From JET to J.D.: My Law School Experience

This is my story, from the conclusion of my time on JET to the finding employment after my law school graduation. One thing that’s important to note: the entire law school process takes a long, long freaking time. Long enough that I would say if you’re seriously considering it, it’s best to make headway on it while you’re still on JET. To help evidence the sheer length of the process, I have broken up my story into headers, with dates. Enjoy.

The Decision (February 2007)

I’m a three-year JET alum, receiving my placement in northern Akita-ken (Futatsui-machi if you must know) during the years 2005-2008.

The town was famous for the “Tallest Virgin Cedar Tree in Japan”, for the curious.

I had the unique experience on JET of being both the “small town ALT” as well as taking on the dreaded role of “one-shot ALT” when Futatsui merged with neighboring city Noshiro in 2006. While my JET exploits are probably better left for another blog, from another time, I have written the above as context for what follows. In early 2007, when I informed my superiors I was planning to renew my contract for a third time, I did so with my thoughts on what I would do in life after my JET experience ended. My main goal at that time was simple: get into law school.

I did not reach the decision completely willy-nilly. Law school had been a thought of mine since as early as high school, and was my alternative choice if I did not get a year or two on the JET Program. I had been on speech & debate teams since as early as junior high. I had been a “mock trialer” since my freshman year of high school, and had kept up with it through the conclusion of my undergraduate years. My mock trial years were met with some success: I was a state finalist in high school, and traveled to two national tournaments as a college student.

I was not so obsessed to have a shirt like this, though.

I had dabbled in legal academia when I studied at Kansai Gaidai, where my first “comparative law” course captured my imagination as to what the law meant beyond courtroom theatrics and the rules of evidence. For me, law school seemed a great means to transition from JET life into something greater. I had also felt that I had learned a lot from my shortcomings during undergrad. As a college student, I often took the easier way out if one was available: I took some of the easier courses and backed away from courses that might present a challenge. I was more concerned with getting an excellent grade than I was with actually having to learn something.

Now, my orientation had changed: I knew that if law school was going to be the direction I went in, I was going to do it right. There would be no half-assing, no taking the easy way out with cake courses. Law school was not an end in itself, but a means to an end: the means to a career.

LSAT (June 2007)

With that in mind, I picked up a copy of US News & World Report (USNWR) the next time I was down in Tokyo, along with a set of LSAT books. From that day on, my post-school activity was LSAT studying in the quiet of my very, very inaka-style home. I put the hours in, and learned the tips and tricks to answering LSAT questions as best I could, like a third-year 中学生 practicing for high school entrance examinations. I was in the zone.

And it paid off. The hard core studying raised my LSAT score by 10 points, such a jump that law school applicant forums advised I include an attachment to some of my law school applications to explain the disparity.

The Applications (August 2007 – April 2008)

With my LSAT scores in hand, I turned to the USNWR rankings, mainly to determine what were my “reach” schools, my “likely” schools, and my fail-safe schools based on average LSAT scores. (NOTE: In hindsight, I would advise that with law schools you really shouldn’t have a “fail-safe”, especially in the downtrodden economy we have today where even top school are having difficulty securing employment for their grads).

I also started contacting undergraduate friends I knew had gone the law school route. I started contacting lawyers in the family. I contacted friends of friends: anyone who could help shed light and advice on picking a law school. I took all the information I could get in making my application picks, and aligning my priorities. I have already discussed my own calculus in picking a law school elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here. Note that, with a few exceptions, I largely followed the advice I gave in this post.

Acceptance (April 2008)

I received acceptances from 4 of the 5 schools I applied to, and ultimately settled on the one with the highest rank, a decent cost, and the one that gave me the most financial assistance. In retrospect, I still feel I made the correct decision, and The Ohio State University became my school of choice.

With my acceptance in hand, I wound up the rest of my JET experience, my liver survived the onslaught of farewell parties, and I made my way home. Four days later, at the beginning stages of “reverse culture shock” and still shaking off jet lag, I began law school.

Year 1 (2008-2009)

Generally. It’s is said that the first year is the worst of law school. This is not entirely true. It is certainly bad, but to say it is the worst is misleading. The difficulty arising out of “1L” is entirely based on uncertainty: uncertainty about your understanding of the material, uncertainty about the important and unimportant details discussed in class, uncertainty about who to trust, and worst of all: uncertainty about your grades. Those grades will be based almost exclusively on a final examination, amongst which only a fixed percentage of students will receive “A’s”– regardless of how well the other 70% perform.

Additionally, as a JET Returnee, there is the terrible mix of Reverse Culture Shock + Law School Culture Shock. Every spare moment of time is full, or you’re convinced it is.

Jobs. In the Fall of 2008, the already tight legal employment market collided with the financial crisis.

