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Magdalena Hale Spencer JD/LLM/DVM ’09

Degrees of Passion

In May 2009, Magdalena Hale Spencer '09 expects to receive both her J.D. and her D.V.M. from Cornell. Although she still identifies with her friends in the Law School's 2006 class, she has combined her work on the two degrees and completed them in six years instead of the seven it would have taken if she had done them seriatim.

Our conversation took place in the veterinary clinic over coffee. "When I started law school I didn't drink coffee, but by the time I started vet school, I did," Spencer admitted. Her days at the clinic usually begin around 7 a.m., and end more than twelve hours later.

With an undergraduate degree in biology from Cornell, Spencer originally planned to go into research. "I'm the only science-oriented person in my family except for my grandmother," she noted. Both her parents are journalists, as are her grandfather and her sister. Her father worked for the New York Law Journal in Albany. "He was really disappointed when I went to law school, but he's adapted well," quipped Spencer.

After receiving her undergraduate degree, Spencer worked for over two years as a research assistant in a neurology lab at Harvard Medical School. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), was fairly new at the time, and, Spencer recalled, needed three databases to implement at the medical school. Intrigued with the way law affected so many areas of life, she began taking law classes. She loved them. "Law is how we work together as a society, how we interact with each other as a community," she said. "How can you not like it?"

A professor at Harvard encouraged her to combine both interests. "Science talks one language, with dialects, and then there's legal language," explained Spencer. Knowing both languages would, among other things, help to make laws such as HIPAA easier to implement. To learn both languages, Spencer first considered combining an M.D. with her J.D., which is the more usual option. However, as an undergraduate she had done animal research and also ridden for the varsity equestrian team, and she loves horses and dogs. "You get more experience with a D.V.M. without having to do a residency," she added. And, because researchers at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine study all areas of medicine, from cardiology to genomics, Spencer is getting a solid medical education.

With outstanding schools in both areas, Cornell was among her top choices. Spencer also liked the idea of a small law school, because her undergraduate class was so large. Neither Cornell school had ever done this particular dual degree, and she had to be admitted to each one separately. "Nan Colvin, the Law School registrar, has been great," Spencer says. "And Associate Dean Lukingbeal has been a godsend. She checks in with me regularly to be sure I'm managing." Paige Frey, registrar at the Veterinary College, also helped Spencer put together her challenging schedule. "You should see my spreadsheet," Spencer joked.

Since her main focus will be law, Spencer spent her first two years solely at the Law School. With Hay teaching her torts class, she said, "you had to be completely prepared, so I developed great study habits. I probably did well in law school because of him." In fact, she is now doing an independent study with Hay.

In her third year, she began veterinary school. There, material is organized into "blocks" rather than classes. A "block" is one large class of six to twenty credits, in which students study cases rather than attend traditional classes. Although it's difficult scheduling law classes around that, Spencer wanted to take a law class every semester. "As a lawyer, you have to see every aspect of a case," she explained, "while a veterinarian narrows everything down to a treatment plan. I didn't want to lose all the rewiring that was knocked into me in my first year at the Law School!"

In the spring of 2006, she took a full load at both schools for a total of thirty-seven credits. The understanding and support of professors in both schools made it possible, said Spencer, adding "I've never had a professor that I didn't enjoy."

Just to round out her education, Spencer spent a summer in the Law School's program at the Université de Paris, and will also receive an LL.M. degree. "I ended up really enjoying international law," she noted. "Cornell is a great place for that." She has also found time to serve as a tour guide for both the Law School and the Veterinary College, a bench editor on the Moot Court Board, editor of the Cornell International Law Journal, vice president of the Intellectual Property and Technology Association, and join the milking crew at the Veterinary College. All vet students have to put in a stint milking, but Spencer continued after that. "Most of my Law School friends don't want to hear about things like that," she laughs. "But one friend asked to come along and learn to milk."

Her veterinary friends like to tease her about being a lawyer, but once they began getting employment contracts, they asked Spencer to look at them. "I don't give legal advice," she assured me. "I just tell them what questions to ask."

The combined degree will open many doors for Spencer. She knows of one other person with the same combined degree who is now working for Homeland Security. Spencer also worked as an extern for the American Veterinary Medical Association Governmental Relations Division. However, her time as a summer associate for Ropes and Gray LLP interested her the most. After graduation, Spencer will join that firm, working in intellectual property areas that involve biotechnology companies.

She has had to give up riding and backpacking while completing her dual degree, although she still finds time to ski with her grandfather, a Telemark instructor, and to go for long walks with her dog. She also likes to knit, getting together with Law School friends to knit and watch movies. "I've been halfway through a sweater for a year now," said Spencer. Perhaps she will find time to finish it once she has completed her three degrees.

--JUDITH PRATT