Fellow relished labor law externship, opportunity at MSU Tax Law Clinic


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Frank Harrison didn’t get off to a stellar academic start in his teens; but after dropping out of high school, he later got back on track—and now is a 3L at Michigan State University College of Law.

“The main cause was simply reflecting on how my choice was effecting my younger brother’s own academic journey,” he says. “Simply put, it was difficult to encourage him to ‘stick the course’ and keep at it when I didn't—so it was simply a matter of having to swallow my pride, go get my GED, and then re-start on my own academic journey.”

That journey has been a great success. Harrison’s most recent achievement was receiving a Peggy Browning Fellowship, that provides stipends to law students who dedicate their summer to advancing the cause of workers' rights by working for labor unions, worker centers, labor-related not-for-profit organizations, union-side law firms and other nonprofit organizations.

Harrison interviewed at eight places through the Peggy Browning Fund, for the most part enjoying the process—“other than the existential dread one gets from interviews”—and meeting interesting people from California, Alabama, Washington, D.C., and New York, where he ultimately landed at the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm in Syracuse—a firm that had been his No. 1 choice. 

“I got my top spot and I couldn’t have been more content with that,” he says. “Competition for the Fellowship positions was fierce and I’m incredibly grateful to receive not only an offer, but the top one on my list! Working at Satter Ruhlen has been an honor,” he adds. “I’ve been able to get more experience in doing both labor and employment law, getting experience in trial prep, arbitration hearings, and a swath of New York specific administrative hearings. It’s been an interesting challenge of coming into New York with no real knowledge of New York State law but I’ve been brought along well by all the attorneys. 

“The attorneys are also incredibly mindful of what kinds of experiences I’ve been wanting to have or build upon, and they’ve gone out of their way to get me involved in those kinds of experiences. I asked to be part of any kind of trial or witness prep and I’m always getting invites.”

It’s a far cry from Harrison’s post-high school years, stocking shelves or working the cash register at retail stores, with no particular career goal. He also earned an EMT license, but didn’t work in that field. His last job was working in logistics. 

Returning to academia, the Coldwater native earned his undergrad degree in economics and philosophy from Western Michigan University, attracted by how both disciplines are naturally abstract. 

“Generally speaking, you’re not dealing with concrete, obvious problems,” he says. “Instead, you're dealing with problems that don’t take on a physical form like what makes an ethical statement truth-apt or what exactly is economic surplus and can we shape a market to more equitably split the gains from specialization and international trade? Honestly, I think economics and philosophy are a natural pair and I’d encourage any student interested in one to explore the other. 

“Thinking about it, I guess it doesn’t surprise me that I gravitated towards David Hume and Adam Smith from a philosophy standpoint because of their work—though obviously Smith’s more than Hume’s—in economics.”

Heading to MSU Law in 2020, Harrison has enjoyed the “Spartan” culture.

“There’s a great sense of collaboration among students here despite the fact we’re in ‘competition’ with each other in the sense of the curve, class grade…despite essentially competing with each other, every student I've interacted with here has been willing to collaborate, share ideas, and share notes—and that, in itself, is really special.”

As a mature student, Harrison can see both approaches—enrolling in law school immediately or delaying the decision to gain more real-world experience—come with their own set of trade-offs but that both have benefits.

“For me, the benefits of waiting to go to law school are pretty straightforward,” he says. “I knew how to navigate an office setting. I knew how to interact with supervisors, with colleagues, and with co-workers. There’s a lot to be said for being able to make good impressions with your supervisors simply by having that experience of knowing what to do, what should be prioritized, and how to figure these kinds of things out when they are not clear. I have a better idea of how to ‘network’ with people and since I’m collaborating with people closer to my own age, it’s more of a natural conversation to have with them. I also knew what I wanted to do in law when I came to school and what I wanted my career path to be.

“On the other hand, I wasn’t interested in participating in law review—something that would have been a huge boon to my career—because I didn’t feel I had the time or energy to commit to it. If I was a standard K-JD, I would have jumped at law review. And, coming to law school late does naturally restrict the areas of law you’re probably going to explore. You come in with certain career goals in mind and you’re less willing to deviate from them when you discover something of interest you may have never heard of or overlooked.” 

