To celebrate the 10th year of the Master of Science in Law (MSL) program—where STEM, law, and business converge—Northwestern Pritzker Law is highlighting alumni of the program from each graduating class since its 2014 launch.
The Master of Science in Law was created at a moment of tremendous technological and workforce change, when professionals from diverse fields were being called upon to interact with increasingly complex issues involving regulation, product development, privacy, use of data, contracts, business development, entrepreneurship, and more. The Law School recognized that STEM professionals in particular were often in the thick of these intersectional legal and business issues, but few had the training to address and respond to these challenges.
The launch of the MSL addressed this gap in the market, and the program has grown dramatically over the years – there are now approximately 200 students enrolled in the program annually. With both a full-time and part-time option, and the addition five years ago of an online format that caters to mid-career professionals, the MSL has sent more than 600 well-trained, interdisciplinary professionals into the market.
Following the interests of its students, and always looking to be on the cutting edge, the MSL program now offers more than 80 classes focused at the intersection of law, business, and STEM – including foundational classes in contracts, regulation, business formation, securities, and intellectual property, and an interesting assortment of specialized electives in such areas as fintech, privacy, data security, biotech, food, AI, forensic science, environmental law, IP strategy and management, and many more.
This week we are highlighting Janessa Nelson (MSL ‘18). She is currently the legal operations manager at Attentive, a marketing firm based in New Jersey. We spoke with Nelson about the program, what she’s learned since graduating, and her advice for future MSL candidates.
What has changed for you since you graduated from the MSL program?
A lot has changed in five years! I am now working my second job in legal operations. I worked at [the healthcare company] VillageMD building the legal department for about four years, and now I’m building a legal operations division at Attentive. I was fortunate to find a 100 percent remote job, so I moved back to Oregon with my partner. I’m living the high life: working remotely, hanging out in the wilderness at every opportunity, and cuddling with my cat.
What is the best piece of advice you received in law school?
The course “Innovation Diffusion in the Legal Industry” with Bill Henderson, then a visiting professor at Northwestern Pritzker Law, pretty much changed my life. I rewired my brain to think about the legal industry in a way I never thought possible. I began to see possibility and opportunity in an industry I thought was only available to lawyers. Bill was an incredible guide and resource. I stumbled into legal operations but feel incredibly lucky to have found it. It is a perfect encapsulation of my skills and my foundational knowledge from the MSL program.
How has the MSL program impacted your career trajectory?
Quite directly! Without the MSL degree, I would have never found legal operations. I wouldn’t have had the knowledge and confidence to dive in. I have used so much from the MSL program, including contracts, business entities, IP, regulatory compliance, and legal research. A lot of the courses had real-world applications for me.
How are you currently applying your MSL studies in your profession?
The courses in the MSL program were great as a foundational tool that I have been able to build upon during the last five years. I am constantly researching tools, processes, and best practices for my department and continue to improve over time. The MSL networking opportunities were incredibly useful to make contacts and gain experience on how to network. It is one of the reasons I got my first job post-MSL, and I think it is a valuable skill at which I am trying to get better.
What was innovative about the program during your time as a student?
We were the fourth graduating class from the MSL program. At that time, the whole program was innovative! Many people in the industry had never heard of the program. I think that is changing with MSL graduates entering the workforce in different fields and spaces. Working alongside lawyers and other legal professionals has been an opportunity to educate them on the MSL program and why it’s so wonderful. I was able to hire more than seven MSL grads at VillageMD. And because of the working environment, several of our outside counsel firms also hired MSL grads.
Do you have advice for future MSL applicants, students, and alum?
For applicants: This is not your traditional master’s program. That could scare some and will excite others. You get to choose your own destiny. Northwestern is an amazing resource, but you have to make choices that fit your life. The knowledge you gain in the program is so valuable, and the professors are an incredible resource you can lean on for the rest of your career. But this is not the easy road; it is the road less traveled – but I think that makes all the difference.
To students: Network, network, network. The most underrated resource at Northwestern is access to legal professionals and innovators. Your professors are well respected in their fields and have incredible connections throughout law and business. Make connections, ask for help, and do your homework. The more engaged you are, the better you will look. I was very active during my time at Northwestern, and I seized every moment I could while I was there.
Regarding alumni, I have joined different organizations for resources and networking, like the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC). This is a good way to network and advance your profile career-wise. I love connecting with my fellow alums to share advice and resources. My final piece of advice is to be the change you want to see in the world – hire other MSL grads!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.