Podcast: Changing Careers from Music to Law

Author: Dr. Bjorn Mercer
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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University, and Dr. Trevor Reed, Law Professor, Arizona State University

Balancing multiple professional careers can be incredibly difficult, but also very rewarding. In this podcast, American Public University Program Director Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks with Dr. Trevor Reed about finding balance while pursuing two very different and demanding professional passions: lawyer and musician.

Dr. Reed, a law professor at Arizona State University, draws on his experiences as a musician, composer, and performer in his role as a legal academic and Indigenous rights advocate. He offers advice on how to change careers, apply skills from each to benefit the other, and, most importantly, have patience with oneself during times of transition. Dr. Reed also discusses how his Native American background as a member of the Hopi Tribe has influenced both his musical and legal career.

Read the Transcript

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today at The Everyday Scholar, we’re talking to Dr. Trevor Reed, Associate Professor of Law, at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, at Arizona State University. And today we’re going to be talking about changing careers from music to law. Welcome, Trevor.

Dr. Trevor Reed: Hey, thank you for having me, Bjorn.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, definitely. I’m excited to talk to you today, and we’ve known each other for, gosh, two years now or so? And we’ve always talked music. We’ve talked a little law.

And now we’re going to talk about your experience in changing careers. And so this leads me right into my first question for you: What was it like to change careers after completing your Ph.D. in music?

Dr. Trevor Reed: You know, it’s a good question, because I’m not sure yet if what I’ve done is really a career change, and I’ll explain that a little bit.

But I think what I’ve found is that what I’m doing now is kind of an intersection between things I’m passionate about, things that I enjoy doing. I feel incredibly lucky that I have a place to do that, but in some ways, I also feel like I’ve been going down a well-traveled path, where people have found a way to carry on multiple professional lives.

Thinking about all the composers out there who have packed back and forth between various professions, Charles Ives, who went into insurance sales as well as composing, or Phillip Glass, who was a plumber and a taxi driver for a number of years while he was composing and performing.

And there are plenty of lawyers I know who are also really good musicians and continue to play. In fact, one of my law professor colleagues here at ASU, Charles Calleros, is a really top-notch drummer, and performs flamenco or at least performed flamenco for a while, while he was early in his teaching career.

So I don’t know if I necessarily call this a career change, but more of kind of my professional life. But jumping into the legal field full bore, after being a music Ph.D., is kind of a bit of a shock. I mean, it’s a different type of a world, different formalities, different hierarchies, different ways of viewing the world.

And so, yeah, it has been a bit of an adjustment in the way that I go about doing my work and even the content of the work that I do. But I really, I think about it as kind of a fusion of two of my favorite things, two of the areas that I’m passionate about.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I really liked that you brought up Charles Ives specifically, being one of my favorite American composers. And the fact that his career was insurance, and then on the side he wrote amazing music, especially I guess you could say, in the early 20th century.

And that’s one thing that you have in common with Charles Ives, is you are also a composer. And so as kind of a follow-up question for that, and we’ll get to this a little later, but how do you still incorporate composition into your life now?

Dr. Trevor Reed: Absolutely. One of the challenges with doing the legal profession is that it definitely consumes a lot of your time, right? The creative time that I used to have, time away from the desk while I was doing writing, even for academic stuff, I had space to be able to do the musical writing that I wanted to do.

As I found, though, there’s a remarkable relationship. Maybe it’s not a direct connection, but there are similar expressive things about music and law. So in some ways, I look at my work in the legal field as a mode of composition.

The notion that you have to persuade a judge is kind of similar to the way that you persuade audiences to keep listening as you’re writing a piece of music. So I think there are a lot of connections there, and they actually involve similar processes intellectually for me. And even I found ways to incorporate creativity, composing, into the research that I’m doing right now with indigenous people, as they’re trying to use music as a way to assert their rights in society at large.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. I don’t know if you’ve listened to one of my previous podcasts with Jonathan Hill, when he talked about music of indigenous people in American popular music, which was an excellent conversation. Now do you find that, because of your music background, that also helps you talk to or build rapport with people?

