Today we conclude our roundtable discussion with History alumni-turned-attorneys Wade Adamson ’09, Gina Schulz ’07, and Aaron Thom ’08. In part one they recalled how they decided to study law. Today: applying to law school, and how Aaron, Gina, and Wade got where they are in their careers.
What advice would you give students who are considering applying to law school? What should they be considering as they discern if that’s the right path for them?
Wade Adamson (J.D., William Mitchell, 2013): First of all, you should know that it is a huge financial decision to make. Not only do you have any student debt from undergrad that you might be carrying, but you will likely also incur more (sometimes significantly more) debt to finance your time in law school. That, coupled with the fact that you are foregoing three years of income during your time in law school, means that you will likely graduate from law school in a significantly worse financial position than you otherwise would be if you did not go to law school, and significantly behind your peers in that regard.
Gina Schulz (J.D., University of Michigan, 2014): I had plenty of classmates who went straight from undergrad to law school, but personally I don’t think that’s a good idea. Even with scholarships, law school is a huge investment and most students take on a lot of debt. I think it’s worth spending some time figuring out whether it’s something you actually want to do before you have $200k in loans to pay back.
WA: Understand that a law degree is no guarantee of a job, nor is it a guarantee of a financially lucrative job, as many people assume. You might find yourself called to a career path in public service or simply unable to compete for the more highly-compensated legal jobs based on your resume and/or work experience. In that case, the repayment of large amounts of student loan debt can significantly impact your life in the years to come.
GS: Take some time off and try some things and grow up a little bit. (I certainly needed to). If you know what kind of law you want to practice, find something to do in a related field. I wanted to do public-interest law, and it helped my application that I served for a year with AmeriCorps. But I also spent two years waiting tables full time, and I don’t regret that at all. (As it turns out, the skills required in some areas of legal practice are surprisingly similar to those you develop in a busy restaurant.)
Aaron Thom (J.D., University of Minnesota, 2011): Decide whether you like dealing with conflict and competition. Particularly in litigation, conflict is constant and inevitable—on all fronts. There’s conflict between lawyers vying for the same client, conflict between associates competing for a partner’s approval, attorney-client conflict regarding strategy and resolution of difficult issues, conflict between attorneys on opposing sides of a dispute. The stress of an attorney’s job is well recognized. What isn’t so clear—at least it wasn’t to me—was how much, and how many different manifestations of, tension exists.
WA: You should make sure you know what being a lawyer actually means. Find attorneys to connect with and talk to them about their jobs to get a better sense of what the day-to-day life of an attorney is like. Given the huge investment in time and money necessary to complete law school, you should be as certain as you can be that it is the right career path for you. If your idea of the life of an attorney is based on TV and movies, that is a sign that you have not done much research or investigation into what your future will be.
GS: To the extent that you can, talk to lawyers in different fields to figure out what their lives look like. Lawyers get requests to have coffee and talk about their careers all the time, and most of them are happy to do it. I didn’t have any connections to lawyers when I was applying, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into. If that’s your situation, feel free to reach out to me and I can find you some people to talk to.
If they do decide to go to law school, what can they do to strengthen their application?
WA: Law school applications are similar to undergrad applications in that the schools say there is a “full-picture” approach to admissions and that every application is evaluated in its entirety, including work experience, personal essays, etc. However, you should know that absent some sort of extraordinary feature to your application, it will likely come down to two numbers: undergraduate GPA and LSAT score.
GS: Law school admissions are more straightforward than other graduate programs. You can generally predict where you will get in by looking at the median GPA and LSAT of the schools you’re applying to (although I think this is starting to change). It’s not fun advice, but one of the best things you can do is keep up your GPA and study hard for the LSAT. (Hope is certainly not lost if your numbers aren’t strong, but it’s worth working hard to do the best you can.)
WA: The best thing you can do right now for your law school application is perform well in undergrad and earn the highest GPA you can. Bethel is a great school, but you are not attending Harvard or Stanford or some other Ivy League school where a less-than-stellar GPA may be overlooked. You should be ensuring your GPA is an accurate reflection of your intelligence and ability as a student. Once you are ready to start thinking about applying for law school, you should obtain LSAT prep books to prepare for the LSAT and attempt to earn the highest score possible. This will likely involve many, many hours of preparation to familiarize yourself with the LSAT and perform practice exams.
