This is a multi-part story, if you would like to skip any article, use the links below:
Part I: “Pre-law”: The blunder years
Part II: Law — The “long”-cut to software engineering
Part III: “Post-Law”: Yesterday a lawyer, today a software engineer
Law — The “long”-cut to software engineering
I vaguely remember my first day of classes. The Dean of Students came in and passed around this pamphlet about alcohol abuse saying, “Look to your left and right. Statistically speaking, one of you will struggle with alcohol abuse after graduation.” Warm and inviting right? Law school was kind of like that — straight to the point. Everyone was too excited to start their legal journey to care I suppose.
It is time for a brief introduction to law school class structure. Full-time law school programs are generally a three-year-long ordeal. Each year is labeled 1L/2L/3L. Larger law schools have separate sections within each year, each comprised of approximately 100 students. Georgetown Law has one of the largest classes in the nation so we had five sections. I was in Section 1. Additionally, nationwide, all 1Ls take the same set of fundamental courses their first year: torts, contracts, property, constitutional law (“conlaw”), legal writing, criminal justice (“crimlaw”), civil procedure (“civpro”), and an elective (I chose international law). Each section had their own set of professors. As such, the same 100 students in my section took those foundational classes together for one school year.
If you ask me today, right now, what was the biggest impact of attending law school, I’d say, “Putting me in a quarter-million hole in student loan debt.” Prohibitively expensive? Somewhat. However, I figured I did my research, I got into a world-class school and no one would question a Juris Doctorate from Georgetown. Little did I know at the time, I would end up questioning it myself as I put in a significant portion of my paycheck every month (and still do). It wasn’t all bad though. As shocking as the sticker price was, the education was truly world-class.
Most, if not all, my professors were among the best the world had to offer. Being at the doorstep to the seat of the US government had its advantages — specifically, professors who would otherwise have taught at the even higher ranked schools preferred teaching in the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital. The professors I had the pleasure of taking classes under were genuinely some of the most intelligent and accomplished people I’ve ever met. For example, Pamela Harris, my 1L crimlaw professor was later appointed by President Obama to be an appellate judge for the Fourth Circuit. I was taught by Randy Barnett, one of the leading libertarian constitutional thinkers today. I took an additional criminal law class with Neal Katyal, former Acting Solicitor General of the United States, who argued regularly before appellate courts; in fact, during the semester taking his class, he had noted in the syllabus the days he would be missing class to argue before the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. I distinctly remember when he brought in Kathy Ruemmler, then White House Counsel to President Obama, to discuss what it like to work as the “President’s lawyer.” She was also a Georgetown Law alumni! These are just a handful of examples that illustrates the kind of opportunity I had to learn under some of the most brilliant legal minds in the world. My coursework consisted of sitting under both liberal-leaning and conservative-leaning professors. To say that I was challenged would be a massive understatement. After a life of probably underachieving, looking back to the years I spent at Georgetown Law, I suppose I made it to the big leagues.
On top of such big name teachers, the students themselves were all top class with elite pedigrees. The international students were some of the best their countries had to offer. One particular class stands out that demonstrates the academic rigor and the kind of unique classroom environment I was in during those years. The class was taught by the aforementioned Professor Randy Barnett called Recent Books on the Constitution. The class was a small seminar of around twenty 2L and 3L students. As the name of the class suggests, we went through a recent book on the United States Constitution every week together. The books were sometimes dense and heady; however, at the end of each week, we were tasked to write a critique of the book. It had to be a short — under 5 pages — critique of a certain aspect of the book. The following week, Professor Barnett invited the author to come in and field our questions. Imagine that. A bunch of law students critiquing legal scholars who sit at the top of the legal world. That class taught me a lot about careful argumentation — the kind that would be challenged immediately by an expert. I also felt very out of place. The kind of questions that some of my colleagues threw out were some of the most deep, nuanced pieces of thought that I had encountered in an academic environment. It pushed me to think well. Those classrooms were inhospitable to poor reasoning. Maybe that by itself is worth the quarter million.
