completion of coursework at Indiana University, I enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School.
               
My history classes at Calvin were indispensible in preparing me for graduate work in the field of Islamic history.  As far as the subject matter was concerned, the Middle Eastern history classes I took at Calvin provided an excellent base upon which to expand my knowledge in graduate school.  Yet even classes as disparate as a course on twentieth-century Eastern Europe, which helped to contextualize to the experience of communism common also to most of Central Asia, to a course on ancient Chinese history, which gave me at least some way to relate to the Buddhist history in Central Asia and the continuing Chinese dominance in that region, aided me in my studies.  Having moved on from Calvin to larger universities, I am still amazed that Calvin offers such a variety of courses, geographically as well as historically; and, at the same time, has knowledgeable faculty teaching each course.  The historical methodology and writing taught in Calvin’s History Department were invaluable in assuring my success in graduate school.
                 
For this reason too, I think Calvin’s History program is exceptionally well-suited to train pre-law students.  Apart from law and history’s common logical methodology and analysis of cause and effect, the law is quintessentially a human institution which draws its power from the interpretation of written documents.  As history is the study of documents from the past, few disciplines are better-suited to the prospective law student.  They also share another similarity in that, despite the dense prose of some historians and all of the legal copy ever written, both disciplines strive for the most simple, straightforward, and concise explanation of an argument.  Thus practice in historical writing with a focus on simple language and clear arguments is an excellent exercise to prepare a college student for law school and beyond. 
               
Besides offering a vast array of incredibly interesting classes, my studies in the History Department at Calvin College provided me with number of skills relevant to my current work, challenging and thought-provoking discussion with my peers and professors, and an excellent community of scholars in which to study.

 

Zachary Meyer ('07)

Business attorney, Grand Rapids, MI

I graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a degree in European History. I went on to eventually graduate from Northwestern University School of Law and now practice law in Grand Rapids as a business attorney at Varnum LLP. I decided to study history while at Calvin College because history had always been my favorite subject. While studying at Calvin, I came to understand history as a story full of adventure, drama, love, politics, religion, places and, ultimately, people. The critical analysis of history in each of its contexts—the Industrial Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, etc.—helped prepare me for the sharp analysis required in the legal profession.

To future students: do not underestimate the quality of a Calvin education in history! I initially underestimated my abilities relative to peers from the Harvards and Yales of the world before I understood the quality of the education I had received. Despite the small campus and relatively small staff, the Calvin History Department produces an education for a big world.

Brian Cumings ('05)

Associate at a large law firm, Austin, TX

Brian Cumings, attorney

I graduated from Calvin in 2005 with a major in secondary education in history and a minor in Spanish. I chose history due to my interest in the field and Spanish because of its utility.

The history department did an excellent job developing my analytical skills and ability to think critically. Many of my classmates in law school were history majors.

A history major is excellent preparation for going into the practice of law. The sort of mind that can remember the minute details of historical accounts, dissect historical eras into movements, and write lucidly on the subject is the kind of mind that can review and analyze case law, memorize the fine points of law, and synthesize coherent legal arguments.

Aaron Kupchella ('04)

Law student, UCLA

I graduated from Calvin with a B.A. in World History in 2004. After teaching for a few years in China, I applied to law school and I just completed my first semester at UCLA School of Law.

It's not unusual for history students to go into law for several reasons. First, because the fields are substantively related, students who are interested in history tend to also be interested in law. The old cases that law students read offer glimpses into the
past just as other source materials that history students read, and the stories are just as interesting. Also, a B.A. in history can help
you develop foundational skills such as interpreting facts and creating narratives with them--something litigators do in actual practice and what law students must be able to do well in order to succeed on exams.

Calvin's history department is unique among small liberal arts colleges. Not only is the department large with a diverse range of specialists, but the caliber of the professors is remarkable. Students who take advantage of opportunities outside of class such as office hours, independent study, or the Mellema program lectures, will be especially well-prepared to excel in law school should they choose to go.