AT: I think if a student wants to set him/herself apart from the pack, he/she’ll choose an area in which to specialize (like science, to use the example I mentioned yesterday) during college rather than waiting until law school to start shaping his/her future career. Law is such a diverse field. The study and practice of law itself does not determine a lawyer’s focus or direction. The lawyer needs to choose what she or he wants to do — and it’s best to start making these decisions as early as possible to avoid merely drifting into a legal field that is not of interest to the student. Lawyers who lack passion are soon to be not lawyers anymore.
Tell us a bit about your path from law school to your current job.
AT: I went from law school to the firm Robins Kaplan. It was exhausting and trying, but I loved it. I received amazing experience from day 1 — literally. I then did a short stint at Madel before starting my own firm with my colleague, and favorite lawyer in the world, Sam Ellingson.
WA: My decision to go to law school was impacted by the economic situation in the United States at the time. I graduated in December 2008, which was in the heart of the Great Recession. Jobs were hard to come by at a time when the country was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs per month. My plan was to attend law school with the idea that by the time I graduated three years later the economy would have rebounded. Unfortunately, I was not the only person with that plan in mind. The year I entered law school, 2010, was the highest year of enrollment in the history of the United States. That meant a lot of competition amongst students, as law school courses are graded on a curve and there were more students to compete against.
GS: It took me awhile to figure out where I belonged in the legal profession, in part because I went to law school without any idea of what that meant.
WA: During law school I thought I wanted to be a litigator and pursued opportunities to be in the courthouse as much as possible. I was a judicial intern for a federal district judge in Minneapolis the summer after my 1L year, an intern at a county attorney’s office the summer after my 2L year, and an intern for a federal magistrate judge while also studying for the bar exam the summer after I graduated. Once I passed the bar exam I took a job as a judicial law clerk for a judge in Anoka County. I felt incredibly fortunate to have that job given the huge numbers of law students entering the job market at that time coupled with the fact that legal hiring was still far below the pre-recession levels. At the same time, I knew I did not want to be a litigator. After a few months of work, I began to think about what my next job would be. I had given the judge I worked for a commitment that I would stay for at least one year, so I still had about 8 months to go on that commitment, but I knew I had to start working hard to set myself up for a good opportunity come that time.
GS: Soon after graduating, though, I clerked for a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where I saw the appellate public defenders practice. Even though I had no background in criminal law, I finally saw a job that looked right for me: representing indigent clients in criminal appeals. After a couple of years in other (great but not quite perfect) positions, I got the job.
WA: I spent nearly a year networking and meeting as many transactional attorneys as I could before and after work for breakfasts, coffees, and/or happy hours. Through those efforts I met two attorneys at Gray Plant Mooty, and eventually they had an opening for an associate attorney that I interviewed for and was hired. I worked there from August 2015 through this past February, when I started a new position as an associate attorney for the new Minneapolis office of a large, national firm called Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr.
What’s most enjoyable and most challenging about your work?
WA: My practice has been focused on transactional commercial real estate work since I began in private practice in 2015. I really enjoy helping my clients accomplish their business goals and playing a key role in the success of their companies. I enjoy being a transactional attorney because my role is to help make deals happen, which are beneficial to my clients. The completion of any project is usually a time of celebration for the client, which I also enjoy being a part of.
GS: It’s truly my dream job, and I feel lucky every day that I get paid for doing what I love. The caseload can be stressful, the stakes are generally pretty high, and I make way less money than I would at a firm. But, in the end, I read and write and think for a living, and I get to do that on behalf of clients I like and a cause that I believe in. It’s pretty great.
WA: The most challenging part of my job is how stressful and demanding it is. There can be tight deadlines, long days/nights at the office, working on the weekends, etc. The job of an associate attorney at a large law firm is certainly not a 9-5 job, and in an era of constant connectivity, I can’t really ever “disconnect” from the office, which can be taxing.
AT: I enjoy the work I’m currently doing more than anything I’ve ever done before. We choose what cases to take, and how we litigate them. Our practice is what we make it. Of course, that can be stressful. But it’s more exhilarating than anything.