Erin Scherzer is the Executive Director of Career Services at Seton Hall University School of Law. In this role, she manages student counseling, works on event and planning for the office, meets with employers, and advises students on career planning. Prior to joining Seton Hall Law, Erin worked as a Business Law Associate in the New York office of Goodwin Procter LLP. There, Erin represented private equity funds and lenders; she also provided legal assistance to individuals seeking immigration relief, domestic violence victims, and non-profit organizations. She graduated from Bates College, and she earned her law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution.
Throughout her career and personal life, Erin has been a champion of equity and inclusion. She currently serves as a Trustee for the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race and is a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Women in the Courts. Most recently, she was appointed to serve as Co-Chair of the Maplewood Community Board on Police after her work as a community leader helping to develop the Maplewood Community Board on Police.
(1) What does being a first generation lawyer mean to you?
Being a first gen lawyer means more to me than changing my social class. It means that the principles that were instilled in me in my working class, Rust Belt neighborhood in Buffalo, NY carried into my work as a professional.
For example, growing up with limited means underscored the need for me to take advantage of every opportunity given and to never hit cruise control. This spirit was the backbone of my work as a lawyer. I started practicing law at a big NYC law firm about a month after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. Not the best time to be a corporate lawyer. Scared that I could lose my job is putting it lightly. I was terrified. I thought of my parents and how they hustled when their backs were against the wall. So I did just like them, I hustled. I offered to sit in on client calls to learn. I didn’t miss department meetings. I stayed late and walked the halls offering to help on matters. I did all that I could to ensure I developed the skills to best serve my clients and my firm. To this day, I believe this work ethic and the support of outstanding mentors helped me succeed at what was a very difficult time in the economy.
(2) Do you see any pros and/or cons to being first gen?
I am proud to be blue collar. From seeing my parents work 2 jobs each to support 5 children, I know firsthand what hard work and sacrifice means. I know that to excel, you have to put in the work. I never had a safety net, so when I entered the professional world, I made careful decisions knowing that I didn’t have a family member to pay my bills should something go wrong.
The one drawback to being my type of first-gen is having limited financial resources to participate in unpaid roles, to travel to job interviews, and to eventually live in NYC. At times when I questioned my ability to get over that financial hurdle, I thought of what my parents always said to me “if there is a will, there is a way.” Instead of derailing my dream, I got to work to find a path. For example, I researched avenues to provide financial support for what would otherwise be unpaid roles.
Sometimes my “if there is a will, there is a way” drive went a little too far – like the time when I was in college in Maine and had 2 interviews in NYC to secure a post-college role. I barely had enough in my bank account to get to the interviews. Since my money was tight, I took an overnight bus from Maine to NYC, changed into my suit in the Port Authority ladies room, and then sat in a coffee shop at Rockefeller Center nursing a cup of coffee as I did my final prep for the interviews. I remember how tired I was, but it was my blue collar roots that gave me the energy I needed. Blue collar folks don’t complain, we just summon our strength and get over the finish line. Even though I was exhausted and felt dirty all day from that disgusting bathroom, when I walked into those interview rooms (at two big NYC law firms) I was laser focused and ready. I got the job. Would I do this overnight bus adventure again? No, but now when I doubt myself, my husband reminds me “you are the girl who took an overnight bus from Maine to NYC, changed in a bus station bathroom, and landed the job at a major law firm – you can do anything.”
(3) How did you find your passion for the law? What made you decide to go to law school?
As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer. I have a very clear memory of telling my kindergarten class that I will be a lawyer when I grow up (all this coming from a child who did not know one lawyer at the time). I was always the child who questioned according to my parents and my nickname from my grandmother was “Philadelphia Lawyer.” I owe a tremendous thank you to my parents for helping me find my passion for the law. My mother (a head start educator) taught me at a very early age the value of using words to advocate and to communicate. My father spoke to me about the latest labor matters at his factory (he worked in a warehouse and served as union shop leader for a number of years). Outside of the home, my parents searched for a magnet school in Buffalo which would challenge “my love of questioning.”
The magnet school program they found had specialty classes starting in kindergarten focused on critical thinking. I was a shy person, but I really came alive in those critical thinking courses. I loved the problem solving, the advocacy, the writing, the research, the teamwork, and more. In these critical thinking classes, we would engage in debates even as early as 3rd grade. I loved fighting for a cause during these debates. Law seemed like the perfect home for me – the field combined everything I loved to do. I just kept moving through high school then college in preparation for becoming a lawyer. My parents were also instrumental in helping me build my first network. They went out of their way to introduce me to people they knew from church and community work who were somehow connected to the law. These early connections when I was a teen were helpful to me as I built mentoring relationships.
(4) What has been the impact of being a first generation attorney on your professional life?
While being first-gen has had a very positive impact on my professional life, it was not without challenges. One of those challenges was navigating a new social class. Relationship building is a key part of landing a legal job and advancing in the profession, and those relationships are often formed through shared connections and/or shared interests. When I first left Buffalo, I felt like an outsider as I tried to navigate upper middle class/affluent circles. I had to be very intentional to expand my knowledge base to matters people of means discuss and to jump into those conversations. While I will never fully shake feeling like an outsider, over time I got more comfortable with navigating the different waters.
(5) Do you have any advice or suggestions for other first generation law students and lawyers?
One thing I would have appreciated earlier in my career is meeting more first-generation lawyers and professionals.
Also, although it is not always possible to do, find opportunities to ground yourself. Being a first-generation professional has its pressures. The pressure to excel. The pressure of being a role model to your community. The pressure of fitting into and navigating a new social class. And many more pressures. At times, you can feel that you are trying to make everyone happy/proud while at the same time feeling like you are failing them all and yourself. Self-care and not forgetting where you came from is critical for your happiness and success.