Thomas Cinti wasn’t always interested in law or teaching it, for that matter. In fact, he started in the sciences, but eventually loved the subject so much that he even decided to teach it to others. Now, he has useful insights and advice for students going through their own law education journey, especially online learners in McGeorge’s LLM or MSL degree programs.

Getting Talked Into Law 

Thomas attended Harvard in pursuit of a Master’s degree in Environmental Science. Meanwhile, his childhood friend, Michael Colatrella, convinced Thomas to join him in looking at law schools. “He essentially talked me into it, and dragged me around to a couple of law schools. We filled out the applications together, and that was my somewhat ignominious introduction to the study of law.” Oh, and if the name sounds familiar to you, you’re absolutely right; that would be the same Michael Colatrella who is currently serving as Co-Director of the Institute for Law Teaching and Learnings and a professor of law right here at McGeorge. 

But before he was fully sold on the idea, Thomas returned to Harvard fully expecting to stay and earn a doctorate degree. But when faced with conflicts and obstacles within his doctoral committee, he took it as a sign to choose law school. It was a reluctant journey, “But I will say this, because of my background in environmental science, what I was really interested in doing was environmental law. And that’s what I spent my entire career doing.” Now, he naturally has no regrets.

Becoming a Professor

While working his day job, Thomas noticed that a small college in Philadelphia called Holy Family University was looking to hire an adjunct professor of environmental science. “That’s perfect for me,” he thought. “I have my master’s in environmental science, I like doing it, and I don’t get as much of an opportunity as a lawyer other than augmenting what I do in the legal profession. So I thought it’d be fun to go ahead and teach.” 

He had done some teaching while at Harvard, and surprised himself with how much he enjoyed it. He got the job, and for the first year, strictly taught environmental science. He avoided teaching law, instead trying to relegate it to his day job, but eventually the university talked him into it. So unfolded (his again rather ignominious) journey to teaching law, including courses on HR law, business law, and particularly, negotiations. Around a decade later, McGeorge reached out. “I really enjoy it. It makes you yourself continue to learn, which is one of the most fascinating things about the role of teaching.”

A Wide Lens and Accessible Approach

Environmental law is a multidisciplinary field with a lot of crossover between water rights and protection as well as dealing with the government, because “It’s hard to do one without the other. And that’s, I think, both inherent and the thing I enjoy about the practice. It really does require you to be multidisciplinary.” Some legal professionals choose a very narrow focus, but Thomas likes the diversity of a water law issue one day and a zoning problem the next. “I think that’s what makes it exciting and keeps it fresh, and it keeps you on your toes, because you have to keep abreast of all these different areas of law.”

Though a little reluctant when he first started online instruction many years ago, Thomas has since become much more open and excited about the potential possibilities, “and a lot of it has to do with the technological advances that occurred because of COVID. It really forced us to get good at this stuff. I think it’s closer to being seamless.” He identifies the asynchronous course structure, which “really makes it accessible to students who, because of their jobs or family, wouldn’t otherwise be able to partake in the course. And I think that’s a huge plus.” There are certain benefits to be gained from in-person learning, he acknowledges, but genuinely believes that the benefits outweigh it.

Online Learning Success

For the benefits to sink in, however, students can aim to meet some key success factors. “You have to be able to work independently and motivate yourself,” he warns. But don’t be alarmed if you have thrived in conventional classrooms and need some extra reinforcement. “I meet with students all the time. We have phone calls and Zoom sessions, but it’s a little different than being in the classroom and being able to grab the professor after class to ask a question. So If you are a self-motivated person, and you’ve got a busy life, I think this is a great format in order to take your classes.”

Another thing to keep in mind is the social element of traditional versus online classes. Thomas recognizes that some hallmark student experiences, like meeting up with each other after class or forming spontaneous study groups, can be lacking. But if the social aspect of school is important to you, you can still reach out to your classmates and form relationships. When you do, you’ll likely find recent graduates from college looking to jumpstart vibrant futures, established professionals moving towards a career change, and government workers expanding into new and more advanced levels. “It’s very diverse,” he concludes. 

Overall, Thomas is satisfied and proud of both the work he does and the students he teaches. His final piece of advice could double as pure encouragement; “If there’s anyone who ever had any hesitation about taking courses in the online format, I would recommend you give it a try. I think it’s an entirely new environment that you can teach in now. And I think students seem to enjoy it.”

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