Law in Contemporary Society

How the law school experience changed me

-- By JeremyChang - 08 Apr 2013

If someone asks me why I came to law school, I would not have a good answer. After a year in law school, I still do not know what I want to do with my law degree. One thing I do know however, is that I don’t want to have my license pawned at a big-law firm. The 20th century model of law practice is undoubtedly failing. It is no longer a sustainable business model. But, every day I realize the weight on my shoulders—I must support my family financially; I hope to stay in the United States to actually make use of my license; but being a foreigner does not help. At the same time I have the urge to help change society for the better. Will I be able to go back to Korea and make meaningful changes there in the future? Everything seems so uncertain. But I think now is the time to sit down and really think about the important choices I must make in order to have a meaningful 2L and 3L experience.

How I ended up here

My decision to come to law school was made haphazardly. The single biggest motivating factor in deciding to earn an American law degree was that I hated the Korean society. I can go on and on about all the different things I hated about Korea but I will abstain from doing that in this paper. Suffice it to say that I was being suffocated by the overwhelmingly inflexible norms surrounding me. I always wanted to come back to America. I wanted to leave the country so bad that I graduated early just to come to law school sooner.

Then there was my risk aversion. My resume listing work experience in investment banking, corporations and entrepreneurship, along with a bachelor’s degree in business, would surely suggest to any reader that this guy wants to be in the corporate world. Indeed before beginning law school, I thought that doing some corporate documentation or deal making was what I would end up doing as a lawyer. This was precisely the reason Columbia was my first choice over any other law schools out there. After all, it has one of the best “big-law” job placement records right? I thought that with my track record, and the unique status as a foreign student, I had the most chance of making a living by becoming a corporate lawyer in New York. I didn’t even think about whether I would enjoy living that life. So the desire to leave my home country, combined with the na´ve desire to make money, led me down this road.

How I changed (or at least how I started to be skeptical)

One thing I realized is that no matter how much I hate Korean society, it is still a part of my identity. If there was something I didn’t like about the way society worked, I shouldn’t have just ran away or turn a blind eye. If I wanted to become a lawyer, it shouldn’t have been because I wanted to get away from all the problems. I am not sure how this change of attitude came about. I think it’s mainly because of Eben’s lectures since I was able to get a fresh perspective on what a lawyer does—something the school never really teaches you, because the whole law school experience is so focused on “firm jobs” and “EIP”. So now, instead of complaining, I want to take action, and as a lawyer, I know I have the means to do that. Especially, as a Columbia Law student I should realize what a privilege that is, and appreciate the opportunity this opens up for me. I have the means to impact society, and I should start thinking hard about exactly what I would like to change in this world.

After working for about a month at a Korean law firm, I am starting to realize what kind of world I put myself into. The prestige is enjoyable; money is fine; everything seems glamorous indeed. But all those do not last much. I find myself writing memos figuring out ways to help a client evade taxes, or conducting research for some major client who wants to take over a small local competitor, and I keep telling myself, "is this the job you really want?" On the other hand, I have had time to think about what I am interested in, and I am hoping to take a class in that field coming semester. So for me, as Eben told us, this summer break is going to be a time of heavy self-reflection.

But what about the money?

At the back of my mind, I still have worries. I understand that the traditional law firm model is sinking ship, and pawning my license off to firms won’t be a good choice in the long run. But when I hear Eben insist that we must have our own practices, I get the feeling he has a talent for making things sound easy. The reason I feel this way is probably because I am not confident in my own abilities. I still do not feel that I know how to do anything in the legal world. Maybe this is the risk-averse control freak in me.

What should I do then?

Classroom experience alone will not make me a truly effective lawyer. My lack of confidence might be cured if I participate in externships or legal clinics next year. Dealing with real world problems and meeting actual clients will make me a lawyer better equipped to have my own practice. Another thing I should do is to build valuable network. As a student with virtually no connection in America, it is critical that I utilize as much resource as possible to build a foundation for my future practice. My classmates will be especially important because they will be my colleagues during my whole career. Also, getting to know processors and being involved in mentorship programs will be helpful. The whole law school experience has been eye-opening. Now it’s time to get a more practical and concrete idea about my legal career and start building on that for the remaining two years.


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