“After college, I was working in university administration, and I really enjoyed it. My mentor suggested that it would be good for me to pursue graduate education in furtherance of my career, and that a law degree in particular would be helpful,” says Catherine Peshkin, assistant dean for Harvard Law School’s Graduate Program and International Legal Studies. “‘Okay, that’s fine,’ I said, ‘but I am definitely never practicing law,’ And, of course, I wound up practicing law.”
In spite of her early hesitation to enter the legal field, today Peshkin brings curiosity, open mindedness, and a love for education to her role working with LL.M. and S.J.D. students, faculty, and alumni.
The daughter of a U.S. military service member, Peshkin was born in the Midwest and moved around a lot, growing up in the southeastern part of the country, Southern California, and even Morocco before settling in Georgia once her father retired. After attending Duke University as an undergraduate, she took a job at Duke’s School of Law, quickly ascending to become its assistant director of admissions.
After a few years, the dean of admissions – and Peshkin’s mentor – urged her to continue her own education. As a joint M.B.A/J.D. student at Duke, Peshkin says she followed a less traditional path, because she had not intended to practice law. “I did not do all of the things in law school that are common. I did not pursue moot court or a journal, or apply for a clerkship. If I had to do it over again, there are a couple of things that I might do differently.”
Indeed, after her first year of law school, while some of her classmates pursued internships, Peshkin spent the summer on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) backpacking course in Wyoming – a 30-day trip that was as formative as it was grueling.
“It was, and remains, the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I thought I was going to die every day. We were in grizzly bear country. There were times when we had to wake up in the middle of the night and take cover to make sure we weren’t going to be struck by lightning. We had to cross rivers that were hip deep and slide down giant ice slopes, all while carrying a 65-pound backpack. When it was over, I thought I’d never want to do it again, but I quickly realized I wanted to do that kind of thing all the time.”
The experience shifted her thinking on hiking, which became one of her life’s greatest interests. Maybe it changed her perspective on her education, too. Following her 2L year, “I talked myself into doing a summer internship with a law firm, because I realized that it would be great to gain practical experience in the legal world,” Peshkin says. “I wanted to see what being a lawyer was all about.”
Even still, she adds, “I didn’t think I’d go back to the firm after graduation – and I definitely didn’t think I was going to be a bankruptcy lawyer.”
Once again, things ended up differently than Peshkin had expected. “I was surprised by how much I liked practicing, and how much I liked corporate bankruptcy in particular because it gave me the opportunity to combine transactional work with court hearings and litigation. I realized it would take me some time to feel like I really knew what I was doing in my practice area,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do this for a year or two, but then I can easily get back into higher education.’”
She ended up staying in practice much longer than expected because she enjoyed the work, and because she was fortunate once again to find excellent mentors and develop strong relationships with colleagues.
After seven years, Peshkin had made partner but also reached an inflection point. She was proud of what she had achieved, but felt it was time to pursue other passions. She left her firm and traveled the world for a year and a half, much of it on foot, exploring places like Nepal, India, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, Portugal, and the U.K. Peshkin even walked the Camino de Santiago, a historic pilgrimage trail in Spain, on three separate routes. On one particularly memorable occasion, she followed the route suggested by what turned out to be an error-riddled guidebook.
“At the recommendation of the guidebook, I stopped at one hostel that turned out to be empty and abandoned, with mouse droppings and moldy mattresses. It was like a horror film, but I had to sleep there because it was too late to find anywhere else. Another day, it got dark much earlier than I expected, and I ended up walking through a swamp in the pitch black. I wasn’t able to see the trail markers, so I was walking in a stream, stepping on toads, crying. Fortunately, I had actually been going in the right direction and ultimately popped out into a town.”
After 18 months, Peshkin decided she was ready to return to the U.S. – and to her career in higher education. At her mentor’s recommendation, she took a short-term role in special projects and strategic planning at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. After that, a desire to be in a bigger city, paired with an interest in working for a law school, brought Peshkin to Harvard Law School as its director of admissions and financial aid for the Graduate Program.
Last fall, Peshkin was appointed assistant dean for the Harvard Law School Graduate Program and International Legal Studies. In this role, she oversees the administration of the LL.M. and S.J.D. programs. Her goal, she says, is to continue to attract and enroll the most talented and diverse graduate students, and to support their success at Harvard Law.
“The LL.M. and S.J.D. students are fascinating,” she says. “They’re not just from all over the world, but they also have so many different types of backgrounds and so many different types of interests. Some come from firms, some of them might come from academia. Some might come from government, the judiciary, or even non-law fields. It’s really interesting to get to know them, and they have a wonderful energy.”
Peshkin says one of the best parts of her job is working with the incredibly talented and dedicated team of Graduate Program and International Legal Studies administrators and collaborating closely with other HLS departments. She finds it particularly satisfying to cultivate a welcoming on-campus environment for students and hopes to enhance LL.M. connections with the J.D. cohort as well. She also hopes the relationships the graduate students build with one another, and with Harvard Law, will endure long past graduation. “We really value our alumni, and our team continues to look for ways we can foster and deepen alumni engagement with our current students and programs.”
In her spare time, Peshkin still loves hiking and walking – on trips around the globe, or a little closer to home along the Charles River. She also likes testing out the wide variety of artisanal ice cream on offer in Cambridge and Boston, though she finds it hard to pick a favorite. And she enjoys piecing together jigsaw puzzles, though she has discovered that, unlike with jigsaw puzzles, there are many ways to piece together life’s opportunities to build a fruitful career.