Dr. Trevor Reed: I think there’s definitely some of that. Being an attorney requires quite a bit of interpersonal interaction. And I think, being a musician, one is always perceptive of the way other people perceive the work that you’re doing, reading social cues, things like that.

But I think there’s also a certain amount of pride that one has in one’s work as a lawyer and as a musician. Nobody wants to be told that they’re not toeing the line. They aren’t playing their Brahms sonata correctly. Nobody wants to have a judge throw out their brief and say it’s garbage.

So I think they’re both professions, and they’re definitely things where we take pride in our work and there’s a lot of individual merit involved when we’re doing our work. And we’re definitely rewarded as individuals on both fronts. But yeah, I think there are definitely connections between these two in that way as well.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. The next question I have for you is: What was it like being a parent while you’re in school becoming a lawyer? And then how do you now juggle, of course, being a parent while you are a lawyer? So changing careers in law school, very difficult, and now that you have the job, you’re still a parent, and you’re still having to juggle everything.

Dr. Trevor Reed: Sure. It’s wonderful to have kids. It’s also challenging and hectic, as you know.

And especially currently right now, as many of us are under quarantine or else not able to move around with our kids. We’re at home a lot, and it definitely makes you appreciate the work that parents do.

But I think having kids really keeps you real, to be honest. It forces me out of this professional world that I assume every day, and it makes me have to understand somebody else’s world.

I have to understand the problems that my kids bring to me, the things that they show me. It helps me open up new perspectives that I wouldn’t otherwise be attuned to.

It also ensures that I’m efficient with the things that I do at work. It makes me confine my schedule to a certain time period. And without having the responsibility of a family, I could dwell on a particular legal issue for hours and hours trying to solve it.

And I think having the kids around helps me to see, “Wow, there could be different points of view.” And then sometimes I’m taken completely away from the things I’m thinking about, which is a lovely opportunity that not everybody gets.

One of the things that I found that’s super useful about having kids, if I can think of my kids as being utilitarian bonus, right, is that as an anthropologist, kids help you get into places you wouldn’t normally go. This is one of the fun things.

I did a lot of my field work as an ethnomusicologist out on Indian reservations. And kids do and say the darnedest things.

And so they would go up to a particular elder or a particular individual, and strike up a conversation. And perhaps they’d do something embarrassing in front of an entire village, and you’d learn all kinds of things from that experience.

And so I felt like my kids opened new doors. They helped me to get into situations I wouldn’t have expected, and to learn things that I wouldn’t have otherwise learned or poked my head into.

So I think they also have things to say about situations that open my mind, both legal issues and also musical issues, and also just my general work as a scholar, anthropologist, researcher. So kids are wonderful in many ways, as you know, as you know.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. Now do you find that in music and in law, and just as you talked about, time management is extremely important. In law, is there more of an emphasis on working longer hours? And is it [up to] the individual to figure out the time management, because one could easily be consumed with one’s music career, say practicing, practicing, and with law probably with researching?

Dr. Trevor Reed: Absolutely. The music professional, we’re often paid, if we don’t have an institutional job, we’re paid on a project-by-project basis. You’ve developed a grant to do this amazing artistic work, and then you’ll get paid for it in a block, some funding, or else perhaps you’ll be able to publish it, and the publisher will give you an advance of some sort.

When it comes to law, you’re generally paid on an hourly basis. And so the more hours you work on a particular issue, the more billable hours you acquire, the more investment you make, perhaps the bigger the payoff.

Now, of course, in the law, we want to represent our clients the best, and we don’t want to gouge them at all. But the goal is to solve the problem, whatever it takes, up to whatever the limit your client might be setting. So perhaps the incentives are a little bit different.

