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ASU Law student views online MLS pursuit as ‘rocket ride to the moon’ in furthering career, life goals

Photo of Robert Gilliam and family

Robert Gilliam, ASU Law MLS degree spring 2021 grad, with his family at their ranch in California’s Mojave Desert.

April 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

From a 14-year-old public works estimator — what he refers to as his “first side hustle” — to becoming a carpenter’s union apprentice at 22, to now earning a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) degree in construction law, Robert Gilliam knows what drives him.

“What became quite clear at a very young age was the clear delineation between the white-collar managers who worked in the offices and the blue-collar workers that performed the work on the job site,” said Gilliam, who will graduate this spring with his online MLS from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. “Quite amazingly, there seemed to be very little in common with the two castes. Everything that has happened in my career after that has been driven by my passion to unite these two factions.”

Now 36, Gilliam looks forward to taking his years of hands-on trade work — which he says exposed him to a unique set of challenges in a highly competitive, political and foreign environment — to using his master’s degree in furthering his passion.

“When I discovered ASU Law’s MLS in construction law, everything just clicked,” said Gilliam, who is based on a small ranch in Southern California’s Mojave Desert with his wife and their three children. “Here was a program that would have real-life application to the tasks that I perform every day, including contract/specification review, professional and legal writing, dispute resolution, property, land use regulations, water/environmental laws — the list goes on.”

And even better, ASU Law offers a path for construction and sustainability.

“I felt like they had designed the degree just for me,” he said. “My critical thinking skills have never been sharper. The last few years of my life have felt like a rocket ride to the moon as I continue to experience unbridled personal and professional growth.

“Balancing a large construction portfolio with school and family life has presented a unique challenge, but it has also energized my performance to levels I never knew I was capable of. Continual learning has become a passion of mine and I’m proud of myself for completing my master’s.”

How it all started

“I was raised in an environment in which hard work defined my character,” Gilliam said.

As a junior public works estimator, Gilliam says the joy he found in the challenge of reviewing complex blueprints and bid documents, combined with the diverse and talented people he worked alongside, made him decide to delay college.

“At the time nothing seemed more important than taking on the world,” Gilliam said. “I was promoted to site superintendent, which gave me even more exposure to the crews. What inevitably shocked me was how intelligent the average tradesperson was in comparison to their white-collar counterparts. Even more amazingly, many of them didn’t realize that they were smart. I never felt bad about skipping college, but as my career progressed I knew I was selling myself short.”

As a carpenter’s union apprentice at 22, Gilliam eventually earned his associate and bachelor’s degrees. He then gained a role with The Walt Disney Company as part of its facilities asset management team. It was that experience that led him to want to learn more.

“When exploring online master’s programs, I found a lot of construction management and project management options, but upon examination the curriculum fell flat,” he said. “I couldn’t stomach the thought of spending my time and money on a generic degree, and having spent time working as real-world leader for a Fortune 500, I knew that generic wouldn’t cut it.

“ASU Law offered something that no other online program could: A challenge. I knew that if the program wouldn’t challenge me, it wouldn’t change me.”

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU Law — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I’m amazed at how amorphous the law is. It isn’t enough to memorize statutes and common law holdings, you need to change the way you think.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU Law?

A: Professor (Kirk) Hays is one of those "once in a lifetime"-type mentors. Very rarely do you get the opportunity to peer inside the mind of a true experienced working professional within the confines of academia.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those contemplating ASU Law, and those still in law school?

A: Don’t be a co-pilot. Design your future. Harness the power of your own untapped potential.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: It’s been said that success occurs when preparation and opportunity intersect. I don’t know where the future will bring me, but I will continue to strive every day to make myself a better person and a more capable professional. You never know what amazing opportunities are around the corner.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Access to the law. One thing that I’ve realized along my academic journey is that justice doesn’t exist in the same capacity for those who have and those who have not, especially underrepresented cultures and communities domestic and abroad.

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