Brian Highsmith Furman University Alumni

Brian Highsmith '10

— Law Student

Think creatively about how to use internships, fellowships, and other “gateway” experiences as a bridge to the sort of work you would like to be doing. Do not give up, even after striking out!


Personal/Professional Journey

How did you find your way to where you are today? Share a little about your professional journey.

I am a third-year student at Yale Law School, hoping to pursue a career doing legal and political advocacy on behalf of low-income South Carolina families. I grew up in the state due to my mom’s career as an Army chaplain (she was stationed at Fort Jackson). I graduated in 2010 with majors in economics and political science. During that time, through my coursework and internships with the City of Greenville’s budget office and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in DC, I developed an interest in economic policymaking. After graduation, this led to my spending four years doing tax and budget policy in DC, including at the House Budget Committee under SC Rep. John Spratt, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (an antipoverty think tank), and three years in President Obama’s National Economic Council.

I arrived at law school after this time intending to continue working in economic policy, but soon became interested in how litigation could be used as a tool for creating opportunity for vulnerable families. I did internships at a public interest organization that initiates class actions on behalf of low-income New Yorkers and also at an appellate boutique that focuses on public interest clients, and also joined a consumer-focused clinic at the law school. I will continue this work over the next two years as a fellow at the National Consumer Law Center, where I will be working on litigation and policy advocacy to challenge abusive collections of criminal justice debts in states across the country. I plan to return to the state after the fellowship, where I hope to spend the rest of my career working in some capacity to promote economic and racial justice for South Carolina families.
Was there a catalyzing experience be that critical meeting, research or discovery, being recruited, failing, starting over, or major event, that shaped your career? What advice would you offer someone in the same situation?

The two internships I did immediately after college graduation, at the House Budget Committee and the White House National Economic Council, truly changed the course of my career. I was not having luck at the time looking for full time positions, but these experiences made me more competitive for permanent jobs and allowed me to meet several people who would become lifelong mentors. It deeply frustrates me that these internships are often unpaid — I was able to do them only because my parents were stationed in northern Virginia at the time so I could live at home. If you are able to find a way to make this work for you, through Furman’s resources, for example, I would encourage you to think creatively about how to use internships, fellowships, and other “gateway” experiences as a bridge to the sort of work you would like to be doing. Do not give up, even after striking out!

Within the field

When providing advice for professional development, what are some tools or resources one should consider?

It is important to talk to people in your field, especially peers 2-5 years ahead of you — this really is the single best advice I can give. Come prepared with a narrative about who you are and what you are looking for, basic knowledge about the field/their work, and specific questions about their career. You will learn from the paths they have taken and increase the number of people who will think of you when they hear of potential openings. Be polite and respectful of their time, but also confident. The networking “coffee” is a well-practiced art, and people generally will take the time to meet with you or chat by phone if you demonstrate a genuine interest in what they are doing. This does not come naturally to most people, but it pays dividends.
How have mentors impacted your professional development? How did you develop those relationship?

When you are looking for jobs, look for great mentors, people who care about you and will take time to invest in your growth. Over the long run, those relationships will likely matter as much as the title, location, or nature of the job itself. Be intentional about maintaining those relationships. You should check in periodically, share updates about your life and current plans, and thank them for their advice and perspective.

For someone just getting started

How could Furman help with getting someone started?

Furman can help connect students with mentors in the field by encouraging and even directly teaching how to network — not the purely transactional kind (“here I am, hire me”), but the practice of identifying and then getting to know potential mentors, using those relationships to learn more about a field.

Furman University

How has your liberal arts background shaped your career path or supported your success?

I rarely used any specific thing I learned in school (econometrics and statistics being the exception; I could not have done my job well without having taken these courses), but the general process of thinking critically and quickly learning and applying new concepts is something I use every day.
What are other courses you took or you wish you would have taken that would also add value in your career?

Furman could spend time teaching the mastery of Excel – how to use formulas and Macros to build a really good spreadsheet. This would benefit so many students going into fields that use quantitative analysis.


Were there particular courses within the economics department that were especially useful in helping you identify your career or that ended up helping you to be successful in your career (maybe unexpectedly)?

Of all the courses I took at Furman, the economics senior seminar I had (my year was with Dr. Cook) was the most similar to either a law school seminar or the kinds of policy-focused conversations I had every day at work in DC.
Were there particular “engaged learning” experiences (e.g. internships, study away, research opportunities) that were especially useful?

I really can’t overstate the importance of internships (see above).

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