Just like the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will one day collide and wreak irreparable havoc, so was the legal job market and the financial crisis in 2008.

In that moment, the lawyer lay-offs began. Offers of employment to upperclassmen rescinded. Law firms lessened the number of law school graduates they wanted. Experienced lawyers were now vying for less experienced positions. New graduates were vying for law student level positions. And in the midst of all of that, 1Ls such as myself faced a crowded employment battlefield where our opponents had superior weapons. Three years later, sadly, none of this has changed.

All of this generated the nagging feeling that, as a 1L, you need to do something to distinguish yourself in the hopes of having a career. Ultimately, whatever you do needs to set you apart from the 2Ls, 3Ls, recent graduates and now laid-off attorneys with years of experience who are also going to be on the job market, fighting against a growing labor pool vying for an ever-decreasing amount of jobs.

Complicating matters, as a Returnee JET my “professional network” was not quite adequate to assist in conducting a job search in such a competitive environment.

Put another way, my network consisted of rural Japanese hair dressers, school teachers, and ramen chefs.

All of this made 1L year all the more challenging and stressful. By the close of 1L year, one thing became exceedingly clear: many of the people I knew had no idea what there were going to be putting on their resume for the summer of 2009. Just as many feared what that would mean for their law firm recruitment chances at the end of the summer. I was among that group.

With time narrowing down, I reached out to everyone and everything I could find. I applied to positions outside of my area of interest; I applied to positions that didn’t pay anything; I applied to things I knew that I would hate doing.

My Result. In the end, I was “fortunate” enough to land an unpaid position outlining a treatise on Ohio tort law, and signed-up for a summer abroad experience at Oxford University.

Not a big law firm job, but it’ll do.

The summer went well, and was certainly more relaxing than the previous year. But, always looming was the reality that I was about to embark on the ultra-busy (and ultimately the “worst” year of law school). . .

Year 2 (2009-2010)

Generally. This year was far, far worse. The school work was no longer scary, but it was neverending. A full load of classes, law journal, and the job search were all-consuming. Stress was at an all time high. Satisfaction and free time were at an all time low. I would not wish 2L year on my enemies, it was that unpleasant.

Jobs. The economy was still in shambles, and there was still a massive army of unemployed, experienced lawyers out there to take the jobs the rest of the law school classes wanted. This was the time of year for on-campus interviewing [OCI], moreover. OCI was once the main route for a number of students to secure employment for their 2L summer and, likely, after graduation. Not so with OCI in 2009. The selection of firms coming was paltry–and it was unclear whether they were actually interviewing to hire or not. Some actually showed up to interview without the intention of hiring.

I managed to eek out of few interviews, and they were all the typical law firm interview flavor to which I would later become accustomed: a friendly chat, discussion about the firm, a nice handshake and a walk to the door. A week later, a letter would be in the mail to let me know I was “impressive” . . . but not their kind of impressive. And again, and again.

There were those around this time turning their rejection letters into depressing art such as this.

I lost the OCI battle, like most of my fellow students. The job search would have to continue, it seemed. In September, I was lucky enough to have a different lead pay off. I found part-time work at a small law firm. They pay was not stellar, but it didn’t have to be. I was getting something that would hopefully distinguish myself from my fellow law students: experience. I was working on live cases with real world implications.

In part, JET helped me get that job by fueling my interview’s discussion–not just by sharing a few vignettes about my JET experience–but by allowing me to expound on those “transferable” skills everyone in the JET Program gains: that uniquely amiable and thick-skinned adaptability that counterbalances the weaknesses most applicants in the “Millennial” generation are said to have.

The work would have a cost, though — in terms of time and energy. I had legitimate concerns that this would negatively impact my grades. But, experience seemed a worthy trade-off for grades at this point in my law school career. Nevertheless, the part-time job was a reprieve from the stress, it did not outright erase it. I still did not know what I was doing after graduation.

I continued to fight to distinguish myself from the thousands of other law students across the country trying  to secure employment after graduation. So, I pushed myself harder. I took a full load of classes. I put in my time on law journal. I put in my hours at the firm. On top of all that, I took on a second job doing research for a professor. I took on any extra responsibility I could find. And–as you might expect–I was exhausted. This was the most extended I had ever been: everyday was a twelve hour day.

My diet also consisted of coffee and air.

Throughout all this, my goal was unchanging: post-graduate employment. That was all I cared about. Until I had work lined up, this sort of suicidal course would have to continue.

JETs with JDs. And then I decided to add a blog. Or, rather, I got the inspiration to start blogging.

Now, I had been networking quietly throughout my 1L year, tracking down attorneys working in practice areas and parts of the world that interested me, and getting their take on life, their work, and their workplace. I even managed to successfully track down an American attorney operating out of my old stomping grounds of Tohoku. But it was on a quiet morning in March of 2010 that I decided to reach out to a guy named Steven Horowitz, a JET alum and attorney who had produced a web-comic on Bankruptcy Law. I figured the exchange would lead to maybe a few leads and then fizzle out.

