Monday, January 11, 2016

What is law school really like? // part 1

Now that I've graduated and passed the bar, I thought it would be interesting to reflect back on "what is law school really like?" and the first one is up today! I decided to post mine first, so below are some insights from someone who has graduated but (as I've been bemoaning) unemployed. I've also asked two of my best friends to weigh in - one is graduated & employed and the other is finishing up her last year. I hope you find these as interesting as I do!

last first day of school

Why did you decide to go to law school?
The short answer: I wanted to go back to school, and law school seemed like a safe bet.

The long answer: I never really wanted to be a lawyer growing up - it just never occurred to me. I wanted to be a lot of other things (famous, an EMT, a teacher...) but "lawyer" never crossed my mind. Part of this is likely because I'm the first attorney in my entire extended family. After my undergraduate degree (a BA in English rhetoric from Texas A&M), I was interviewing for jobs back in my hometown and many people I spoke with said something along the lines of, "Your degree sounds like it sets you up well to be a lawyer. Have you ever thought about law school?" And then I got a job in the legal department for a commercial real estate company. Thus the idea of law school was born. My parents also played a fairly significant contributing factor, since they knew I wanted to go back to school (I truly love school), and to them, law school was a nice career path for worldly success. I applied, was accepted a few different places, and offered a very nice scholarship to Gonzaga I went! I told myself if I ever lost my scholarship, I'd leave. I never did and stayed and here we are.

Was there anything about law school that surprised you?
Yes, a few things. One was how smart everyone was. Everyone in law school did very, very well in undergraduate or graduate school, and everyone had been at the top of their class. At A&M, I had been used to sort of skating by and still doing well - not so much in law school. Also, I think the sheer amount of work required was shocking. You are expected to read and be able to explain everything assigned in the reading. It's a massive amount of work - you have to study literally all the time. And there are very few shortcuts. Finally, I think just how boring it was by the end. Of course, some classes are filled with excellent and thought-provoking discussions. But, most are not and law school requires a high toleration of drudgery. 

learning an entire semester's worth of evidence with katie in 9 hours

What were some of the greatest challenges of law school? 
It can be a fairly toxic environment. People are overwhelmed, overworked, and exhausted most of the time, and that does not breed a lovely environment. We always described it as "high school, but with way more sex, drugs, and alcoholism" and I think that's unfortunately accurate. On the other hand, I met some of my best friends in law school and if you can find your people, they will be with you for life. No one really understands what law school is like unless you've done it, so when you find those friends who do understand, it's such a huge relief. 

Were aspects of law school that were easier or harder than you had thought they'd be?
Things that were easier: class discussions! I don't mean "easier" as in, less work required. But they were easier in the sense that most people were civil and everyone was smart. When you really got a discussion going, it was great because everyone was on the same page, knew the same facts - you could argue that the same level (versus in "real life" in which arguments can quickly degenerate into nastiness). Also, schmoozing is easy...haha. Lawyers love to (a) talk about themselves and (b) give advice.

Things that were harder: the actual work. The assignments, the reading, the concepts, "how to law school" were SO HARD. The first year, you don't even know what you don't know and are blindly flailing about, trying to even figure out how to do something (anything - read a case, take an exam, ask a legitimate question). The second year, you know exactly what you don't know - and it's terrifying. It's so much worse. The last year is a combination of anxiously trying to raise your GPA as much as possible while doing as little work as possible.

Which year of law school is the hardest?
2L year, or the second year.* Things start to get real, most people are going to school and working at a firm or an internship somewhere, and you are just drowning in work. During your first year, you think it can't possibly get worse - and then it does. My 2L year, I was taking classes, clerking for the Attorney General, had just made the Law Review, and Lewis and I had just started dating. I had absolutely no down time and was stressed out all the time. It's amazing to me that Lewis stuck it out!

going to Heidelberg (law school prom) 1L year with a dear friend!

What did you not learn in law school that you wished you had?
How to market yourself. This is different than "how to schmooze/network," which you get plenty of experience doing. What I mean is how to find a job (or alternatively, how to start your own firm). Of course, I can (and do) just try and figure this out on my own. But it's hard to know where to start when you've graduated and and then move to a different state. Once there, no firms really recognize your school or internships - they don't mean as much. So you really have to hustle and put yourself out there. Most people stayed in Washington and may have had a different experience than those who moved away (me). But it's been tough being in a different state and trying to market yourself. Law schools would do well to create a "Business of Being a Lawyer" class.

Heidelberg 3L year with a fiancé :)

Do you have a typical response to people when they ask if they should go to law school?
Haha, no. But I usually advise against it. It's amazing how many people ask me about law school or whether they should go. Almost all of the time, I am very cautious about encouraging going to law school, simply because it's such a huge investment. If you really aren't totally passionate about being a lawyer, then law school probably isn't for you. This is coming from someone who didn't (and still doesn't) really want to be an attorney, but who stuck it out anyways. Of course you can stick it out like I did, but do you really want to? There are so many other career paths and if there's one out there that you're really passionate about, do that. I know how tempting the future salary can be (lawyers can make a lot of money, for sure). But when you're unemployed and saddled with huge student loans, that reason falls a little flat. 

What are some things people should consider when they're thinking about whether to go to law school or not?
1. Do you want to be a lawyer? Do not be mistaken in thinking "I can do so many things with a JD!" The purpose of law school is to become an attorney, which you will become. Law school changes the way you see the world, the way you address problems, the way you are in relationship with others - and if you don't want to be a lawyer, you shouldn't go to law school.
2. Are you ready to invest the amount of time, energy, stress, and sacrifice required of a law student? Be prepared to sacrifice many things in your life for this to happen, including relationships.
3. Are you prepared (most likely) to have a lot (six figures) of student loan debt and to have that debt for 10-20 years? The financial cost is significant and something that I didn't take seriously enough.

Do you think law school was worth it? 
Yes. In the end, it was totally worth it. I feel like I became more myself, smarter, and it taught me to love myself a lot more. Law school was the hardest thing I'd ever done and graduating (and passing the bar exam) has been my greatest accomplishment. The way it taught me to think, read, and analyze problems is something I really love (that part I did love about law school). Being an attorney is very compatible with my personality and likes/dislikes. Law school gave me an incredible set of skills and introduced me to some amazing, admirable people, including by extension, Lewis.

I will be forever grateful for my time in law school and for who I've become thanks to my time at Gonzaga. However, it was a very steep price to pay (see: toxic environment) and I'm not sure everyone would say it was worth it. A lot of people start law school and don't finish (or can't) and there is absolutely no shame in that. It is not for everyone.

Ultimately, it was worth it for me for the relationships I made - a better one with myself, some amazing friends (two close friends were bridesmaids!), and of course, Lewis, who I never would have met had I not been in Spokane. 

* In law school speak, 1L year is your first year, 2L is the second, and 3L the third.

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