When it comes to musical creativity, the goal is to do it on a budget, often. When it comes to legal creativity, we’re talking about doing it in a way that hits the highest level. I think that definitely pushes folks to work long hours.

I know a lot of my colleagues that I went to law school with, they go to work at 10:00 AM and then come home at 2:00 AM. We’re talking about very, very long days. And that’s kind of just the culture of the legal industry.

And there are many musicians that put that kind of strain on themselves. But I think just to be able to perform and to be creative at that level, one needs to take breaks. So yes, it’s definitely a different culture and different work ethic.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now since COVID-19, or coronavirus, is currently in the country, in the world, and we’re all experiencing it collectively, how do you see musicians being impacted? I would say more of the gigging musicians versus the academic musicians who maybe have full-time jobs? And how are lawyers impacted by this, and say, differently?

Dr. Trevor Reed: I think, and this is kind of one of the tragic aspects of the current situation, I was just reading in the New York Times today that the Metropolitan Opera has had to let go all of its musicians. That was part of their effort to be able to control costs, and also to allow folks, I’m sure, to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

And I think this is going to end up probably being the trend around the country, is that how can these employers that employ musicians, how can they really pay musicians when there are no audiences that they can tap into?

This has been one of the challenges, I think, for the music industry for a long time, is that in-person performance has, for at least since the early 2000s, been the mode of making the most money in the music scene.

I mean, there are ways now to stream and be able to receive royalties through digital downloads and things like that. But by and large, having access face-to-face with musicians and performers has been a major source of income. And there are certain art forms that we just haven’t really developed a mode to stream them well.

It’s difficult to bring two performers together from different places in the world and stream them perfectly. There are new software platforms to do that, but we really haven’t developed that culturally as an institution yet. And so I think definitely, the music world needs to evolve to make it possible to do more electronic collaborations.

Now the legal world has been doing this for many years. I worked at a firm in Washington, D.C., that had offices in many parts of the country. And when it comes to Native American law, that was the law that I was working in at the time, tribes are spread out all over the country.

And so to be able to have those face-to-face interactions and also have as many legal minds together as possible, you have to connect digitally. And so I was in D.C. and I was working with attorneys in Alaska, and in San Diego and in Albuquerque.

And you could take your work home pretty easily, because the end product really is a text document. And you can send that document to all over the world, and it can be read and enjoyed. I don’t know how much it’s enjoyed, but it could definitely be adjusted and used.

So I’m not sure, culturally, if definitely in the legal world, culturally working across digital links is definitely accepted. But I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the point where artistically, in-person culture can be used and experienced online in the same way that it could be experienced in a performance, like at a concert hall.

Certainly, audio recordings and podcasts are becoming a norm of everybody’s life. But I think we still have that longing to have that social experience when we go to the concert hall.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right, and I completely agree. It’s difficult, because I could sit here and listen to Bruckner Symphony No. 8 and love it, absolutely wonderful recording.

But listening to that same symphony in a concert hall is a completely different experience. The visceral, I guess, reaction your body experiences in that live performance is you just don’t get it, even in one of the, say in a perfect recording or with the perfect audio setup.

So music, and especially classical music, and I should say both Trevor and I are classically trained musicians, it’s difficult because the economy of classical music is really, like you said, really live. Do classical musicians even make any money anymore, I mean, with recordings?

Dr. Trevor Reed: That’s a good question. Yeah, what a challenging world it is right now for classical musicians in general. It used to be that the symphony gig was kind of the pinnacle, what everybody was aspiring to.

But how many full-time symphony orchestras can really support that level of fixed costs anymore? That’s one of the biggest challenges facing the field. How do we employ these incredibly talented people full-time?

Remarkably though, I think there are some connections to the legal field. Even though a lot of our legal creativity or legal work, or legal profession, can be done online and remotely, we definitely insist on performance in the legal field.

