Rob Bickel is one of a number of incoming Law School students who exceled in very divergent fields before opting to pursue law as a career. A native Hoosier, Mr. Bickel was more interested in math and science than the humanities. Indeed, when he was 10 and his mother – a single parent of three – went to law school, she warned him that he wouldn’t like the profession.
Mr. Bickel took her advice and became a mechanical engineer, earning a Ph.D. – which he describes as “fun and relaxing” – from the University of California at Berkeley in 1996. Not certain of what kind of job to pursue, he jumped at the opportunity to teach engineering, in English, for three years in Japan. Mr. Bickel – who expected somewhat of a working vacation – was quickly disabused of that notion when assigned to supervise the research of six students who spoke little English.
“I thought I had a lot to teach them, but it took a lot of effort,” he recalls. “I had to teach concepts in three or four ways: writing formulas on the board, explaining several different ways in English. But it was something I wanted to do.”
He learned Japanese and, by the second year, he could communicate fairly well with his students, all of whom completed significant research under his guidance and got job offers from major corporations.
After his teaching contract ended, Mr. Bickel was hired by Toyota, only the second non-Japanese person to work at the 3,000-employee research facility. “I imagine I was noticed,” he says, “but from my point of view, I never felt different.”
Although he loved living in Japan, Mr. Bickel came to the realization that being good at engineering did not mean that he necessarily enjoyed it. His feelings crystalized while working on a project to create a lifelike robot that would be used as a sort of pet or companion for people.
“It was difficult to understand why anyone would want to buy this,” he says. “I wanted a career that was more people-oriented.”
Mr. Bickel chose Columbia Law School largely because of its commitment to building bridges with legal institutions in Japan. “All the connections made me think I could go back to Japan at some point,” he says.
Mr. Bickel’s wife, Yae Arakawa, who comes from a small town in Japan, seconds that hope. Indeed, just as Mr. Bickel was leaving Japan, the nation was embarking on a project, modeled after the U.S. system, to usher in the concept of graduate legal education. He hopes to interact with that system in some way in the future.