Student Posts

How Do You Want to Practice Law?

One of my favorite documentaries is Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It tells the story of Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi master widely considered to be the finest sushi chef in Japan. Towards the beginning of the movie, Jiro says, “Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.”

As anyone who has contemplated attending law school knows, many well-meaning givers of advice emphasize the value of taking time off between college and law school. I worked three years in a profession completely unrelated to law, and I think there are many good reasons for heeding this admonition. But I am not here to reiterate those reasons. And at the end of the day, attending law school is an important life decision that no one can (or should) dictate for you.

But I think there is one key lesson that one can only learn after having a full-time job. The lesson? Work is often dull. That does not mean work cannot be simultaneously fulfilling, gratifying, and meaningful. But no matter what the activity, if you do it for 40 or more hours a week (and for lawyers, it will definitely be more than 40), for a long enough time, you are going to find it challenging to be fully engaged most of the time.

And I had a “cool” job, brewing beer for a craft brewery. I never sat at a desk, and I got to drive a forklift, grow a beard, work with cool machines, and score plenty of free beer. But being a small business, some days you come into work and you’re asked to clean, fill, and stack kegs for ten hours (or more). And you do it, because that’s what needs to get done.

But in doing the boring stuff, you learn what makes you happy. The answer to that question will vary for everyone, but here’s a hint—“what” you do does not dictate how happy you will be. For me, I found I was happiest when I had the opportunity to take on long-term projects and was given input on solving big-picture problems. Other people might prefer having a job that constantly puts them in front of new people, or to be given projects that can be solved by the end of the day. If you take joy in the daily tasks, then it will be much easier to fall in love with your work.

The legal profession has space for all types of people, but it’s easy in law school to be blinded by the “what” questions. What type of law do you want to practice? Having a prior career taught me we are starting at the wrong place. Instead the first question should be: How do I want to practice law?


 

DSCN3738Tex Pasley is a 2L born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. He graduated in 2011 from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, where he studied an all-required Great Books curriculum that began with the Iliad and ended discussing Minkowski’s concept of space-time. He is attending law school to understand the source of structural poverty in the United States, and wants to use his bar license to advocate for systemic change on behalf of the poor. Although the 21st century is pretty great, he is disappointed he wasn’t alive in the late 1800s to join John Wesley Powell on his surveys of the Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau.

 

Student Posts

Thoughts on Legal Aid Work as a Law Student

Do it; work with a legal aid society now, or at least at some point in your career. The most interesting work I have been a part of during my time at UVA has been through my winter and summer internships with the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) and through LAJC’s consumer clinic program. The benefits are obvious: hands-on experience, real clients whose real needs you can help meet; and role models from which to learn what to (and not) do as a lawyer. Do it, do it, do it, do it. But do it with your eyes wide-open.

When I first began working at LAJC, I viewed all of my clients as righteous victims of a broken socio-economic system; super-humans valiantly fighting to survive and thrive. This, of course, is an oversimplification, but the heart of it really animated my perspective. The problem with this simplified view was that it created false expectations and a distorted picture of who my clients are and how I can best serve them. I have realized that I forgot that my clients are people, just plain people with all the highs and the lows that come with working with anyone. I still hold much of my original view, but it is far more refined for having been made more realistic.

Some of my clients are amazing, salt of the earth people. I have clients who arrive early to meetings, are completely prepared with questions, answers, and paperwork. People who take charge of their situation and let me come along for the ride to assist them in their pursuit of justice. But I also have clients who aren’t so great. Clients who don’t call me back, who forget the basic tasks I need them to do in order to help them, who create additional problems. I even have bad clients. Clients who have lied to me, who have disrespected my time and who have refused what aid I can give, and then have denigrated what I did give. Some days I have all rock stars and other days I have the less-than-ideal client. But most days, I have a mix because my clients aren’t superhuman; my clients are people, just doing the best they can to keep it all together and to thrive when they can meet the opportunity and when that opportunity rises.

Breaking down my sympathetic, but ultimately, skewed perception of my clients was, at first, startling. I felt guilty for being upset at a client or feeling that a client was not worth my efforts. Recognizing that basic and obvious fact that my clients are people with all the pros and cons that go along with being human, however, has helped me provide better assistance to them. It’s also refined my passion and appreciation for what the law and lawyers can do to fight poverty and to empower people. The fact that my clients aren’t superhuman doesn’t make me want to help them any less. In fact, it makes it easier to be more effective for them because I am more cognizant of what they can and cannot do. Working with the lawyers at LAJC and our clients has been my best experience at UVA. It has improved my legal skills and has enriched my perspective of our society. I think it will do the same for you, especially when you abandon your pre-conceptions about your clients, and just work side-by-side with them.


CohenDanny is a 2L from Atlanta, Georgia, but he spent several years in New Jersey, Michigan, and Texas, so where he’s from is a difficult question to answer. He graduated from Rice University in 2014 with a degree in political science and economics and came straight to law school. Faith and history have inspired his goals to fight poverty and promote a more free, more fair, and more just society in his personal and professional life. He hopes to work on Capitol Hill and the White House after a few years at a law firm (where he hopes to set the office record for pro bono hours). When he isn’t on the law school grind, Danny likes to spend time eating and drinking with friends, or playing sports with anyone who will let him.

Student Posts

Keeping Up Confidence in a Sea of Doubt

The law school timeline for choosing between a public service and a law firm career path is in reality much shorter than it originally appears. As a bright-eyed and idealistic 1L, it seemed like I had all the time in the world to decide where I wanted to start my legal career after graduation; after all, three years is a long time, right? Especially when you already know that you want to work in the public sector.

But then, almost as soon as you begin that public service internship for the first summer, you start receiving e-mails from career services about the process for bidding on and interviewing with law firms that coming fall. In fact, many of your fellow interns will narrow the scope of their conversations to their applications for firms. And then one day you might start to question whether you too should stress over that process instead of continuing to follow what had previously seemed like an easy choice: any form of public service rather than a law firm. At that point, the clock counting down the days to make this personal decision starts to tick…tick…tick.

For me, this panic of reevaluating career options was the result of several factors: my family’s concerns over my future financial stability; my own financial concerns due to the strain of school loans and the expense of living in New York for the summer; the strong recommendations from my summer attorney mentors to work at a firm for at least 1-2 years in order to increase my professional value; and the general encouragement of other interns to keep my options open a little longer by participating in the on-grounds interview (OGI) process. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had come to law school to serve the public without compromise, despite my financial situation. Ultimately, I decided not to participate in the OGI process and I haven’t looked back since.

My advice to those who want to pursue a public service career is simply to think about what you want and why you want it; you can’t follow your own internal compass until you know where it is pointing. Let me be clear that there is nothing inherently right or wrong about making this choice one way or the other – each option comes with its own costs and benefits – but be sure you are making the choice that is right for you personally. To that end, I think it is extremely important to figure out what will make you want to get up and go to work each morning. For me, that means helping people and trying to make my community a better, safer, and more just environment. From that perspective, choosing public service means that I will be fully invested in my work and willing to adapt to the financial costs of that choice because they are certainly worth what I perceive as the many intangible benefits.


JuliaJulia Schast is a 2L from Elkins Park, Pennsylvania (that’s about 30 minutes outside Philadelphia). She graduated from Elon University in 2014 and hopes to become a state prosecutor after graduating from law school, location TBD. Julia is torn between living the big city life and the rolling mountains of Charlottesville, but wherever she ends up will be her platform for change, especially relating to issues of criminal justice reform and women’s rights.

Student Posts

Embracing the Service in Government Service

By the end of the first day, I had a computer, a badge, and (in a photo finish) a working email address. My supervisors told me this was a major victory, deserving of celebration, and encouraged me to go home and savor it.

That first day as an intern with the Office of the Legal Adviser (“L,” for short) in the U.S. Department of State stood in stark contrast to my first day at the private sector law firm where I spent the first half of my 2L summer. The operation there had been slick—I had a computer, badge, and working email in the first five minutes, not to mention a buffet breakfast.

Legal academia endows the federal government with an outsized importance. We’re taught that representing the United States comes with a certain gravitas, even glamor, that private sector work does not match. But after my first few days, my initial experiences did not live up to this expectation.

Thinking back on it, I’m almost ashamed of that initial reaction. The legal questions I tackled in L were novel, complex issues of international and federal law. There’s almost no chance I could have done that work anywhere else. And the people I worked with were tremendously smart, engaging lawyers, possessed of a good humor and an earnest desire to do the best they could for their country.

For those interested in international law, though, L is not invariably going to be the right place to be. Three types of people who might think about looking elsewhere spring to mind in particular.

1) The Committed Internationalist. It is important to remember that L represents the interests of the United States, first and foremost. The United Nations may be a better place for those interested in advancing an internationalist agenda.

2) The Activist. Not only do the standard caveats about making change from within the system apply to working in L, the office is not even supposed to make policy at all.

3) The Purist. Some degree of compromise will always be necessary to fulfilling the mission of the government.

Put simply, the most salient lesson that I drew from my time at State was that government service is, indeed, service. Perhaps this is obvious to others, but it did not come immediately to me. Serving the government is about learning to set aside your preferences when they conflict with the democratically expressed will of the people. It’s about learning the ways you can make incremental change from the inside of a massive institution. It’s about taking a truly systemic and communitarian point of view.

In a profession that teaches first and foremost the advocacy of an individual client’s needs and desires, having the opportunity (indeed, the obligation) to think on a bigger scale is incredibly daunting, but incredibly bracing too.


Swanson Headshot (1) copyReedy Swanson is a 3L from Knoxville, Tennessee. A Double Hoo, Reedy spent the year before law school as a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. He has so far failed to persuade any of his professors to turn their exam into a karaoke contest, but he’s not giving up.