Oddly enough, sound actually plays a significant role in American law. Think about the sound of a gavel, the announcement of a jury verdict, the preference for oral testimony in a trial, or even oral argumentation, which is supposed to help a judge at resolving complex issues of law. It’s the jury’s duty to hear all the evidence.

And we hear imperatives to call your legislative representatives. We have debates and speeches. We have campaigns to let your voice be heard. There’s this deep connection.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And my next question, Trevor, is how does your Hopi background influence your choices in life?

Dr. Trevor Reed: Well, I think this is a good question. I’ve been pondering over this a bit in my own life, now that I’ve moved much closer to the Hopi Reservation. New York, it was quite distant, so I didn’t have a lot of contact, except for the summers when I would come out and assist the tribe with legal issues.

But I think now that I’m much closer, it made me realize just how close of a connection I’ve had. I didn’t really grow up on the Hopi Reservation. I grew up in Seattle for the most part.

But my dad, who is Hopi, often sang Hopi songs to me. And I traveled to the reservation to witness ceremonies, of course.

And there was a period in my youth when my family moved to the reservation for a while, and that was deeply impactful. Music and singing is really important in Hopi society, and so it was just natural that that kind of just became integrated into my practice as a musician and then into my interests as somebody interested in law.

But you know, it’s interesting, my movement from being a composer that was interested and fascinated with Hopi music, into a person who works on legal research that involves Hopi issues around sovereignty and sound. I think that kind of happened by accident, to be honest.

While I was studying music as an undergraduate, I remember, I was writing a piece that was kind of, it was Hopi-influenced, and I remember presenting it to the faculty as part of my grade in a class. And I remember, after the performance was over, one of the faculty raised their hand and said, “Oh, you know what? That sounds just like Pocahontas.”

I thought to myself, I thought, indigenous culture is unfortunately highly stereotyped, and very much undervalued in our creative industries today. And so I decided I needed to pursue something a little bit more than just composition. I wanted to pursue training in arts management, to see if I could develop a career promoting and producing arts and culture.

And so that took me to New York, to Columbia University, where I actually met Aaron Fox, who’s the Director for the Center of Ethnomusicology there at Columbia, who explained to me that they actually, at Columbia, have this massive archive of Native American music. It’s just been sitting there for the last 70 to 80 years, and nobody’s really touched it.

But there’s this historical, incredible document of creativity from tribes from all over the world. And it made me think, “Wow, why is this here?”

And I came to understand this history, that for almost a century, and even beyond that, ever since the advent of sound recording, people have been going out to indigenous communities to record their creativity.

People have seen it as remarkable and different, and sometimes exotic, of course, and they brought it back. And it’s been an important part of Americana, an important part of our cultural development. And these materials are here.

And the question is, now what do we do with them? Who owns them? What rights do people have to those? So naturally, that just took me into the realm of copyright law and indigenous rights, and trying to understand the answers to some of these questions.

So in a lot of ways, my Hopi background has definitely taken me on this journey. I feel a certain amount of obligation to support the Hopi people, because that’s who I am.

But at the same time, I feel like it’s also led me along a path where I’ve embarked on a career that wasn’t really possible, just as a composer, or just as a lawyer, kind of made a fusion of these interests of mine, and taken me down this very interesting path.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s a remarkable path, I must say. And I guess, a follow-up question for you, which is a difficult question. I’ve lived in mainly West Texas, mainly Arizona, and so having lived in these areas, there’s always been tribes around me.

But then, I say, as your average American, without any native that’s part of me, I know very little about the history and the true culture of the indigenous people of North America. Why do you think that is, that the American education system fails at teaching its own people about indigenous people here and how can we do better?

How can we learn about the people who were here before Europeans came over? Is it through music and food? Is it through reaching out? Is it, I don’t want to say help, because that’s tricky.

Dr. Trevor Reed: So I definitely agree that we, as a society, American society, needs to know more about the people whose land we’re on. And I think that statement itself helps us to know why we don’t learn as much as we do.

