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Headshot of Gwendolyn Gustavson
Photo Credit: Gwendolyn Gustavson

Gwendolyn Gustavson '09

Gwendolyn Gustavson graduated in 2009 with a double major in English and theater, as well as a specialization in Professional Writing and Technical Communication (PWTC). She currently works as an attorney and a paralegal. View her LinkedIn profile to learn more or to connect with her.

How did you get to where you are today?  

The long way. For background, I went to Mass Academy (that’s the Massachusetts Academy for Mathematics and Science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, if you want the ridiculously long name). That meant that I knocked out a year of college credits while still in high school. I was admitted to UMass as a Pre-Law major, but when my high school credits didn’t transfer over immediately, I would have been required to take basically the same course load of Gen Eds that I had just finished in high school. So I switched majors to English, then added Theater, because why not? I love both.  

Around junior year, I realized that these were probably the two most useless degrees a person could have (they aren’t, just for the record, but it felt that way at the time). So I joined the PWTC program, figuring I could write my way into a living wage that way. Then I graduated, followed my college sweetheart to the DC area, and found a job… at a law firm. From there, I found I was still interested in law school after all, so I ended up going back to school part-time while working a more than full-time job.

The plan had been to move home to Massachusetts after law school, so I took the bar exam up there and was admitted. Unfortunately, life likes to throw curveballs, so after all that, personal tragedy struck, and my wife and I decided to stay put in Delaware, where her job was. A very kind judge in Delaware forwarded my resume to a great local firm, and I’ve been with this firm ever since. I took the Delaware bar exam this past summer, and thankfully passed. I should be sworn in this December.

Is this where you thought you would be when you first became an English major?

Yes and no. In high school, I assumed I’d be an attorney one day. But I definitely didn’t anticipate the road that would take me here.

What do you do now? What is a typical day for you?

I am both an attorney and paralegal. I am accredited to represent veterans in their claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs, so I do have a small practice area doing that while otherwise handling paralegal duties and any attorney work I am permitted to do under local law.

Plenty of attorneys live for 60 or 80 hour weeks, and I’ve done that (it’s what I did through law school, in fact). The nice thing about my current firm and Delaware in general is their great respect for work-life balance. I usually arrive at work between 8:30 and 8:45 and leave 8 hours later. My days vary. Some days, it’s all filing. Some days, it’s drafting briefs and memos. Some days, researching the law or the random issues that come up in any given case. It all depends on what’s going on in the different cases that day.

What advice might you have for students who are interested in the job you have now?  

Go live in the real world. Seriously. It will give you a tremendous sense of perspective, and help you both survive law school and perform better as an attorney. Lawyers are called “counselor” for a reason: we are supposed to counsel our clients. To do that, you need empathy, understanding, and an ability to see the big picture and potential outcomes of the choices available to a client. Getting out there will help with all of these.

How have your specializations helped you in your career? What about any specific courses?

The PWTC specialization definitely helped hone my writing skills to write short, clear statements targeted at an end goal. Many students and lawyers think that padding their writing with filler and legalese makes them sound smarter. It doesn’t. When writing legal briefs, I try to cut to the chase and keep things easy to read for any audience.

Were you involved in any extracurriculars as an undergrad? The Wire, Daily Collegian, Jabberwocky? Or an internship?

I was a member of the Come Again Players—the Rocky Horror cast in South Hadley. I also worked on various theatrical productions in the community, including several with the Hampshire Shakespeare Company.  

Do you have any advice for English majors and soon-to-be graduates?  

You’ve heard it all before: Be brave! Do good! Challenge yourself! Try something new! Oh, the places you’ll go!  

But in all seriousness, life is both longer and shorter than you think. You can change direction if you don’t like where you’re headed. Money really doesn’t buy happiness. Toxic people don’t change. So do the things that bring you joy and the things that benefit the world around you, and don’t waste your time and energy on people and things that bring you down.

Interview by Sierra Sumner, Digital Communications Intern