It is difficult in the moment to assess the pros and cons of what’s happening as it unfolds around you. I find it hard, even in hindsight, to properly assess the valuable takeaways I’ve had from those years. It undeniably left a mark on my life not only in thinking as it pertains to reasoning, but a broader perspective on just how big that world was. Thinking about it more, it would be fair to say that my legal education has been a guiding force for me personally in public discourse today — where legal thought and politics often collide in social media. There are many voices on just about everything these days and being able to separate the wheat from the chaff is at a premium — and for that, those three years in school were invaluable. Ultimately, attending Georgetown Law was a privilege, an expensive one, but a privilege nonetheless.
Law School GPA: The Worst Part of Law School
You would think that once you reach this point, everyone could feel accomplished and feel good together sitting around in a circle singing Kumbaya. Alas, things aren’t all rosy. Getting in and attending law school is just arriving at the doorstep to one’s legal career and beyond. Once you are in, you got to work your butt off to make it big. The rat race begins in the classroom. And if any of what I shared above is an indicator of how I handled the “race,” you can bet that I was pretty chill about it. It’s a shame that “chill” doesn’t exactly describe your average law student.
Looking back, I flitted through those three years. Spoiler alert, I graduated with somewhat above average grades, between a B+ and A- average. For those who are not aware, most law schools grade on a curve. This meant that your grades were relative to the competition around you.
At Georgetown, the guidance for professors were as follows:
This meant that regardless of how well you did in the class, only the top 12% will receive an A. You might be tempted to think, “Hey, that doesn’t look so bad… almost everyone gets a B or above!” And though you would be correct to point that out, this grading distribution is public knowledge for everyone, even employers. Whether it is to make the student feel better about ranking in the bottom percentile of his or her class, a potential employer knows your rank relative to your peers through your GPA.
It is worth re-emphasizing here that you are competing against peers whose past academic lives could be characterized as being patrician. It should not be surprising then to find that there is a healthy investment at the school in mental counseling come finals season. Those whose lives were accustomed to success all their lives do not necessarily handle failure well. If you gather up all the top students at every high school and place them in a select group of elite colleges, you get the Ivy League. If you then take the best students vying for law school from those colleges and place them in a selective group of law schools, you get the T14. Now grade them on a curve against each other. See what I mean?
Now surprisingly, you would think this would breed unhealthy competition between classmates but generally I saw none of that. In fact, I regularly shared my notes with my classmates and we shared knowledge with one another. Whether it was the naiveté of believing our futures were secure by having Georgetown Law to our name or just plain decency, school was a relatively collegial environment — or that’s how I remember it. However, that didn’t detract from the level of stress that came around finals. Most law school courses place 100% of the grade on a lengthy final exam. No homework. Just a single three-to-four hour final to determine your grade. For the legal writing courses, we had a multi-day paper assignment. For the most part, all the finals were open book, meaning we could bring our notes and textbooks to our exam; however, you should only have to use those as references for the finer points of the law you are citing — otherwise you are screwed. Why? You just don’t have the time to waste flipping through pages to cover the things you neglected to study during the exam. With our laptops and notes in hand, when the clock starts, it was off to the races — fingers to the keyboard.
Law school exams are a kind of beast you never encounter anywhere else. Usually you would get some absurd story full of characters getting into all sorts of mishaps, or “issues” as we like to call them, and the task is to spot as many issues you can find during the time allotted. After you spot a legal issue, you would write the applicable law, explain why the law applies, and argue why it should be adjudicated one way or the other. Can you imagine what typing up ten to twenty pages in three hours looks like? I’ll tell you now it doesn’t look pretty. But pretty doesn’t get you the points that make up your final grade, hitting as many issues does and sometimes in the end, you end up with a fifteen-page essay with a spattering of legal arguments. Again, not pretty but you get the point — it is crazy. Bold-faced, italicized, under-lined.