When we think about the priorities, what is it that we want children, what core understanding do we want them to have, to be functional in American society? We don’t usually turn to, “Well, we need to understand indigenous ownership of this land. We don’t need to understand necessarily indigenous sovereignty to be able to function within a United States civil society.”

In fact, when you look at the Constitution, indigenous peoples are only mentioned once, and it’s only in the context of commerce. Congress has given the authority to be able to make laws with respect to commerce with Indian tribes. There’s no deference to indigenous laws. There’s no acknowledgement that this land belongs to indigenous peoples.

And so part of the project of settler colonialism, what we’ve referred to as the way that settlers have arrived on this land, and then essentially taken over control of it, the whole logic of that, is dispossession through erasure. We take for granted, in our society, that this land has other sovereigns on it.

And we do that both overtly, by making that explicit when we say, “We base our entire legal system off of this Constitution that was never ratified by indigenous peoples.” And we also do it more overtly. We do it by simply not acknowledging that other people have lived here and had societies, and still do.

And then, of course, it’s also in the way that we narrate these societies. Whenever you see on television or in social media, whenever you see an indigenous person, statistically that person has either committed a crime or is impoverished. It’s very rare that you see an indigenous person that’s successful, that has means, that’s being creative or making a difference.

And that’s slowly changing. I think we’re starting to see a few more indigenous peoples that are seen as real creators, innovators, CEOs, things like that.

So why has our education system failed to display indigenous peoples in a more positive light or even teach their histories? I think one is we don’t have enough time to teach everything in our curriculum. And so some of the first things to go are the things that people feel like aren’t relevant for a society that’s based on dispossessing indigenous peoples.

Now, at the same time, I think, as a society, we’ve also cordoned ourselves off from indigenous peoples. The whole notion of a reservation, for example, came from this idea that we should reserve portions of land for indigenous peoples to live on. And that whole structure of reserving land for indigenous peoples to be on, the underlying theory was that indigenous peoples would stop existing at some point in time in the future, that they would either assimilate into mainstream society, or that they would just die out, the whole notion of social Darwinism.

We haven’t seen that happen. In fact, we’ve seen indigenous peoples thrive, despite the fact that there are reservations set up in this manner.

But the whole idea was to cut off indigenous peoples from the rest of society until they were able to intermingle. And I think that the separation has really placed a distance, both intellectually and culturally, between indigenous peoples and what we might call mainstream society.

You don’t necessarily see that in other places. You don’t see that necessarily in some places in South America and the Pacific Islands, where there are different arrangements, where there aren’t necessarily borders that keep people separated.

So what can we do going forward? Well, I think the biggest challenge here now is to simply find ways to give voice to a more diverse group of intellectual cultural leaders. And I think we’re starting to do that. I think the other piece is being able to accept the different worldviews of different societies.

One of the big challenges that we have is that a lot of times indigenous worldviews are incommensurable with the kinds of structures we’ve developed. Indigenous relationships to land are very different from the kind of relationships to land that are espoused by American society. And yet increasingly, we’re starting to see overlaps and similar approaches.

One of the most interesting legal innovations that I think have happened in the last few years is the recognition of personhood rights for rivers, streams, mountains. Some cities, some counties, even some states and countries, are saying, “Oh, that mountain, we’re going to give it personhood rights. It’s going to be treated like a legal person.”

And if somebody violates it in some way, then you can actually sue that person on behalf of the mountain or the stream. These are worldviews that indigenous peoples have held for a long time, and now they’re just barely making it into our legal system.

So yeah, I think there’s a lot that we can do as educators, I think. But a lot of it happens at some of the more fundamental levels, being able to integrate indigenous philosophies and indigenous ways of looking at things into just the core subjects that we have and that we teach.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, thank you. Learning more for Americans about indigenous culture and being, to me is one of the great, I’ll say, challenges, because we need to do it, as a country. There’s many things that we could say that Americans need to improve on, America needs to improve on. But to me, this is one of the big ones. So thank you.

