So you graduated from a great school, and are now off on you adventure in Japan. Teaching tomorrow’s English speakers, mingling with an eclectic blend of newly minted (or maybe not so newly minted) college grads, and being the recipient of a unique and deep cultural experience are what joining JET is all about. And now, your time on JET is winding down, and you find yourself wondering: What’s next?
After a pause, you think, perhaps, a law degree is a way to go. After all, you’re international, intelligent, and adaptable– and now, you’re intercultural! What better use of your time than to take that and turn it all into a law degree? Well, much like the prior to joining the JET experience, when you didn’t know you’d be sorting your garbage into eight different categories, dealing with frozen pipes, or fending off mukade the size of your arm, the expectations you bring with you to a possible legal career can conflict starkly with reality.
This post isn’t designed to discourage you from going to law school, but to make sure that, if doing law after JET is a choice you are entertaining, that that decision should be an informed one.
First of all, a couple words of encouragement — You Can Get Into Law School.
Especially if you start early. As a JET, you have the time and the potential flexibility to make a committed, concentrated effort to study for the LSATs, to look through school rankings, to contact current and past law students and get a read on exactly where you want to study, what you might want to practice, and where your law school education might take you. This is true even if you’re a one-shot (as I was). With a few months of concentrated study, you can handle the LSAT, get an account set up on LSAC, and start applying to law schools. You even have the time and ability to go through your applications several times, consider what you want to highlight in your personal statements, and contact the right people to submit letters of recommendation for you.
The benefit of being on JET and looking to get into law school is time. While your fellow law school applicants may be hard at work, or trying to multi-task a law school application with married life, children, and keeping down a job– you have, conceivably, less on your plate to distract you, and that will pay off for you in the end.
Secondly, You Can Do Law School. That is, if you want to.
The nature of the work in law school won’t kill you. If you can read and do some critical reasoning, you can handle law school. I promise. Moreover, law school will turn you into stronger writer and a more efficient reader within a matter of a few weeks. Perhaps spending the last two years singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in front of small children has also removed any apprehensions you might have of being called on in a classroom environment– which is sure to happen in law school, and what’s more on a regular basis.
Unless you make intentional and deliberate effort to ignore your classroom obligations and impending exams, you can make law school work for you.
The question that remains, then, is do you really want to? Do you really want to do law school?
Before signing on to my law school career, I made an effort to seek out every friend I’d ever had that had ever gone through the law school experience. I had already gone through LSATs, the application process, and was receiving my offers from the schools I had applied to, and wanted to tap into their law school experience and insight, to help inform my ultimate decision on a school. I even received one email from a law student I had not met before, with what seemed to me to be a fairly direct admonition:
First, a threshold matter: Are you REALLY sure you want to go through with this? Law school is not for the faint of heart. This is an ugly, unglamorous profession. Do not come to law school because you think you might want to do “something” with a law degree. That is delusional. Come to law school because you want to come out and become a practicing attorney. Before you think of accepting any of those offers, I STRONGLY URGE–INSIST– that you get in touch with a family friend who is an attorney and talk to him about the profession.
My obvious answer to this question was: “Yes.” I’d already jumped through all the hoops to go into law school. I’d already turned in my “will not renew” contract slip to the Board of Education. My course was set, and I wasn’t changing it. Nor do I regret my decision to come to law school. My uninvited messenger, however, did raise a good point: unlike JET, law school is a hard, three year commitment. Unlike JET, law school is going to push you, and hard, for all three of those years. Unlike JET, you may have to…
Treat law school like a job. Go to work in the morning. Put in a full, honest days’ work. Go home, and rest. The fact that you’ve been out “in the world” for a while is a huge benefit. Your sectionmates (who may not even really want to be in law school, but are using it as a way to escape the real world for a few years) will not have the coping skills that you will have developed outside school.
Unlike JET, you will have some feedback on your performance, and that feedback will have a direct impact on whether or not your J.D. will land you a legal job after law school. What’s worse, your grades are not necessarily a reflection of how much you know, but how much more you know compared to your classmates. As my unsolicited informer put it:
Law school evaluation is un-American. Not only are examinations terminal assessments–your whole grade is in a single exam– but the grades themselves are awarded on a fairly inflexible curve. No matter how good you feel about your exam, no matter how well you think you know the law–that doesn’t matter nearly as well as how well or poorly your section-mates did on the same exam. Like it or not, you are going to be ranked according to your performance on a single arbitrary problem that will test your ability to apply “the law” to a ridiculous set of hypothetical facts.
If you are in Japan, talk to your Japanese colleagues about “exam hell” and their experiences with juku. That is the world you are about to inhabit. Be warned.
Of course, the irony of the law school grading curve is that no one ever fails law school. With minimal half-assed good faith effort, even the lowest scorer will likely end up with C, unless they deliberately try to derail their own education. The only catch is that employers know this, too.
Which brings me to precisely why I’m writing this post, and why you should really ask yourself whether or not you want to go through this law school experience. Everything prior to this is nothing more than a fair warning, that yes, law school is challenging and frightful mess, but also doable and potentially vastly rewarding. The real thing you need to ask yourself is, if I do this– if I go through law school, what is waiting for me on the other side?
This is where I found myself three years ago, as I was scheduling for the LSAT, reading U.S. News & World Rankings, and being confronted with law school website language like:
Each year more than 98 percent of graduates report employment within nine months after graduation. We have one of the highest placement rates in the country. And you can connect with our more than 9,000 alumni who are working in all 50 states and around the world.
You won’t be buried up to your eyebrows in debt upon graduation… a large percentage of students receive scholarships from the College.
The above language is taken from one of many law schools out there, but it’s overall representative of the whole. The sales pitch is undeniably good – High placement? Low debt? Moving into a career and getting paid more? Where do I sign?
It wasn’t until I entered law school that I realized I had forgotten the conventional knowledge that lawyers, by their very nature, are sketchy on two things: mathematics, and the truth. The reality is, the law degree does less to set the one who holds it apart than you might think, and when it comes to the job search, you’re about as visible as a rain drop in the ocean. Add to that, the economic collapse and subsequent lay-offs that went with it mean you’re not just a raindrop in the ocean, but the ocean is also getting flooded by melting ice caps. The law student now not only has to compete with a crowded and choked legal market, but now also has to deal with a market crowded with actual attorneys, laid-off and looking for work. This year, my school’s class of 200-some 3Ls has 20 students employed in a legal position, and only five weeks of their law school careers remain. This isn’t because these 3Ls did not do their homework, did not seek out legal employment, or are somehow unqualified. The jobs just simply aren’t there.
I write this not as a complaint- but as a word of caution. If you’re really thinking about law school, know that it’s going to be a challenge — not just while you’re there — but after you graduate. Law school is no longer the golden ticket to a stable career that it once was. Graduating law school with the coveted $100k salary and big firm position is becoming an increasingly rare, increasingly unstable phenomenon. What’s worse, some places may seek to compensate you an amount akin to a high school employee’s wage.
So, if you’re going to go after a law degree, I sincerely wish you the best of luck. Law school is an intensely rewarding experience that will work you to your limits, should you choose to go for it. But, more importantly, should you choose to do it, your hard work will not end in the classroom, in those long nights in the library, or odds are, even after you graduate.
But, as a former JET, you have an incredible community out there you can tap– and both the coping mechanisms and network waiting to help you make your legal education into something you can enjoy. And that’s precisely why this blog is here.
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