In the end, I was mostly a B+ student. Sometimes I would get an A-, like in contracts, and sometimes I would get a B, like in torts. One thing I am able to say though is that I always aced my writing courses. The writing seminars were broken up into smaller groups of 20-some students so getting an A meant your final exam was placed in the top three. Those As seriously buoyed my GPA. In one particular writing seminar, I was actually awarded the best paper with the conspicuous grade of A+ (weighted the same as an A).
The grading rubric for professors says this: “The faculty… established a grade of A+ to be recorded on official law school transcripts in recognition of truly extraordinary academic performance in a law school class. Because of this high standard, the A+ is not to be routinely awarded — even the best exam or paper in a class might not receive an A+.”
Though I have just one A+, no one can take that away from me. I had to think that my years writing essays for my history major had played some hand in that. I guess not everything about my undergraduate academic experience was a waste.
What are we here for? Jobs, of course.
So why does your GPA matter? Because your GPA effectively ranks you among your classmates (remember grades are calculated on a curve), law firms could sort out the best candidates based on those grades. Whether the GPA is an adequate metric to determine whether one has the potential to become a competent attorney is debatable; however, American school systems have long accepted some kind of measurable academic achievement as an a tool to sort students (e.g., SAT/ACT/LSAT/MCAT/DAT… you get the drill, lots of three-letter acronyms). As such, pining for a high GPA in law school was the way to secure your post-grad employment. Some of you may be wondering: Aren’t legal jobs everywhere? Nope. Not even close, particularly the well-paying ones.
To clear up any misconceptions about how much lawyers are paid, a quick Google search will tell you the median salary for an attorney is around $115,000. One doesn’t need a law degree to know how useless that number is. It says nothing about years of experience, geographic location, or any sort of constraint to provide better context as to how much lawyers actually get paid. I can tell you that a significant percentage of T14 law school graduates go into big law firms (“biglaw”) that have offices in major cities like New York, DC, Chicago, etc. These firms are well-known by any law student vying for those coveted positions. The amount they pay is also public information. For example, “biglaw” in New York used to pay $160,000 base salary, not including year-end bonuses based on billable hours. Those are the 2015 numbers when I graduated. Many prospective students aimed for the T14 law schools to get that fat paycheck in the end. A year or two after I graduated, the starting salary rose to $190,000 — pretty amazing right? On the other end of the spectrum of lawyers, if you didn’t land a “biglaw” job, good luck on breaking even $100,000. Most smaller law firms, or public interest law, do not pay even half that amount. Though if you did choose to go dedicate your life to public service, you had relatively generous loan forgiveness incentives through both the school and the government. But for the most part, people wanted to be at the big firms so grades mattered a lot.
Perhaps the most controversial part of securing a “biglaw” position is that law firms almost entirely chooses their candidates based on their first year (“1L”) grades. You may be wondering — wait what? You heard me. Your 2L and 3L grades do little to persuade those corporate big-shots to hire you. You don’t get much wiggle room for failure during your first year. Right before 2L starts, a swarm of biglaw partners and associates descend on our school campus from all across the United States — Georgetown has what you might call “nationwide reach”. They come to interview prospective summer associates. And so the marathon of on-campus interviews begins a week before your 2L school year. After brief, 30-minute sessions going back and forth about mundane things like, “Why law?”, if they liked you (and your GPA), they would invite you to come to their office for a “callback” interview. For these, you were flown over, treated to a nice hotel, and essentially tasked to impress a slew of various partners and senior associates who would ultimately decide whether they want you to come in as a summer associate after your 2L year. Then from that same pool of summer associates, they would grant return offers for those that performed well enough. Unsurprisingly, almost every summer associate receives a return offer and thus fills their quota for hiring from that year’s class.
