Judge Susan Breall shares her “crazy” career path with Berkeley Connect

On March 5, Berkeley Connect sponsored a workshop  to help Berkeley Connect students majoring in the arts and humanities explore their career plans. The event kicked off with an inspiring (and funny) keynote by the Honorable Susan Breall, a San Francisco Superior Court judge who got her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley in English. Judge Breall spoke candidly about the “crazy path” she’d taken from Berkeley to her current position, and answered questions from students about her experiences.

Breall admitted to the students she never expected to be where she is today. “I never even thought of being a lawyer when I was an undergraduate here,” she said. “Every lawyer I knew then were pretty obnoxious, so it seemed like an undesirable profession to me. What I knew in high school was that I wanted to come to UC Berkeley. The other thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to major in English. I took everything I wanted to learn and studied things I was interested in. I took so many Italian courses I ended up double-majoring, because I loved Italian movies. But as I was ending my time here, I started to worry about the future.”

“I had a secret dream: to run away with Fellini and become a screenwriter. I told my father. He said, ‘That’s a good idea. But do you like to eat?,'” she laughed. Her father encouraged her to go to law school, but she remained resistant to the idea. Finally, Breall decided to apply to the Ph.D. program in English at Berkeley, UCLA’s film school, and UCLA School of Law, which had a strong entertainment law program she was interested in. “I figured that wherever I got in, I would go,” she said. “But in the end, I got into all three.”

Breall went to Professor Michael Harper, one of her favorite English professors at UC Berkeley, for advice. “I expected him to convince me to stay at Berkeley,” she said. But he did just the opposite. Instead, he encouraged Breall to explore other options and look beyond Berkeley. “He told me, ‘People are like plants. In order to grow, you need to re-pot yourself and find new soil, and you won’t find that by staying here.’ I was very surprised, but it convinced me not to accept the offer to join the Ph.D. program.”

Finally, Breall decided to go to law school. Her father had pointed out that she didn’t need film school to be a screenwriter, and she realized he was right. “I just needed to write, which I wasn’t doing a lot of,” she admitted.

She found herself excelling in law school. “If you are in the humanities here, you will be well-prepared for law school,” Breall assured her audience. “What I found is that if you compare Hemingway to Fitzgerald, or if you compare two civil rights cases, the analysis is the same.” After law school, Breall took a job at one of the largest law firms on the West Coast, but soon found that she hated the corporate environment. She resolved to quit the law and write Harlequin romance for a living. Then, one of her friends suggested she apply for an opening in the District Attorney’s office. She had never even stepped foot in the Hall of Justice, but she decided to give it a try. “When I got there, I saw lawyers running around frantically, rushing in and out of courtrooms, and I remember thinking that this was the greatest place ever,” Breall recounted. “I decided I wanted to work there.”

It was as a District Attorney that Breall became passionate about domestic violence cases, which have been a large part of her work ever since. She eventually applied to be a judge and was appointed in 2001.

Breall also shared some career advice her cousin Amanda gave her. “She told me, ‘Don’t let your love for one thing overwhelm you and close you to other opportunities’ and looking back, that was what screenwriting was to me,” she said. “She also said that if you don’t hate something at your job from a day to day basis, you’re not working. There is no perfect job.”

Another important thing, according to Cousin Amanda? “Get a mentor!” Breall said. “It doesn’t matter who. Someone you like and admire and someone who won’t just tell you what you want to hear. A mentor is someone who will sometimes tell you what you do not want to hear.”

Breall also encouraged students not to be too hung up about job titles. “I had a friend who wanted to apply to an HR position, but had no HR experience. I asked her, ‘Don’t you give advice to your friends? Don’t you interact with a lot of people?’ That is HR. Humanities majors will prepare you in ways other majors won’t, but you don’t want to limit yourself.”

“The world is full of possibilities. I never thought in my wildest dreams I would be doing what I am doing right now,” Breall said. “I am currently running a juvenile delinquent court, and it gives me the opportunity to turn young lives around.”

Judge Breall’s remarks were followed by a presentation by counselors from the Career Center who specialize in working with arts and humanities majors. Their advice and insights are described in the next post.

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant