I spent my Princeternship at BP America’s Naperville, IL campus, shadowing two Princeton alumni working as environmental lawyers. As someone who has long been interested in law, this shadowing opportunity was a chance to see firsthand what an in-house corporate lawyer’s job entailed. My dad practiced environmental law for many years as a plaintiff’s lawyer often working against big companies so I was keen on experiencing a day in the life of the “other side” of environmental law. Even more importantly it was an opportunity to examine corporate legal work as a possible future career path. My Princeternship experience accomplished all of this and more.
When I arrived at BP I was immediately taken in by the size of its campus. There are five or so buildings spread out around numerous parking lots and a man-made lake. It’s quite the facility. The legal team’s building, meanwhile, is a converted production factory so it’s quite large and open with a huge amount of natural lighting (a far cry from the comparatively cramped cubicles I took to be the norm at most law offices). The atmosphere mirrored the office space in which they worked: open, collegial, and collaborative.
After my tour of the office space I met with Doug Reinhart ’89, a Senior Attorney and the first of my Princeternship hosts. After brief introductions we got down to business almost immediately. I sat in on a conference call between a variety of lawyers representing different businesses. They were discussing an old municipal landfill where the owners hadn’t disposed of waste properly. Now BP was involved in helping fund an environmental investigation of the contaminated land. The conference call participants were partitioning the costs of the investigation amongst themselves. It was interesting to hear the perspectives of a variety of lawyers representing vastly different clients – from huge corporations to small mom-and-pop companies – all negotiating at the same table.
After the call I talked with Doug extensively about his chosen career path. What are the day-to-day operations of a corporate attorney? How does the legal role change when it is operating from within a corporation? What sort of life and career journeys could take one to this position? Doug told me about his post-Princeton experience teaching middle school math – before he went to law school – emphasizing how important he felt it to be to take a break between college and additional post-graduate education. He said that this time is critical in allowing one to truly decide whether or not they want to continue their education and then appreciate it if they choose to go there.
I spent the latter part of the day with Jessica Gonzalez ’95, my other Princeternship host. I began my time with Jessica watching her work one-on-one with a paralegal who was researching BP’s contractual history at a former gas station where BP still maintained responsibility for the land’s environmental issues even though it no longer owned the property. As Jessica and her colleague scoured over numerous contracts, it was fascinating to see how a company deals with risk and liability that arises (and almost never goes away) with regard to sites that have long since left its possession. We then moved on to a conference call regarding BP’s relationship with a fellow company. The call taught me much about inter-corporation relationships and what they mean for a company’s lawyers – not only do such relationships involve the law, but they also require an intuitive understanding of the way businesses function and what they value.
At the end of the day I left BP exhausted, enlightened, and, most of all, excited. I’d witnessed legal life in a business environment and I had gained exposure to the daily practice of corporate law, exposure that is often difficult for undergraduates to explore. My time at BP showed me the wide breadth of knowledge a corporate lawyer must possess – not only does such a lawyer need to know the ins and outs of the law, but he or she must also have an in-depth grasp of the company’s history and philosophy. It’s a potent mix of skills and knowledge that I’m very interested in pursuing. With the help of Jessica, Doug, and the Princeternship program, I can say with confidence that corporate law is an enticing future possibility for me.