Student Posts

An Education Beyond the Classroom

I’m going to tell you what may seem like a very obvious thing, but it’s also a very important thing: law school does not prepare you to be a lawyer. Law school prepares you to be a law professor. 1L year is spent teaching you to “think like a lawyer.” I’m still not totally sure what this means, but thinking like a lawyer sounds like something a lawyer should be able to do. I’ll assume that UVA is good at doing this (probably true). I’m also going to assume that everyone reading this wants to be a practicing lawyer (probably not true).

This is all to say: you should join a clinic. Sure, law school puts you in this rich, intellectual environment where you get to talk about things like tort theory and the coase theorem[1], but your boss is almost never going to need a memo on the history of intentional torts or a treatise on law and economics. They will ask you to write documents that are legible and coherent. You will need to meet with clients and give them confidence that you know what you’re doing. A legal education should not just take place in a classroom.

Instead, a clinic gives you the chance to get a lawyer’s version of a learner’s permit. You get to litigate cases, appear in an actual for real courtroom, but there’s an experienced lawyer there to veer the car back onto the road before you run everything off of a cliff. In the “real world,” someone might be there to get the car back on course for you, but they won’t be happy about it.

In clinic world, everyone acknowledges that you have no idea what you’re doing, but they will take the time to teach you. This is huge. I’m spending my last year in the prosecution clinic. I spend two days a week in Staunton, VA, prosecuting cases in general district court. My first day, I was assigned a minor obstruction case and over-analyzed every aspect of it. Now, I get to court in the morning with a docket of 10-20 cases. I spend the morning negotiating with defense attorneys, making plea offers, and, usually, doing a couple bench trials. Every other week, I have a seminar with other students in the clinic where we get practical information on prosecuting cases effectively.

Prosecution and criminal law is my thing. It may not be yours, which is fine because UVA offers 19 clinics. Whatever your interest, plan on taking a clinic. Nothing compares to actually doing the job. Law school teaches you to think like a lawyer. Clinics teach you how to actually be one.

[1] I have no idea what these words mean, but a professor much smarter than me said them during class once.


 

DSCN3749Boris is a 3L from Elko, NV, a mining town that you’ve probably never heard of. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2011 and spent two years working/snowboarding in Colorado before making his way out to Virginia. He is very interested in the role prosecutors should play in reforming the criminal justice system.

Student Posts

Figuring it out as I Go

I graduated in December 2008 as a history major with no plans. Some of you may be too young to remember Lehman Brothers and the stock market crash, but let’s just say it was a really, really good time to graduate without “skills.” My first job became asking people for money on the street (in monthly donations, even better!). I then took an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill, living rent-free with family and tutoring the LSAT to make money. All that college tuition really felt worthwhile.

Fortunately, the internship led to an administrative position, then a promotion to legislative staff. It had taken me two years to get there, and I was one of the lucky ones. But two years after that, I wasn’t happy. My dream had never been to work on the Hill. In fact, I’d never really had a dream. I knew that I wanted to work, that I wanted to work in public service, and that I liked working on macro-level social issues. I learned a lot on the Hill and experienced incredible things (e.g. witnessing John Kerry call another senator, “dude”), but I also learned that even though I could see a path working in the Senate, it was not the path for me.

So again, I was at a crossroads with no plans. As I’d grown weary of that job, I’d increasingly fantasized about life as an artist. When my boyfriend wanted to start a two-year masters program, I quit my job, moved, and became the unemployed artist. Friends called me brave, but frankly, I was just brazen (and privileged; I had savings to support me and a family that could keep me from ending up homeless).

The fantasy quickly deflated. I produced a lot of art, and I made incredible friends as a barista at a local café. But I also constantly felt ashamed of how little I was accomplishing, how little money I was making (read: none), and how little I was interacting with the world.

I hit bottom when my mom reminded me of how my brother had taught himself calculus in high school and gotten a 5 on the AP BC calculus test. I was 26, I had no direction in life, and I hadn’t even taught myself calculus.

I did some soul searching and realized that I had always been passionate about women’s rights, and that I’d always loved analyzing arguments. So even though I still didn’t know what I wanted my career to be, I set myself in a direction, which was going to law school and figuring it out.

I still don’t know what I want to do. But I know that I don’t want to work on the Hill, that I don’t want to be an artist full-time, and that I really like deadlines, intellectual challenges, and salaried positions. So I’ll keep setting myself in a direction that makes sense, and I’ll keep course-correcting as needed. If all goes well, I have about forty years of my professional life left to figure it all out.


TSJCasey Trombley-Shapiro Jonas is a 2L who learned to be nice growing up in Edina, MN; to be open going to college in Berkeley, CA; and to play the game working in Washington, DC. She hopes to litigate the great civil rights issues of the day, especially if she can help push women forward. Or at least, that’s what she thinks she wants to do. In the meantime, she enjoys eating the food her husband cooks her and running around Charlottesville, and is expecting Baby Trombley-Shapiro Jonas this May.