By Sheila Pursglove
Teaching theater workshops to prison inmates fundamentally changed attorney Meghan Short’s life path – leading her to a successful career as a litigator, and now as an adjunct professor and co-director of the Academic Success Program at her alma mater, Michigan State University College of Law.
While earning her undergrad degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan, Short took an upper level English class, “Theater and Social Change.” Students conducted theater workshops in prisons; and read about the prison industrial complex and social justice issues which contribute to the incarceration of a disproportionate amount of impoverished and minority populations.
“I was deeply moved by my experience and wanted to do something to help people who weren’t born with the privileges and advantages that I was,” she says.
Short earned her J.D. from MSU Law, where she was a graduate of the Fieger Trial Practice Institute – which she says trained her in solid courtroom habits.
“I wouldn’t say I was ‘practice ready,’ because simulated litigation will never truly prepare you for the real thing – but I was a more effective, professional, and smarter litigator because of TPI, no question.”
A performer and writer, Short used those talents in litigation.
“Growing up, I was also an athlete, and I really got into litigation in TPI, once I realized how much strategy and teamwork goes into it. I love the camaraderie of the courtroom.”
She spent four years as an Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago Law Department, and two years as an attorney with the Cook County Office of the Public Defender.
“I had the benefit of receiving a real varied on-the-job training – from municipal misdemeanor courts to federal district court to child protection – I was everywhere,” she says. “I practiced in five different divisions and at least 10 different courthouses... I was a sponge – young and thirsty for experience. Once I figured something out, I wanted to move on to another area of practice and, working for such big legal departments as the city and county, I was granted ample opportunity to do just that.. I couldn’t have asked for a better ‘base’ training.”
An assignment with the “Police Policy” division – later Federal Civil Rights Litigation Division – was not particularly enjoyable. “I had some doozy cases assigned to me,” she says. “But, this experience, while challenging, really taught me how to look at an issue from both sides.”
She relays this lesson about perspective to her MSU Law students. Early in law school, many students make the mistake of sticking to one side of an argument – the side they fundamentally identify with, she notes. “But they have to be able to understand both sides... Sometimes, the emphasis placed on ‘thinking like a lawyer’ causes students to eventually become so good at arguing both sides of an issue they forget why they were motivated to come to law school in the first place. Personally, I never felt ‘fulfilled’ by my job in FCRL, but I
definitely learned how grey fourth and fifth Amendment issues can be and how differently two sides can perceive the same factual situation.”
Short returned to MSU Law in June 2010 as an adjunct professor and co-director – with Professor Goldie Pritchard – of the Academic Success Program launched in 2009.
The duo serves the entire population of J.D. and LL.M law students at MSU.
“Our doors are open to anyone,” she says. “We spend most of our time in one-on-one meetings with individual students, doing everything from reading and editing case briefs to reviewing outlines to providing moral and emotional support after a bad grade or a particularly traumatic Socratic experience. But mostly, during these individual sessions, we review student answers to practice questions.”
The ASP holds workshops with tips on basic law school skills like briefing, outlining, and writing a good essay answer; and students can borrow from an extensive library of study aids and how-to-succeed books. Programming for upper level students helps prime them for the bar application/preparation process; and a teaching assistant program provides TAs, trained and supervised by ASP, in several of the first year core classes.
“We keep ourselves very, very busy,” Short says.
Short hopes her students get as much from MSU Law as she did. “I’m one of those nerds who loved law school,” she says. “I enjoyed being surrounded by intelligent classmates who took themselves way more seriously than anyone in their early 20s should – debating constitutional law over beers, reading case-briefs on the treadmill at the gym, you know – generally consuming our lives with all things law school.
“I think that’s why I enjoy my job so much – because I loved studying the law and, in order to help my students in my role as an academic adviser, I have to stay up on what’s being taught in all of their classes, so I’m perpetually studying the law. I wish I had the time to sit in on some of the actual lectures. I would love that – I’m such a geek!”
She also appreciates the relationships that grow out of teaching. “I get to work with students from the moment they set foot in this building through the day they sit down to take the bar exam. It’s such a privilege to see, firsthand, and to be a part of, the personal, professional, and intellectual growth that occurs over the course of those three years.”
Short teaches skills-based courses. She says that many students want just to learn ‘black letter law’ – to have someone tell them the rules. But in order to be successful students, to eventually pass the bar exam, and, most importantly, to be competent attorneys, they must learn how to isolate relevant facts in a case, to synthesize the holdings from multiple cases to come up with a rule, to organize a semester’s worth of material into a meaningful construct, to successfully apply analogical reasoning, and to organize their thoughts into a clear, cogent, argument.
She comments, “A lot of students undervalue the importance of these skills and it causes them to struggle in my classes – or hate them. Many students don’t realize how my classes help them improve until a semester or two down the road. Some don’t ever realize it. But, the classes do help; so I don’t really care if they recognize it or not.”
A native of Erie, Pa., Short moved to Dexter at age 16 and graduated from Dexter High School. She and her husband Sam, a visual artist turned restaurateur, now make their home in East Lansing with their 2-year-old son Jack. The couple is awaiting the birth of boy/girl twins in September.
A self-confessed music junkie, Short enjoys researching new bands, listening to music, teaching songs to her son, attending live shows when possible, and attending the theater.