ALUMNI: Meet Todd M. Justesen

By Angela Turnbow

The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law last year graduated 16 students from its inaugural cohort for the new Master of Legal Studies program, creating a new group of alumni who are now a part of the College of Law community.

The Master of Legal Studies program is a three-semester executive degree program designed to help working professionals gain a better understanding of the law and legal system without them having to practice as an attorney. Moreover, students attend classes every other Friday and Saturday throughout the year at the law school while still being able to work full-time.

Among the first group of students to complete the program is Todd M. Justesen, Director of Residential Education for the University of Utah. The College of Law learned more about Justesen’s law school experience—how he juggled school, work, and family—in a recent Q&A.

Q: What made you interested in pursuing an MLS degree?

I have always been interested in why our society operates as a system and how we create the guidelines that are used to guide us. I also found in my work life, I enjoyed working with legal counsel and wanted to learn how to ask better questions to align their advice with my needs. I had considered going back for a J.D., but was not interested in practicing law. What I wanted was to understand the legal system and how to interpret it. I began performing internet searches for various legal programs when I went to the S.J. Quinney College of Law site and saw the site for the MLS program. One tour and a discussion later with Jacqueline Morrison (the former Director of the MLS program) and I applied.

Q: What do you do today? How did your time in the MLS program shape and/or help what you are currently doing?

I am currently the Director of Residential Education at the University of Utah, which means I oversee the crisis management, conduct management, and educational components of the Housing & Residential Education Office. Almost every class that I took applied to my role in some way. When I was taking “Contracts in the Modern Economy,” I was able to tweak the contracts I used in my department to better reflect what I was trying to accomplish. When I was taking “Understanding Cases, Statutes & Legislation,” I began to understand the sedimentary nature of law and how the courts create precedent. When I took “Procuring and Managing Legal Services,” I learned fee structures and questions I need to ask, as well as be asked, when evaluating legal counsel. Each class prepared me to perform my role better and to understand other roles.

Q: What is one memorable experience from the MLS program that will always stay with you?

There are two experiences that stand out to me, though I had many more from acquiring the MLS degree. The first example is when I was handed a contract to read after completing Professor Grange’s class on “Contracts in the Modern Economy.”  I had read and signed many contracts in my career prior to taking this course. This time it was as though I was reading a document that had previously been coded and now I knew how to break the code. I knew why the contract contained an indemnification clause and I knew why it was not in my best interest to have it present in that particular contract for the other company. I opened up previous contracts and thought, “When this contract expires, I am not signing it again unless some of these terms change!” The knowledge I gained in Professor Grange’s class made me a better manager, employee, and citizen as it applies to contracts.

My second example is the overall sessions in “Comparative Legal Studies.” Professor Guiora pressed the participants to understand that language is important in culture and we need to be sensitive to the patterns and complexities. What our western culture values in the legal system needs to take a neutral backseat when viewing another culture and its legal system. More than once, I walked out of class in a philosophical haze questioning how I can understand the “other” when I am not sure I fully understand “self” as it applies to me.

Q: How were you able to stay connected with your family while pursuing an MLS degree and working full-time?

From the first day of classes when I was studying for Professor Dryer’s quizzes in “Lawsuits and Litigations” or Professor Davies’ midterm in “Understanding Cases, Statutes & Legislation,” I involved my family. There were times we would be traveling on a weekend trip where my wife would be driving, my son sitting in the backseat, and me reading a case or text out loud. When I would get to the end of the case, we would debate what the court was going to say or how we would create a statute that would apply. By involving them from the start, it made it easier when I would tell them that I had to go to the law school to study at night or on weekends with my classmates. My family understood that the material was dense and having people around me helped to better comprehend the material.

One of our favorite times during the program is when my family and I were at a local lake fishing. The lake had a limit to the number of fish you can keep as well as the size the fish must be to keep. I started a conversation with my wife and son asking them, “Why can we not keep all the fish we want? Do you think there is some sort of statute written in the guidebook? Are our fishing licenses a right that can be revoked? Do you think other cultures have fishing limits? Etc…” We spent the entire afternoon talking through our thoughts and I even asked one of my professor’s our fishing questions in the next class; I reported the answers back to my family.

The MLS program is intense, but doable, as long as you align your work times, family times, study times, and take advantage of sometimes combining all three.