Instead, Steven exceeded expectations and helped to direct my efforts to get in touch with JET Program alum attorneys and greatly expand my network of contacts. What sprung from this effort was an attempt to share what I was learning to the broader audience. Hence, JETs with J.D.s. With all of the other obligations on my plate, I certainly didn’t have time to start a weblog, but I knew the blog would force me to get out there and market myself, so I took it on anyway.

End of 2L. As 2L year turned into 2L summer, and my classes and journal obligations died down, I ramped up my networking efforts, and ramped up my efforts to lock-in a career after law school. Times were no less tough, though. As the school year came to close, there were myriad whispers in the hallway that only a handful of third-year students were graduating with work. The panic was palpable, and there was a very real sense the the situation was not about to change any time soon.

I was able to work full-time at the law firm for the summer, and leveraged my JET experience to spend my spare time teaching conversational English to a Korean tax professor as well.

Year 3 (2010-2011)

Generally. Drive turned into apathy in year three. The economy was still unchanged, and my obligations were no less. I was still taking a full load of classes, my involvement on law journal had increased substantially, and I was still balancing two jobs amidst all of this.

Jobs. The situation giving rise to the jobs problem remained unchanged. Law firms still weren’t really hiring. The armed services’ JAG Corps. were tough to get into, even the Army had a substantial waiting list lined up. That’s right, even with a law degree it was hard to get a job that paid $40k and for which you might get shot.

At this point I shifted my focus towards alternatives: either working in-house legal or trying to leverage my law degree into something else. If a law firm extended me an interview, I certainly went, but I was no longer willing to continue running down that path to nowhere, especially when so many other students were following that same course. What I had that no other student had to offer was Japanese. What I had to offer was what I got off of JET, oddly enough. On top of that, during my three years of law school, there was only one other student at the law school that was Japanese fluent, and she was half-Japanese, half-Canadian. This contrasted sharply with the incredible number of other foreign students (Chinese, Korean, Indian, etc.) that populated the law school halls quite heavily. So my thinking went: if there is a demand for a hard-worker with a legal and Japanese background, the number of viable candidates will be much smaller than there would be for an opening in a conventional legal position.

It was around this time I learned about DISCO, and applied to interview with companies at their October Career Forum. I managed to score a good number of interviews that had me excited about my possibilities.

In all, 90% of my interviews during 3L year were with companies. This came amidst news that more companies were bringing in attorneys directly, rather than employing law firms to do their legal work.

Still, employment was elusive throughout 3L year. I knew I was not alone, but still, no one is proud of the fact that they just spent three years and a lot of money on a degree that may have left them worse off than when they started. I know there are still plenty of my classmates grappling with this issue even now. When March came around and I still did not know what I was going to do, I accepted it as fact: I would graduate without a job.

My small firm boss allowed me to continue working for as long as I wished at my part-time rate, but that was far from where I wanted to be. Graduation came, and graduation went, and I became a J.D. holder without a job. One among many.

Bar Exam (May 2011 – July 2011)

Even without a job, if I wanted to make sure all my options were open, I still needed to pass through the final hurdle of becoming a lawyer, passing a bar examination. Given the lacking employment opportunities in Ohio, I invested in a big belt buckle and headed for Texas.

All the while, as I studied for the Bar, I took one hour out of my day to scour employment ads and apply to anything I saw that might fit my interests or background. Again, the Bar was just a means to an end: the end was a job. A job was my goal. As painful as it was to still be searching for work three years after my law school journey began, I fought hard not to get discouraged or bitter, and kept my mind on my goal.

Finally, one week after taking the Bar exam I got the call for an interview and, after the interview, had work.

Plenty of folks I know are still looking, and I am no so arrogant to say that I found this job solely because of my legal acumen, glowing personality, or nice smile. I may or may not have any or all of those things, but what I had was luck.

That is, perhaps, the one thing I would want you to take away from my law school experience: the end game has such a huge luck factor that skill (unless your skills help you end up in the top 10% of the class) simply isn’t enough.

The above has been a brief fly-over of my law school years, and is intended for reference. I left out a lot of detail, and left out what little social life and personal drama I encountered completely. But, keep that in mind: through all the busy work, and stress, and searching: life for you and the rest of your family will keep moving. Good and bad things will still happen, and it can boost or completely derail your law school career. My three years had their bad times, but I was fortunate enough that things at home were relatively peaceful while I was student. That doesn’t change the nature of the risk, though.

Whether my story helps at all, I don’t know. But if you’ve read through this far and are still planning on law school, I wish you all the best.

 

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