How an Artist Became an Attorney

Majoring in art was a surprising choice for Melissa Rodriguez ’91, but she’s never been interested in doing the obvious thing.“Art clicked for me when I took a design class,” she says. “I didn’t have much background in it, and it was difficult and scary being out of my comfort zone. But the more I did it, the more I gravitated to art.”

A semester with the Urban Program in San Francisco opened her heart to issues and needs in a big city. “I grew up in Orange County, in the narrow little world of the suburbs and private education, and I became conscious of a world outside my little bubble,” she says. “Being in a different situation helped me see I was mimicking, not thinking for myself, and I struggled to develop new perspectives.”

For her senior art show, Melissa scavenged old, wooden furniture, repainting it with crazy colors. Much to her surprise, she sold all the pieces, and the proceeds funded her trip with Europe Mayterm and additional weeks of travel.

“I came home completely broke,” she says. She settled in San Diego and held retail jobs for a few years, becoming assistant manager at a Pier One store. “I was working hard, but I wasn’t satisfied,” she says. “I wasn’t using my vocation or my education. I knew it was time for a change.” Melissa started looking into graduate school, then a friend said, “I could see you being a lawyer.” It was the first time Melissa ever considered going to law school. It wasn’t the obvious choice, but she thought a legal career fit her strengths.

In 1995, she enrolled in the University of San Diego School of Law, where a scholarship covered half her tuition. “I loved law school,” she says. Through a summer-abroad program, she took classes in Florence and at Oxford and met law students in Paris and Dublin.

“I never regretted majoring in art,” she says. “When I got to law school, I realized how excellent my Westmont education was. I wrote a paper for every college class I took, including studio art and ceramics. Art is problem-solving in a different way, and it pushes creative boundaries. I learned to think outside the box in art classes, and I benefitted from that in law school.”

After interning and clerking in the San Diego Public Defender’s Office, Melissa left the suburbs and city for a job in northern California in the Lassen County Public Defender’s Office. “I’d never lived in a small town,” she says. “Being in a small office gave me a broad range of experience.” Eventually, the constant conflict wore her down. “The adversarial nature of practicing law is the thing I like least,” she says. Taking a break from law, she worked in the mortgage industry before joining Burns, Schaldenbrand & Rodriguez in Oceanside, Calif., which specializes in civil litigation. “It’s a different universe from criminal law,” she says. “I had to start over.” A year ago she began moving into the field of trusts and estates. “I’ve found it rewarding because I’m helping people,” she says. “It’s much more hands-on. I get to know my clients and their needs and create a plan that helps them avoid conflict.”

Melissa’s art projects now take the form of designing floral decorations and making Christmas cards. She learned to love travel during Europe Mayterm, and she packs her bags whenever she can. She especially relished a month-long exchange program with young professionals in Korea. “It’s good to learn from people in another culture and get a different perspective,” she says.

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