Michael Swistara: Animal Rights, Economics, and Law
Michael Swistara (2016), a native of Toronto, Canada, spent most of his life in Basel, Switzerland.
His interest in Economics started in high school, where policy conversations demonstrated “how quantitative work could interact with people’s daily lives and lived experience.”
As a result of his interest in how economics affects society, he achieved a double major in Economics and Political Science at McGill University in three years by taking classes over the summer.
“It was great prep for what was to come at Columbia,” Swistara notes.
When asked why he chose economics over political science, he explains the impact of lectures and class discussions about the Great Recession and the Eurozone crisis led by economist Christopher Ragan.
Swistara admits that although he knew he wanted to go down the economics route, “Math never came super naturally to me,” so he wasn’t sure if he wanted to do a Ph.D., as it was “maybe on the horizon,” but never definite.
Swistara was a part of the first cohort of students in Columbia’s economics MA program.
“It was exciting to be part of a new program – perhaps a bit experimental and scrappy at times – but it got me where I wanted to go,” Swistara says.
In retrospect, Swistara still holds that belief, praising the “entrepreneurial spirit of our new program.”
The cohort and community within the program also largely influenced his decision.
“Everyone really bonded, and I made great friends, who I still speak to every week.”
He recalls going on a road trip to upstate New York, hiking at Letchworth State Park with his friends over Spring break, and going camping in Yosemite over the summer with members of his cohort. In NYC, he would go with friends to museums, using his Columbia ID to access museums for free. Nearby campus, he would spend time with his cohort, going out for dinner.
“Morningside Heights definitely has a lot to offer,” Swistara says. He recommends that new students check out spots like Community for brunch, as well as Absolute Bagels and the Hungarian Pastry Shop.
To decompress from studying at the library, he would go running in his free time in Riverside Park and along the Hudson River, a hobby he keeps up to this day. When we spoke, Swistara had just ran a half-marathon along the lake in Chicago, where he now lives.
Swistara credits resources in our Economics MA Program for helping prepare him and his cohort for the intensity of their Econ courses. “Math camp, for one, was beneficial for easing us into the program.” He notes that the Econ MA ТАs who teach our recitation sections were very helpful, as was studying late in the library with his cohort. “I learned as much or more from my peers through study groups, something I never had in undergrad.”
Swistara’s thesis, “A Literature Review on the Employment Effects of Minimum Wages,” advised by Professor Irasema Alonso, honed in on his overall interest in using quantitative work to study (and hopefully improve) people’s lives.
His thesis used a multi-market model to study the wage gap, including how the wage gap affects women and exploring the benefits to workers of a $15 minimum wage. “It was rewarding to apply my research efforts towards problems of gender and income inequality,” he says.
From an Economics MA to Animal Rights Litigation
After graduating from Columbia University, Swistara stayed in New York City, where he worked in sales and operations roles for a number of years. “New York is my second home,” he says, “there’s no other place like it when it comes to art, food, and culture.”
During this time, he kept wondering, “what is the intersection between my passion and what I’m good at?” as he considered future career trajectories. He spent time talking to people in non-profits, academia, consulting, and journalism, quickly recognizing that many people he admired had law degrees. He realized that with a law degree, he could combine his quantitative skills and strengths in research and writing.
As an ethical vegan and someone who was deeply concerned about the climate crisis, Swistara decided to go back to school to focus on environmental law, with the eventual goal of combatting factory farming and its effects on both the planet and animal welfare. He achieved a JD and MPP at The George Washington University (GW), with a focus on Environmental Law.
As our program is known to be rigorous, Swistara’s experience at Columbia “definitely made the first year of law school feel easier.” He also recalls how much he enjoyed solving logic problems on the LSAT, which reminded him of his favorite parts of the MA program’s curriculum, microeconomics and game theory.
At GW, Swistara joined (and later led) the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (“SALDF”). He drafted pet custody legislation for Washington, D.C., which he saw passed into law in the winter of 2022. Additionally, he served on the Law Review and Alternative Dispute Resolution Board, as well as completed eight internships at organizations like Mercy For Animals and the Humane Society of the United States.
While at GW, he realized that he could become a full-time animal rights lawyer. “Before law school, I don’t think I even knew animal law was really a thing,” he recalls.
Swistara now lives in Chicago, Illinois, and works as a Litigation Fellow for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. His practice focuses on food labeling, environmental law, and rescuing wild animals from roadside zoos. He was a 2021-2022 Emerging Scholars Fellow at The Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy and is currently a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. Swistara’s work has been published in numerous legal journals worldwide, and this summer, he took his first foray into teaching a remote class at GW Law.
It’s safe to say that Swistara took a fascinating path after graduation. Thanks for chatting with us, Michael!