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
“Pre-law”: The Blunder Years
Why law? It was the first question I got from my Georgetown Law admissions interviewer. It was the same tired question repeated throughout all my law firm interviews. Now that that’s all behind me, I can’t even remember what I said because all of it was manufactured at the time and soon forgotten. Trite, uninspired questions probably deserve like responses. The question always felt forced as if lawyers were chosen by God himself and not the whims of man. For me, it was just practical. It wasn’t even about the prospect of making lots of money (really), it was just a potential career to do something with my life after graduating from college with a less-than-appealing — from an employer’s perspective — degree. But no one wanted to hear that of course. Even still they ask: Why law? And so my story begins searching for the answer to that question.
My decision to try to get into law school happened sometime during my third year of undergraduate studies. I remember deliberating over this decision carefully in the most naive manner. As a child of middle-class Korean immigrants with limited access to legal professionals, my perception of a lawyer was formed entirely by what I saw on TV or the John Grisham novels I read growing up. My concerns were less, “Would I enjoy legal work?” and more, “Do I have to lie in court to be an effective lawyer?” Naturally those misconceptions cleared up rather quickly after a serious look into law (By the way, the answer is no. You would get disbarred really quickly if you were caught lying). However naive I may have been about the legal profession, I wasn’t so foolish to think that everyone absolutely needs to find a job that they are passionate about. I knew that those situations are a rare and privileged blessing. When it came to figuring out what to do beyond college, I just wanted to make some sort of living. At the start of my junior year, I took a job at the National Archives II (the one located in College Park, Maryland, not DC). It was my first taste of actually earning money from someone other than my parents. Without going into the details, it was an incredibly boring, mind-numbing job but it paid well enough — almost $14 an hour, which was a lot at the time as a college student — and I was able to wean off my parents financially quite a bit from then on. That experience coupled with seeing my parents run a dry cleaning business for 20+ years really dispelled any notion of placing all my life’s hopes and dreams in a career that doubled as a passion. I was determined to leverage my job for the things I most enjoy, friends and family, and not the other way around. And at that time, I decided that law was going to be that stepping stone. There was no grand fanfare to the decision, nor did it feel like my inner potential was awakened as if a bolt of inspiration struck my soul. Maybe that’s why my answers to the question were uninspired. The circumstances that led to my choice was anything but inspired. I just had one glaring problem — my undergrad GPA sucked.
“Build a strong foundation. If you start weak, you will only ever see the cracks form when you try to build something worthwhile on top.” — Mom, on my studies
Some context may be necessary here — particularly for those readers who are not familiar with how people get into law school in the States. To apply, all you need are just two things: your undergraduate grade point average (GPA) and a Law School Admission Test (LSAT) score. To further clarify the GPA requirement, unlike medical school, there is no prerequisite coursework for law school applicants. There is no true “pre-law” major. My law school classmates graduated from their colleges with a variety of degrees ranging from computer science to biology. I myself graduated from the University of Maryland College Park with a double major in History and Chinese. You can almost imagine all the job offers coming in after my graduation right? To repeat for the umpteenth time, all you needed out of college was your GPA — preferably a really good one. And secondly, you needed to take the LSAT, a standardized test that aims to test your logical reasoning skills. There is no requisite knowledge to take the LSAT other than the candidate’s ability to read English. Just two things.
Backtracking a bit, I was an unremarkable student in high school. I guess it wasn’t all too surprising then that I had not invested much into what I wanted to study in college, much less do after I graduated. So when I applied around, I selected “undecided” as my major — this is a thing in the States. After starting out as an “undecided” student, students were forced to select a major after finishing their second year. Long story short, I essentially rolled a die and decided I was going with history. As for my second major, learning Chinese was something that I fell into after befriending some Chinese friends who taught me the language during my freshman year. Again, no career plans, just “doing” college. Unsurprisingly, “just doing” college didn’t net me a very high GPA. I am willing to bet that there is a strong correlation between motivation and one’s academic success.
The funny thing about motivation is that people often only look to the end reward to drive their being. For example, the prospect of losing twenty pounds is the image that some chase at the gym every day. However, some struggle with motivation while others don’t — even if both are chasing the same goal. Though one might argue that the one who succeeded just found the goal more valuable, I suspect it has more to do with taking the initiative where others failed to do the same. Success is really a self-feeding cycle. The one who gets up to goto the gym and finds themselves losing pound after pound over the months often finds added fuel to go the following year. This is why so many people selling self-care focuses on forming healthy habits. Initiative kicks off routine. Routine builds habits, and habits lead to success which in turn motivates and then builds the kind of discipline necessary to do well in anything.