Coming from a working-class family, Harrison is passionate about helping people with similar backgrounds.

“I had firsthand experience knowing how difficult it is for working class families both from a legal standpoint, such as finding affordable representation, and from a regular life standpoint. It was knowing how my dad got burned working as an independent carpenter because he did business with a handshake and not a contract. It was knowing the health problems my uncles suffered from because they worked in foundries with inadequate PPE—this is also why I’m interested in collective bargaining and labor law. When there’s an imbalance in bargaining power between employers and employees, bad things happen.”

He notes that in basic economics classes, it’s assumed certain participants in a market can have price setting power—and that “everyone is a price taker” or “there are many, many buyers and sellers.”

“The point of both assumptions being that no one entity has enough market share that they can influence the price of a good or service on the market,” he says. “However, in the real world, we know a lot of businesses do have this kind of price setting power. And their ability to set or influence prices—like the price for labor—creates less than competitive markets. The question then becomes how do you create a more competitive marketplace? Businesses are always going to do what is best for them—as we should expect them to and as they should.” 

Individual employees will never have the kind of equality of bargaining power necessary to force employers to give up their price setting power, he adds. 

“Since we cannot expect businesses to act against their self-interest, the obvious solution is to strengthen the bargaining position of employees to broach the imbalance of bargaining positions and thus encourage more competitive markets,” he says.

In his 1L summer, Harrison interned at the National Labor Relations Board, learning about Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) cases, and working primarily with attorneys Eric Cockrell and Donna Nixon, and field examiner Natalie Rygiel. 

“Right from my interview with attorney Erickson Karmol, I knew this was where I wanted to work,” he says. “I wanted real legal experience and as much of it as I could get my hands on. And that’s exactly what I was offered. It was clear from the interview that at the board, you can get as much experience as you want if you’re willing to dive in and get your hands dirty. 

“Everyone was great,” he adds. “They all had their own styles when it came to how to approach investigations into ULPs. They all got me involved in their cases and allowed me to really jump in and take on real responsibility in handling key issues with cases. I felt they brought me along at the right pace where I was able to learn from them, see how exactly they handled investigations, and then I was given the supervised freedom to try my own hand at it. I got to take witness affidavits from both charging and charged parties, draft and submit request for evidence letters, do case research, and present my findings and recommendation for cases to the regional director. I’m honestly astonished with exactly how much they were willing to allow me to do.”

Harrison highly recommends the NLRB summer position.

“They have work available for you and if you’re willing to put in the work, they will let you build the kind of experience which is extremely marketable,” he says. “It was 100 percent my experience at the board which landed me the spot with Satter Ruhlen through the Peggy Browning Fund.”

Earlier this year, Harrison worked at the MSU Law Alvin L. Storrs Low Income Tax Clinic. 

“I wanted to be as hands-on and get as much experience as I could—I’m very much a kinesthetic learner, so I learn best when I’m actively doing law,” he says. “I also had met Josh and Christina Wease prior to doing the Tax Clinic, so it was a natural fit. Christina was my externship supervisor with the Board—I’d elected to take the externship for college credit—and I had Josh as my professor for Corporate Income Tax. I knew from speaking with both of them what the Tax Clinic offered.

“While the freedom to handle cases and build legal experience was the same, the work itself was a night-and-day difference,” he adds. “At the board, you're an independent third party investigating ULP allegations either raised by unions, individual employees, or businesses. You're not there to pick a side. In contrast, the work at the Tax Clinic is advocacy work. You’re assigned a set amount of clients and you’re trying your best to progress their cases and hopefully deliver to them the best result you possibly can get. I really enjoyed the opportunity to speak with clients, get to know them on a personal level, and advocate on their behalf. 

“It’s an incredibly rewarding experience to be able to meet with someone and while you’re not able to solve all of their problems, you’re able to find a resolution to their tax problem and give them some degree of relief.”



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