There are probably a multitude of reasons why “biglaw” hiring has remained unchanged over the years, despite the fact that 1L grades aren’t a great indicator of future success in law. For one, these summer programs act as a filtering tool — the firm gets to do essentially a 10-week-long job performance interview. It should be at least a little bit surprising then that people rarely get filtered out — and that’s probably because firms invest heavily into those associates monetarily. They are paid on a prorated weekly basis, based on the $160,000 starting salary — which comes to around $3000 a week. Yup, summer associates are some of the highest paid “interns” in the world. That’s why so many swing for the big leagues. The rat race really does begin as soon as you enter law school — no room for failure.
My job search was relatively up and down. My 1L grades were pretty mediocre. I had just above a B+ average which wasn’t too bad. A B+ average was considered competitive for “biglaw” from Georgetown. I guess the difference for me was the whole interview process. I wasn’t ready for that kind of grilling. Something about sitting in a suit in front of people who make a living in suits to talk about things out of my butt the entire thirty minutes just wasn’t something I was cut out for. My law school classmates would remember me as the guy who always came to class in a t-shirt and basketball shorts.
Note: law schools do not have a dress code, students did not wear suits to class unironically; however, being in DC, kids were generally well-dressed.
You could tell the wealthier kids had a deeper wardrobe. Me? I rotated around a set of six tees and a mix of shorts and sweats depending on the weather. I didn’t care enough about presentation and I certainly did not talk the talk. I still had a couple of callback interviews though. I just didn’t manage to convince New York that I belonged and I guess it wasn’t such a big loss not making it there. I figured I would just apply to more unconventional positions and make the best of my situation. I ended up luckily finding an in-house position that paid half of what my colleagues got paid in New York but in a much cheaper place to live prior to graduation. I graduated with a pretty decent GPA, one that I’m not ashamed of — a grade or two away from graduating with distinction (top third of the entire graduating class). Most importantly, I had a job. It wasn’t paying as well as “biglaw” but then again it was a 9-to-5 job like most in-house counsel positions. For comparison, “biglaw” is notorious for burning out their associates by using billable hours. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an biglaw attorney working 40 hours a week. They work closer to 60 to 70 and during rough months they set up makeshift beds at work because of client demands. Large law firms are the elite frontrunners of the legal customer service industry. As such, the silver lining for me was that I had my life to live outside of work. If I compared my pay based on the hourly rate, I guess I wasn’t that underpaid right?
So between 2012 and 2015, law school came and went. The summer after was devoted to taking the bar exam. I sat for the New York bar, despite taking the in-house job in Providence, Rhode Island because I figure if I wanted to ever work in New York, might as well get admitted in New York. I won’t say too much about the bar exam as it was the worst kind of hell you could have to prepare for just after you celebrated your graduation from law school.
I took the exam, a two day ordeal, waited months for the results, and it wasn’t until I found out that I passed the exam I felt relieved. In the end, with my passing score, I applied to be admitted into the New York bar, which requires a lengthy application that evaluates your “moral character” with references and such. And a few months later, I was admitted into the New York bar — I was officially a lawyer! And pause.
Just to clarify, graduating from law school means you received the academic credentials (a juris doctorate — or J.D.) to sit for the bar exam. After passing the bar exam, you get the exam credentials to apply for admission for that state’s bar, the state’s governing lawyer’s association. Only after being admitted into the bar do you get the privilege of being called an attorney.
So yeah, I became an attorney after being admitted into the New York State Bar Association. My wife and I (sometime after law school I got married) drove down to New York to get sworn in before the court in a suit (ugh!). Months later, I “retired” from practice when I pivoted careers (oops, spoiler) but I still have my expired membership card. I wasn’t going to pay the membership fees every year and take the mandatory continuing legal education classes every now and then just to keep my registration active. Nope, that’s not my style.
Read the next article in this story: Part III: “Post-Law”: Yesterday a lawyer, today a software engineer