IWU Alumni Interview – Law School Style

I’ve compiled a good deal of alumni interviews over the past couple years and haven’t always been able to fit all the useful information into “Career Connections,” our monthly newsletter. So, before I graduate, I thought I would upload a variety of interviews to the blog here for your reading pleasure. First off, alumni Chris Seps ’07, who is currently attending University of Illinois College of Law and has some great advice for students considering law school:

What field of law are you studying? Where?

I am studying law at the University of Illinois College of Law at Urbana/Champaign. I am not really studying in any single field – I have taken courses in tax, health law, criminal law, corporate law, and environmental law. Law students do not have to choose an area to specialize in. Many schools advertise that they have “programs” in many different areas of law, but all this means is that they offer a variety of courses in those areas. You do not declare a “major” or specialty in law school. Law students can certainly choose to take only courses in Intellectual Property Law or Criminal Law for example, but just as many students enroll in a variety of courses to get a broader understanding of the law and determine which area they enjoy and want to practice in.

What did you look for in choosing a law school? How was the selection process for you?

At first I fell into the trap of considering a smattering of factors when choosing a law school: location, prestige/ranking, cost, class size, and even the size of the library. Then after talking to several practicing attorneys, I realized that the only thing that matters when choosing a law school is location and prestige/ranking. You generally want to go to school in the state where you intend to practice, and since I wanted to practice in Chicago, I knew I wanted to stay in Illinois. You also want to go to the highest ranked school you can get into because many of the top employers will only hire from the top 30 law schools – Illinois is currently ranked 27th in the country. Money was not really a factor when choosing a law school for two reasons: 1) every law school is high priced and will leave you with some debt, including state schools like U of I, (unless you receive a handsome scholarship), and 2) if you go to the best law school you can get into and do well, the money you make when you start working will offset your debt.

What’s a typical day like for you at law school?

I generally leave for the law school around 8:00 and return near 6:00. The average law student attends 2-3 classes a day. I spend time in between classes in the law library preparing for class or in the law cafeteria grabbing some lunch, all of which is in the same building as the law classrooms. Each class requires 2-4 hours of reading per class even though it may amount to only 15-20 pages of text because the material is more tedious and complicated than any undergraduate reading. Occasionally there are guest speakers during the lunch hour with lunch provided, or student groups that meet and provide food. I generally read another 2-3 hours after dinner, or work on my article for the law review journal.

What’s the most exciting aspect of law school? What’s your least favorite thing about it?

The most exciting aspect of law school is appreciating that every day I have the privilege of learning the reasons behind the functioning of the society. I learn what conduct the law allows, why it allows it, how it might be improved, and the effects of breaking it. Understanding what individuals, businesses, and the government can and cannot legally do provides a great sense of empowerment – and hope that with understanding will come an avenue for creating change.

My least favorite aspect of law school is simply not having all the answers – both in terms of the law being too vast to know all its intricacies, and in terms of being called on in class and having my brain just stall out either because of lack of sleep, not enough coffee, or simply the mouse falling off the wheel. Professors employ the Socratic method which basically entails them calling on a student for an extended period of time, posing hypothetical situations, and asking various mind-bending questions.

Without a definitive pre-law program here at IWU, what types of programs are best suited to prepare students for law school? How did you prepare yourself for a career in law while at IWU?

The best programs that prepare students for law school are those that require analytical thinking, attention to detail, strong writing, and sharp reasoning. These include programs in English, economics, business, history, and philosophy. However, there is no requisite pre-law major. Taking courses in these subject areas help sharpen skills that are important in law school such as argumentative writing and critical thinking. By far the best way to prepare for law school is by taking Business Law I and Constitutional Law. Both of these courses provide a taste of many concepts encountered in law school, thus providing a foundational familiarity with legal concepts that gives the student a leg up when entering law school, in addition to allowing students to determine whether the law actually interests them. I majored in English and psychology and took Business Law I – I found that this was fantastic preparation for law school.

How does your law school experience compare with your time spent at IWU?

Life at law school and at Illinois Wesleyan are similar in that it requires working hard, but it also allows for “playing hard,” just not as often. I spend slightly more time studying, but find that the material is much more complicated. Some people manage to go out three nights a week, but not myself. Classes are run like many classes at IWU, especially English courses, in that they involve mostly discussion and very little lecture.

Can you say a little bit about how students can secure summer associate positions? For example, the process, and how competitive it is?

Securing a summer associate position with a law firm where you are treated as a lawyer, work on real cases with full time lawyers, and are salaried like a full time lawyer requires two things: going to a top 100 law school and being at least in the top half of your class in terms of GPA after your first year of law school. Thus, it is naturally a competitive process. Very few first year law students are hired by firms, especially large firms, so most end up in externships with the states attorney’s office or a judge, which I did, and which is very rewarding. A few weeks before the second year of law school, law firms visit the top 100 law schools and interview nearly anyone in the top 25-50% of the class, all based on first year grades – which means first year grades are exceptionally important. Based on these interviews, students will be invited for a second interview at the firm and then may receive an offer for a summer associate position after their second year of law school. What many members of the non-legal community do not realize is that law firms extend offers for full-time employment to 80-90% of these summer associates, and they do NOT hire any other law students straight out of law school – only the ones that went through their summer associate programs. This means that law students who did not obtain a summer associate position with a law firm must search for a job with a government agency, non-profit organization, or other smaller law firm, all of which are great opportunities but are much less lucrative than working at large law firms.

What was your reason for going to law school?

While majoring in English and psychology, I realized that I enjoyed the research, reading, and argumentative writing involved in them both. Law encompasses all of these, in addition to providing work that produces real-world results. It also allows you to be an advocate for people and fight for the things that they hold most sacred yet are ill-equipped to protect themselves: their legal rights.

What’s a final word of advice you would give to IWU students considering a career in law?

Realize the stakes before you enter the game: The possibility of earning $150,000 right out of law school is real, but it requires that you to attend a top 100 law school, rank in the top 25% of your class, and work between 60-80 hours a week in a cut-throat legal market that is over-saturated with attorneys eager to replace you if you stumble. For those not at the top 100 schools and not in the top of their class, the prospects are dim: three years and over six figures in debt, only to end up at a job earning as much as their friends without graduate degrees, and still working a minimum of 50-70 hours a week, which is a standard in the legal world – regardless of salary. To be sure, there are other benefits to being a lawyer besides money. But, those most interested in the financial rewards of lawyering will only find them with a great deal of effort.

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