Alumni Q&A: Jillisa Brittan
M.A. ’86, English and Comparative Literature
President of the GSAS Alumni Association Board of Directors
What were your interests in college and graduate school?
I received a B.A. in English at Northwestern University. I loved literature and wanted more after college, so I entered Columbia’s English Ph.D. Program, where I had a dual focus on modern English literature and Renaissance and Restoration literature. I focused on Henry James, as well as Shakespeare and Milton, with an interest in issues concerning time, memory, and justice. I received my M.A. at Columbia and was a President’s Fellow in Columbia’s Ph.D. program for two more years, before going to the University of Chicago Law School and receiving my J.D.
What was your experience at Columbia like?
I loved my time at Columbia. I had the opportunity to study with amazing scholars, whose work I admired before arriving at Columbia. It was an exciting place— the atmosphere was collegial among students, and my professors were engaging, inspiring, and supportive. I found a refreshing absence of bureaucracy—I was able to ask one of my professors in my second year if I could teach a voluntary discussion section in his undergraduate Shakespeare course, and the next semester, I was teaching. In my third year, while teaching a freshman writing course, I received wonderful support with regard to teaching skills. I felt nurtured both in my scholarship and teaching.
What was your career path after law school?
I joined a global law firm in Chicago, where I became a partner and worked in the trial department, representing businesses in litigation involving commercial disputes, securities, antitrust, and class actions. Now I am a mediator at the federal appeals court in Chicago.
What do you do as a mediator?
I mediate civil cases in federal court in a number of substantive legal areas, including corporate and securities, environmental, bankruptcy, employment discrimination, civil rights, intellectual property, and other types of cases. In my work, I need to listen actively to parties and also be pragmatic and creative in helping them negotiate and resolve their legal disputes outside court.
Has your Columbia education come into play in your profession?
It comes into play daily. At Columbia, I honed my skills as a careful reader of literary texts—skills I now apply to legal texts. I gained teaching experience at Columbia, which served me well in providing compelling narratives to judges and juries as a trial lawyer. Those teaching skills also help in conducting a mediation, and speaking about the law and other issues with lawyers and parties. I’m a lifelong student of the human condition: at Columbia, I applied my readings in psychology to literary texts; those principles are also of great importance to me now in understanding how individuals react to conflict in the legal context. My Columbia education helped me develop the analytical and communication skills, and also the emotional sensitivity, that are all a huge part of my current work.
How have you stayed connected to Columbia since your graduation?
Soon after I started my law career, I heard that Jean Howard, professor of English at Columbia, was giving a talk in Chicago. I attended her talk and loved it; that inspired me to attend more alumni events, both in Chicago and New York. I also deeply appreciated the support I received while at Columbia and wanted to give back. Eventually, I was nominated to the Board of the GSAS Alumni Association.
What inspired you to take on the role of president of the GSAS Alumni Association board?
I stepped up my involvement both because it feels wonderful to be doing something of substance to improve the experience of GSAS students, and because I was inspired by Dean Alonso’s leadership and the concrete actions he has taken to support GSAS students.
What are some initiatives you are planning to work on as president?
I am interested in encouraging newer GSAS alumni to become involved in all aspects of alumni life and leadership and in providing support to GSAS students in their professional pursuits, both inside and outside academia. I would also like to focus on diversity and multiculturalism at the board level.
What is the one thing you would like to tell alumni about GSAS?
Just remember that whatever professional direction you take after Columbia—whether inside or outside academia—the passion and skills of being a scholar, and the analytically rigorous study in which all GSAS students engage, will always be a part of who you are.
— Interview conducted by Andrew Ng