The Cornell Connection: Reflections On An Unexpected Career Change

When I grow up, I want to be…

My first memory of taking a tangible step toward my career was on the last day of kindergarten. In front of an audience of classmates and families, I participated in our “moving up” ceremony. Here, we were asked to introduce ourselves and share what we wanted to be when we grew up. There were all sorts of responses, including fairies, princesses, skateboarders, football players, doctors, and a lawyer (mine).

As a kindergartner, I actually didn’t know what a lawyer did. However, I was inspired by my mother’s work as an attorney, who utilized her legal knowledge to help family and friends. Seeing the joy on people’s faces when they discovered that my mother was able to help them made me realize that I wanted to have the same positive impact on society.


Ever since my declaration at the “moving up” ceremony, I have been working toward achieving a successful legal career. Upon graduating from Dartmouth College, I worked as a legal assistant at the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City. My experience as a legal assistant didn’t deter me from going to law school, either. Instead, it catalyzed my decision to pursue a JD/MBA so that I could ultimately better serve future corporate clients.

Up until starting the JD/MBA at Cornell, I had based every professional and academic decision around returning to work at Sullivan & Cromwell’s M&A practice in Manhattan. However, my mindset was completely altered the moment I started business school at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. Here, for the first time in my life, I was presented with opportunities outside of the legal field.

During business school, my inherent creativity and ability to have different perspectives on a single situation were rewarded and encouraged in a way that I had not experienced in law school. Specifically, during my business strategy class, we read an article about Wal-Mart’s fashion identity crisis. We were tasked with analyzing Wal-Mart’s failed fashion strategy while weighing the trade-off between low cost and differentiation.

Marisa Werner, Cornell University JD/MBA

I was particularly excited to contribute and be a part of this conversation as I have always expressed great zeal for fashion and the retail industry. It was during this class that I proposed that Wal-Mart acquire the then-bankrupt Forever21. My solution would allow Wal-Mart to offer a more cohesive line of products (which it currently lacks), while maintaining the low Wal-Mart price point. My professor was very impressed with my response, and pulled me aside after class to recommend that I consider opportunities in consulting.


From that point forward, I began to keep a record of topics that I enjoyed studying in class, along with the classes and assignments where my personal strengths were rewarded. Over time, it became increasingly apparent that I needed to be in a more creative and constantly evolving environment. However, my pride made this difficult to admit. Having this epiphany that I no longer wanted to be a lawyer in the typical sense was a hard pill for me to swallow. After all, I had dedicated a majority of my life to achieving this dream.

For a few months, I felt like I was being pulled in two very different directions: either pursue the predictable path I had been on or forge ahead on a new path that would let me explore my new-found passion. Ultimately, I discovered that what I am seeking in a professional career cannot be fulfilled by law, but by consulting. This choice would enable me to apply my passion for implementing different business strategies while simultaneously leveraging my law degree. Through the JD/MBA, I underwent a period of self-discovery that allowed me to unearth my passions and strengths. Ultimately, it gave me the confidence to forge a less-traveled path.

While writing this reflection, it seems as if this was a very fluid process. However, a majority of my time was spent confused and sifting through a host of unknowns. There were days when I would completely doubt myself and question why I was going against the status quo. As a risk-adverse person, the thought of throwing everything away to move to uncharted territory when the safe route was both familiar and comfortable was truly terrifying. On the other hand, deep down inside, I knew that transitioning from law to consulting was the right step forward.


Often times, I get the question, “If you are so set on being on the business side, why finish your law degree?”. Another way to put it: “Do you regret your decision to pursue a four-year JD/MBA?”.

At first, when I heard these questions, I would instantaneously feel a rush of anxiety, followed by crippling self-doubt. Over time, I came to realize something important. While the JD/MBA prevented me from being classified in a certain box, it also allowed me to offer potential employers a unique skill set and perspective. For example, this past summer, I worked at a retail e-commerce start-up where I assisted with drafting Terms and Conditions for brands featured on the site and future customers shopping on the marketplace. I was able to not only think about the legal implications of these policies, but their potential impact on the company’s bottom line because of what I learned as a JD/MBA.

For the record, I do not regret my decision to pursue a four-year JD/MBA. Without this dual-degree, I would never have discovered what it is I am actually seeking from my professional career. The JD/MBA opened my eyes in ways that I never imagined because it pushed me to think outside of the box in order to find a career that better aligned with my strengths and interests.

While I am taking a leap of faith in deviating from my original recruiting plans, this experience has provided me with great life lessons that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I learned the importance of always questioning myself and sticking up for what I want even if it means tossing out the original blueprint to only re-create one from scratch.

Marisa Werner is a 4-year JD/MBA candidate at Cornell University, where she serves as one of the Cornell Johnson Student Council Co-Presidents. Prior to the dual-degree program, Marisa worked as a Litigation Legal Assistant at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York City following her graduation from Dartmouth College, where she majored in French, Italian, and Spanish. Marisa is passionate about leading, motivating, and mentoring others to reach their full potential. As a proud New Jersey native, Marisa enjoys putting a spin on traditional Italian recipes, discovering local wines of the Finger Lake region, and spending time outside with family and friends.

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