So my final question is, since you changed careers, with a family in hand and a Ph.D. completed, and you went and got your law degree, what advice do you have for working adults as they’re changing careers? Say they had one career, and they’re transitioning to a new one. What’s good advice?

Dr. Trevor Reed: The biggest advice, I would say, is to not necessarily leave the career that you previously had behind. It’s important to take time, when you’re moving into a new career, to really soak up everything, to really learn the ropes, to be able to integrate yourself.

But I think there are many bridges that we can make between different fields that aren’t there already and that we can be leaders, especially when we have disparate fields that we’re traversing. I think about the types of connections that I’m making in my research, between music and between law, not just in terms of copyright law and how we can better protect music, but even between just the structures that we have.

You know music and law are actually pretty similar on a number of levels. Think about the way that music and law are both deeply connected to our social experiences.

I don’t think anybody doubts that the social impacts of law, especially currently right now, law is, aside from the concerns we have for our neighbors and loved ones, law is definitely what’s influencing our willingness to be behind the doors of our own homes and not out there circulating in society. But music also does many of these same things, when you think about the way that music influences our behaviors and things like that.

So I think, yeah, one of the first things I would say is, don’t feel like you have to leave behind everything from the prior career. You can integrate and you can be a thought leader in many ways through the connections that you’re making.

I think the other piece of advice would be definitely have patience. This is one of the things I’m learning now, is that even in academia, just moving from one college to another, can be just learning an entirely new culture, an entirely new system, and a new way of being and thinking.

And that can be a little bit challenging. It might feel stifling at first. But I think, fortunately there are ways that we can make those bridges happen.

But it takes patience. It takes us looking for opportunities, and not doubting yourself. So I think that would be the next piece of advice, is that have patience with yourself and don’t doubt that the contributions you’re making and your steps forward are in vain.

But yeah, I think beyond those two, just keeping the eye out for new opportunities, I think, is also a really amazing thing that comes from changing careers. Seeing new things through new perspectives, I think, has been really eye-opening for me, that I can actually combine music and law in ways that I never thought I could.

And people are interested in collaborating with me that I never would have thought I would be collaborating with. I thought moving into law, I would be giving up any sort of creative or performance art.

And it turns out that I have colleagues in the humanities, in the Design Institute, in the Music School, that are all also working on these really interesting social issues that dovetail between law and the creative arts and humanities. So I think the field is open. I think we have many possibilities. And so a career change doesn’t necessarily mean sealing oneself off anymore.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Now thank you. Those are absolutely wonderful points of advice, and I completely agree. Patience, don’t discount what you have already done and be open to opportunities. I mean, that’s one of the things I tell people, is try not to discount any opportunity that might come along, and you never know when something’s going to happen. That’s why you should try to be ready and try to be open to it.

So, thank you, Trevor. This has been an absolutely wonderful conversation. And any last words?

Dr. Trevor Reed: Oh, thank you very much, Bjorn. This has been great. And I’d love to continue to collaborate with anybody who’s interested in a career change question, because I think all of us that are in this position have a lot to learn from each other. So hopefully there’ll be a way for us to collaborate going forward.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And of course, you are listening to The Everyday Scholar, here at American Public University System. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and we are talking to Dr. Trevor Reed, Associate Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, at Arizona State University. And this was Changing Careers from Music to Law at the Everyday Scholar.

About the Speakers

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

Dr. Trevor Reed is an Associate Professor of Law in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where he teaches courses in federal Indian law and intellectual property. He holds a B.M. in music composition from Brigham Young University, an M.A. in arts administration from Teachers College at Columbia University, a J.D. from Columbia Law School (where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar), and an M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Columbia University. Dr. Reed is an active musician and composer, as well as a Ford Foundation Fellow.

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Podcast: Changing Careers from Music to Law
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