On Becoming a Legal Eagle
A budding young lawyer points out the value and versatility of a J.D.
BY ANUJ DESAI
It seems that the ambitious, young Indian-American has a plethora of career options today. Outside of the holy trinity (Doctor, Engineer, IT Consultant), Indians have permeated and excelled in other professions, including the arts and sciences. One such profession that has seen a greater number of Indians joining it in recent years is the field of law. The younger generation with a fresh outlook seeks a career that offers intellectual challenges, interesting work, and financial success.
As the next young desi generation attempts to make its own mark in the world, it will naturally try to differentiate itself from the previous generation ? and this includes choosing career options not typical of most Indian-Americans. For many, aspiring to be a doctor or engineer is met with a "been there, done that" mentality. Yet, those looking to be the next Shaq or desi rapper, will likely be pulled back by the silent hand of practicality and perhaps a few disapproving stares from their traditional parents. Becoming a lawyer, then, is an attractive option ? it's different, it's interesting, and it's lucrative. Besides, you can still appease your parents by claiming to be a doctor. After all, your J.D. degree roughly translates into Doctor of Law!
In all seriousness, though, many of you may be at the point where you are considering how to chart your next few years and choose a profession for a majority of your life. This perspective is intended to give you a look at law school and the legal profession in a nutshell to see if it fits your personality and life aspirations.
One of the biggest misconceptions people have is that you need to have a particular education to go to law school. I, too, used to think that unless you have a degree with a political science leaning or liberal arts major, law schools throw your application in the recycle bin. The truth is that most law schools are not recruiting students to churn out scholarly researchers or political analysts. Law schools look for different backgrounds not only because it brings a diversity of viewpoints to the academic environment, but also because the profession demands it. A lawyer with a background in accounting will better understand a client's financial fraud litigation than would one with a thorough understanding of Dante. Similarly, if you have a biochemistry degree, you would be the ideal person to file a patent for the latest libido drug. In short, anyone with any background can go to law school.
Most of you know that similar to any other post-graduate education, there is an entrance exam to go to law school ? the LSAT. While the rumors are true that the LSAT is a pain in the ? ahem ? posterior and that it is a heavily weighted factor in your application, it's not that bad. Unlike the MCAT, you do not need any specialized knowledge to take the LSAT. The exam mainly tests your logic, comprehension, and writing skills. A few months' preparation with readily available practice books or a Kaplan / Princeton Review course should be sufficient to take the test.
Besides a reasonably good LSAT score, reputable law schools will also desire a resume that shows character and experience that sets you apart from the pack. While academic achievement is a major factor in any post-graduate application, schools will also look to see what different experience or skill you can bring to the table. Again, an atypical background will help here. Any involvement in the arts or your community is a bonus. Leadership positions in school or elsewhere are favorable as well. Always remember, though, to present your real self, since integrity and honesty are valued above all in the legal profession.
Many don't even consider applying to law school as they hear horror stories of overly zealous students competing against each other and a grueling workload that ruins all chances at having a social life. I must admit that there is some truth to these fears, but nothing so overbearing as to thwart a strong desire to enjoy law school. Admittedly, the first year of law school (three years in all) is the toughest, and only so because it is a major lifestyle change. Opportunities to socialize will be less as you prepare for several classes each night, write papers, and read, read, and then read some more. Further, many law students are also involved in legal organizations that take up more time and energy. The classroom environment is also different as most professors choose a Socratic method of teaching. This requires fervent preparation or the risk of being made fun of in front of your peers.
Despite the rigors and long nights, law school can be fun. The key to enjoying law school lies in two simple things ? discipline and friends. But even with discipline, you will have those days when you're ready to throw all the papers in the air, pack your bags, and head back to Kansas (or Kolkata). It's those rainy days when good friends will help you keep your sanity. I think there's a traditional saying that roughly translates to the following: by sharing your pain with others, the pain itself becomes less. It's true, at least in law school. I remember days when nothing would go right, my legal research was at a roadblock, and deadlines were looming. Having friends nearby can make all the difference. Looking back at my first year, I can say that I enjoyed it because of the friendships I made.
Surprisingly enough, in the end, law school will teach you less about the law and more about how to think and speak like a lawyer. Don't expect to come out of law school with the gall of the late Johnny Cochran or the guile of the actors on Law and Order. Most new attorneys I meet claim to have had a deer-in-headlights reaction their first few months on the job. Undoubtedly, though, they will be successful in the future due to a legal education that has taught them how to analyze a legal issue and then effectively present the best solution. Law school is as much about lawyering as it is about the law.
Someone once told me that people who can't make up their mind on a career end up becoming lawyers. While I took slight offense that this person would imply I'm indecisive, the basis of his statement rings true. Unlike most specialized professions, the legal profession is unique in that armed with a J.D. you can do almost anything. For someone like me who is always looking for new and interesting things to do, never wanting to stay in a routine for too long, my decision to become a lawyer was inevitable.
Most students graduating from law schools opt to work at law firms. Generally, this involves working for a small, medium, or large firm as part of a team of lawyers that offers legal services in various practice areas. Even in this traditional setting, varied and interesting opportunities abound. Most law firms specialize in different areas of the law. You may have seen ads in this magazine regarding immigration law, but there are lawyers that offer services in scores of other areas as well, ranging from biotechnology to the entertainment industry and more. A legal career will still allow you to remain passionately involved in whatever excites you the most, obscure as it may be.
Community activists and public servants have also long appreciated the power of a legal degree. Most cities have a multitude of government and charitable organizations where lawyers work to help maintain the rights of the indigent and general community. Should you have a strong desire to serve the public, you may serve as a city, county, state, or federal attorney in its legal matters. Community organizations constantly seek hardworking attorneys as well to represent those who cannot afford legal services on their own. While these jobs are not considered lucrative, the intrinsic satisfaction gained is more than enough for those with a passion to help others.
Besides working for law firms or the government, attorneys have further options as well. A J.D. combined with an MBA works well for those seeking to rise to the top in the corporate world. With corporate America still reeling from recent management scandals, a legal education is highly valued to ensure a company remains ethical and responsible to its stakeholders. A J.D. is also seen as the natural first step for those wishing to enter the world of politics. For example, former President Clinton and many Congressional leaders hold a juris doctorate. Finally, legal degrees are also desirable for those who wish to teach, run their own business, consult, and more. To sum it up, a J.D. is one of those few versatile degrees that will allow you to mould your own career.
Anuj Desai is a student at the University of Georgia School of Law, and currently serves as the Co-President of its Asian Law Student Association. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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