On the surface, Kaylee Gum seems like a student with a plan. The William & Mary Law grad’s background appears tailor-made for her new role as an Air Force judge advocate. She grew up in a military family, spending several years in Europe. She earned an Air Force ROTC scholarship as an undergrad, majoring in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies — even spending a semester abroad in Jordan and Oman to study those countries’ legal systems. In law school, as a 2nd lieutenant and JAG reservist, Gum assisted veterans with their benefits and even interned in Iraq to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged.
Despite knowing what she wanted and how to get there, Gum offers some surprising advice to this fall’s incoming first-years: Be open to change. “Everything in law school will not go exactly according to plan, and that can be positive,” she explains to Tipping The Scales. “Law school will be demanding, but how you respond to the challenges, setbacks, and successes will define what you take away from your education.
“Personally, I have grown more when I accept that I do not control everything in my environment and am willing to adapt to make the most out of difficult situations. The legal profession is constantly changing, and lawyers must lead those changes.”
Gum isn’t alone in encouraging 1Ls to embrace unexpected new interests, even at the expense of what drew them to law school in the first place. That’s especially true of George Washington Law’s Julia Haigney, who channeled her youthful radical interests into becoming a litigation attorney looking to do “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Haigney’s mantra: Be flexible. “It is more than normal if you change your mind over the course of three years,” she says. “I know I have!”
KNOW THYSELF, FUTURE LAW STUDENT
Keeping an open mind is just one piece of advice from Tipping the Scales’ Top Law Students From the Class of 2016. In surveying the Best & Brightest 3Ls from the Class of 2016, Tipping the Scales asked nominees to share the advice they would give to students who are considering attending law school.
Not surprisingly, choosing law school for the right reason tops the list. For one, law school is an expensive proposition, with average debt generally falling into the $100,000-$300,000 range. More than that, three years can be an awfully long time, argues Arizona State’s Chase Millea, who plans to specialize in health care and health technology. “Sure, you might get the big job with the big pay, but that takes a lot of work and a lot of time,” Millea says. “If you are going to hate every minute, you might find an alternative place to invest.”
Lawrence Crane-Moscowitz, who spent four years at Goldman Sachs before enrolling at Vanderbilt Law, urges graduates to ponder how they plan to use their law degree before setting their sights on a particular school. “Even if that changes once you are in law school,” he points out, “you shouldn’t apply unless you can actually articulate what you intend to do in the legal profession.”
WORK IN A LEGAL JOB BEFORE APPLYING TO LAW SCHOOL
One way to do that is through intensive research. And that goes well beyond reading blogs or comparing LSAT ranges. UC-Berkelely’s Misha Tsukerman, who managed several political field operations before entering law school, encourages candidates to talk to practitioners before applying. “Do your best to meet a bunch of different lawyers before you decide to attend. The practice of law is probably not what you think it is (or what you see on TV) and there might be cheaper and more applicable advanced degrees for what it is you want to do (like an MPA or MPP).”
Duke Law’s Seth Pearson, who once interned in the White House, also counsels potential students to visit campus to attend classes and visit with students to get an inside look at what they should expect. However, the most popular idea among the Class of 2016: the value of working at a law-related job. That was the strategy used by Boston University’s Kelvin Chan, who credits the experience with helping him sharpen his focus, improve his work ethic, and “appreciate the luxury of being a full-time student.” Peter Donahue followed a similar path, working at the Department of Justice before joining George Mason University — a move that cinched his decision to become an attorney. “It doesn’t matter where you work or who you talk to,” Donahue emphasizes, “as long as you are working with people who will really expose you to what legal work is like and will tell you about both the good and the bad.”
The experience pays for itself, he adds. “You may have to work for free. But it is completely worth finding out whether you could actually see yourself in the profession before you invest hundreds of thousands of your own or scholarship dollars on a career which may or may not fit your personality and work ethic.”
Duke’s Christine Kim, who’ll work in civil rights, even recommends a specific job for aspiring attorneys looking to gain the right experience: paralegal. “It helps you understand a little how the law works — so Civil Procedure is not a foreign language. You can also think about the impact legal rules you learn in class may have on the communities or areas of law that you care most about. You just have a more pragmatic perspective, which I think is really beneficial for your intellectual growth and for your career prospects.”