That said, entering into my junior year of college, I lacked both the goal and the initiative to do something about it.
I entered my junior year with a 3.0 GPA, which barely translated to a B-minus average. So when it came down for me to think about what I wanted to do after graduation, I didn’t have a myriad of options, especially in 2008–2009 when the job market was a bit rough. Like many graduates during those years, graduate school was a means to defer entering the job market during the recession. And because applying to law school required no prior coursework, with less-than-optimal options looking towards graduation, I figured law school was going to be my way out. I set the goal to get into the elite T14 law schools, a group of schools that boasted world-class education and the best employment prospects upon graduation. And from then on, I had a goal and I pivoted my life ever so slightly to do something about my GPA. My last two years of undergrad showed marked improvement in my studies. Though I still lazed about attending classes every now and then, I managed to bring my average up to a 3.3 — a solid B average. Mom was right. I found just how hard it was to dig myself out of the hole I created for myself during my freshman and sophomore years of college. Even with semesters with A-average GPAs (3.6 and above) during my last two years, I barely brought my GPA up from 3.0 to a 3.3. And though it was an improvement, it was still a far cry from the standard of admission at the T14 schools. For example, the median GPA of admitted applicants at Georgetown Law was 3.76; the bottom quartile had a 3.47 — I don’t even want to know where my GPA ranked among my classmates. Georgetown Law was also ranked last in the T14. All this to say, my GPA was piss poor for my target law schools and I deeply regretted wasting my first two years of college. Everything rode on my LSAT score.
Hard work sometimes pays off. When it does? Divine.
The LSAT is a different kind of beast than any other standardized test out there. It doesn’t test raw knowledge like the MCAT. It doesn’t test numbers like the GRE or GMAT. It consists of five 35-minute multiple choice sections testing the test taker’s logical thinking skills. Every question has five potential answers labeled from the letters A to E. Four of the five are definitely wrong as they rely on logical fallacies. This leaves room for only one unambiguously correct answer. The LSAT score is on a scale from 120 to 180, a number derived from the candidate’s raw score — the number of answers the test taker answered correctly out of approximately 101 questions.
How well one does on the LSAT is probably the single most important metric that determines whether you get into X law school over Y law school. Among the very top scores, getting one or two questions off could mean the difference between someone getting into Harvard (#3 ranked law school in the States) and University of Pennsylvania (#7). Both are elite law schools but it illustrates the high stakes that demand perfection when approaching the exam. For more perspective, the median LSAT score to get into Yale, the number one ranked law school, is 173. Depending on the particular exam, a 173 score means the candidate got somewhere between 8–10 questions wrong. The score itself is in the 99th percentile of test takers. Georgetown Law’s median LSAT score is 167, which places one at the 94th percentile — between 13–15 incorrect answers.
Note: Getting just five questions wrong could mean the difference between the top ranked school and the 14th ranked school.
Also, in the most recent examination, one could get up to 28 questions wrong and still get a 160, which is in the 80th percentile. It kind of makes one think — if these questions are really just based on one’s logical reasoning skills, maybe people aren’t as logically sound as they think themselves to be. This isn’t to say the test is easy at all; however, I would think that it should surprise some that getting 28 questions wrong out of 101 lands you at the 80th percentile. Suffice it to say, with my GPA, I had to hit a home run on the LSAT to even have a remote chance at the T14.
After about four months dedicating around 20 hrs a week to studying for the LSAT, I was able to get my practice test scores to an average of 176 (99.85th percentile in 2011). And just to show off, I had a handful of perfect 180s too. But for the real thing, all sorts of factors kick during the test day — for me, it was an inopportune bathroom break. Eating oatmeal that morning was not a great idea and I ended up having to guess seven questions on the section I was best at (logic games) — all of which I got wrong. I ended up with a 171 (98th percentile) — considerably below my practice scores and while disappointing, I still managed to break through the 170-bar despite the blunder on my best section. So armed with a 3.3 GPA and a 171 LSAT score, I put in my applications focusing on the bottom half of the T14. Fast forward a few months, I got waitlisted at my top choice school (Penn Law) and eventually got into Georgetown Law which I accepted and matriculated in the Fall of 2012.
Read the next article in this story: Part II: Law — The “long”-cut to software engineering