Show of support: Neil Kawashima, AB'93

A lawyer whose education began with the Great Books offers counsel for current students.
Photo by: 
Jason Smith
It’s important that the institution I care deeply about give its students the opportunity to find something to bring them happiness and a rich life after they’ve left Hyde Park.

When Neil Kawashima, AB’93, finished up at UChicago, he says, “law school was a safe fallback, particularly for graduates of top schools.” After attending Cornell he went into private practice; he’s now a partner at McDermott, Will, and Emery, an international law firm with its largest office in Chicago.

“I count myself lucky I made the right choice in terms of my career,” says Kawashima, a member of the College’s visiting committee, “because I didn’t have enough information.” His wife, Karen, spent seven years as a litigator before switching careers to teach third-grade math at a public school in North Lawndale. This year the couple endowed a Metcalf Internship to help current College students learn more about the work world before choosing careers.

The Kawashimas—along with their rambunctiously cute son, George, 2, and two poodles—welcomed the College Newsletter into their West Loop home to talk about work, family, and their dueling book collections.

What was it like to study Fundamentals in the 1990s?

Neil: There weren’t that many students who were concentrating in Fundamentals; I’d say dozens as opposed to hundreds. What attracted me was the intense focus on particular texts, the small classes, and the faculty, who were outstanding.

I had a number of one-on-one classes—one with [history of religions professor] Wendy Doniger, where every week or two we’d just read a book together. It was informal but very memorable. For a couple of quarters, I spent two or three hours every Friday afternoon with [legal history professor] Charles Gray [who died in 2011], and we read Leviathan. It always amazes me that he would be that generous with his time.

Another great class, maybe the best I had as an undergraduate, was [Social Thought professor] Leon Kass’s [U-High’54, SB’58, MD’62] course on the Book of Genesis. All we read, in one quarter, was Genesis—no secondary source material, no commentary—just the text.

What did you do for fun?

I would hang out with friends. I worked at the Maroon writing movie reviews. I spent a lot of time at Jimmy’s.

How did you end up in law school?

I wanted to be a lawyer; I knew that when I started college. I thought it was a natural profession for someone who didn’t have strength in math or science and who liked the idea of being a counselor, an adviser, to clients. Lawyers complain a lot about their lives, but being a lawyer with a private practice gives you a lot of freedom.

What kind of law do you practice?

My practice involves advising wealthy families and individuals about their estate planning, gift planning, and philanthropy. It’s an interesting, old-fashioned type of practice because your clients really view you as their generalist lawyer. All manner of things cross my threshold even if I’m not the one ultimately handling it, whether it’s a real-estate transaction or a criminal or family law issue.

The relationship with clients is very personal and long term, unlike working for companies. I work for people who have been clients of our firm for generations; in some cases I represent three generations of the same family. A lot of history and trust have built up over time and that’s rewarding.

I do a fair amount of pro bono work, generally helping organizations with their tax exemption. There’s a Native American museum in Wyoming that I’ve helped out, and a lunch program for needy people run by a local church in Chicago.

Do you have any advice for students considering law school?

I’m pretty blunt when undergraduates ask me whether they should attend law school. I always say they should look into the future and see what kind of life they want to live. If you’re going to make the choice, when you’re 21 years old, to go to law school—and you’re going to take on $100,000 or more of debt—you’re making a big decision regarding your future life, standard of living, and opportunities.

I would probably tell every undergraduate to just wait. Take a few years to work and figure out what you really want to do, because law school will always be there. You’re not going to be at any disadvantage if you wait; if anything you’ll probably have an advantage.

Karen: My advice would be to be sure, because to be an excellent lawyer you have to give 200 percent, more than you think is possible to give. If it’s what you really want to do and what you love, you’ll be happy to do it. But you can’t do it halfway because it will show.

Why did you want to fund a Metcalf Internship? What internship opportunities did you have as a College student?

Neil: I don’t believe there were any internship programs like they have today; Career Advancement was nothing like it is now. The College was not very good when I graduated in terms of preparing students for life in the big world.

That’s why it’s important that the institution I care deeply about give its students the opportunity to find something to bring them happiness and a rich life after they’ve left Hyde Park—and that they’ve had every opportunity to find a vocation that is meaningful to them.

What’s your advice for students who want to have both a career and a family?

Neil: I think the most important thing for people to understand, particularly people who’ve gone to selective schools, is that they have choices. Everything they do in terms of their career—how much time they spend with work or family—is a choice. As long as they understand that, they won’t feel trapped or that they’re in a no-win situation.

Karen: I would agree. For me, what has been most important is to find work that is purposeful and meaningful—then the demands that work makes on you are easier to meet.

Choices can involve compromise. Have you had to give up anything, for example, since you had a child?

Neil: I have given up alone time or recreational time, time that I would spend reading, playing golf, or going to the movies. But I don’t regret that.

Karen: You certainly give up spontaneity.

Neil: You have to plan your time together more frequently.

Just as young people don’t realize what it means to take on debt, they might not realize what it’s like to take on kids.

Neil: Maybe you start out with dogs.

Karen (laughing): Old, sick dogs, like we rescued.

Neil: People joke about that, but we had dogs first. It’s the first time a couple is forced to think about something other than themselves.

Karen, what was your college experience like?

Karen: I went to Notre Dame as an undergrad. I was a liberal-studies major, which was modeled directly on UChicago’s Fundamentals program. Neil and I have dueling identical libraries with several copies of everything because no one will give up their copy.

Neil: There’s a lot of Shakespeare.

Karen: A lot of Aristotle too.

Karen, you were accepted to the University of Chicago for law school but chose Northwestern—why?

Karen: UChicago didn’t give me as good of a deal. I agonized over my choice.

Neil: Northwestern gave her a very generous scholarship. I wanted her to go to U of C, of course, but I said, “You don’t give up free law school money.”

Since you attended different schools, why did you choose to give to the College?

Karen: I love the University of Chicago—it’s my second home.

Neil: Also, the College has shown that they’re able stewards of donated funds. All the building that’s going on—not just for the core academic buildings but also for improved student housing, athletics, and the arts—shows a commitment to the community and to the realization that having happier students does not somehow weaken the academics.

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