On today's episode, J.Y. speaks with Allison Sanford who is a 3L at Harvard Law School. Allison talks about her summer experiences at public interest law firms, the financial realities of law school, and the academic burdens of 1L.
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J.Y.: Hello and welcome to the 7Sage Podcast. My name is J.Y. Ping, and on today’s episode, you’ll be hearing my conversation with Allison Sanford. Allison was a 7Sager who scored a 173 on the LSAT and is now a 3L at Harvard Law School. Before attending law school, Allison was very active on our forums where she hosted two webinars on how to study for the LSAT and a webinar on how to navigate the various resources on the Internet for people who are interested in doing public interest law. We spoke for about an hour where I asked Allison to talk to us about her two summer experiences that she now has under her belt where she interned at public interest law firms. We also talk about her plans for after graduation, we touched upon the financial realities of going to law school, and we spoke about how she managed the grueling academics during her 1L year. I really enjoyed our conversation and I learned a lot from Allison, and it was just nice to catch up with one of our old students to see what she had been up to. As you’ll hear, the conversation we had took place in front of an online audience, so toward the last 10 minutes of our conversation, we open it up to a Q&A. So without further ado, I hope you'll enjoy.
J.Y.: OK, so welcome everyone. This is the webinar that I’m hosting with Allison. My name is J.Y. Ping. And Allison used to be a 7Sager who has, you know, time flies, because I could have sworn you were on 7Sage not that long ago, but now look at you, you’re a rising 3L at, or you already are a 3L at Harvard.
Allison: I am.
J.Y.: So that’s exciting. My goodness.
Allison: Yeah, it doesn't feel like law school has been fast for me, but I understand the sentiment.
J.Y.: 1L was the longest year, right?
Allison: Oh for sure, yeah.
Allison: It just feels, by the end of 2L you’re like, OK. I’m about as good as I’m going to get at this stuff until I practice, so 3L just feels like why, you know.
J.Y.: Right. Yes, yes. I remember that too. It’s just, a lot of people actually think that law school should just be two years and then —
Allison: Oh yeah. I 100 percent believe the conspiracy theory that it’s only three years to make money.
J.Y.: Right, right.
J.Y.: OK. So we pooled a lot of questions from 7Sagers —
Allison: Oh, wonderful.
J.Y.: — who wanted to find out all about your past two years at Harvard. I also have some questions for you. But I do want to keep the part where just you and I are talking kind of brief, just so that other people here can get in and join the conversation.
J.Y.: In no specific order, I’m going to just start asking some questions at random. Favorite law school class?
Allison: I really, really enjoyed a class that is offered at HLS, and I don't know if there’s like a corollary at other schools. I imagine at some schools there is. It was called Civil Rights Litigation. Did you take that here, J.Y.?
J.Y.: I don't, no, I took the required 1L course Civil Procedure, but not —
Allison: OK, yeah. Very different.
J.Y.: Very different, yeah.
Allison: Civil Rights Litigation is, it’s taught by a wonderful professor named Scott Michelman who is ACLU litigator in D.C., and it’s about how to actually bring civil rights lawsuits, primarily based on Section 1983, which is the statute that creates a cause and action for suing government actors when civil rights are violated. So I really enjoyed that class, because it was so pragmatic. So I took it during 2L and I think 1L is just in a lot of ways a firehose and you’re kind of trying to keep your head above water, at least this was my experience, and I think some of my peers as well. Like, if you don't have a parent who’s a law school professor, everything’s new, you know. So for me it was just refreshing, once I had some grounding, like once 1L was under my belt, to then have a class that was much more pragmatic and not as theoretical. It was really like how do these lawsuits work, and walking us through and thinking, like learning and thinking in the classroom like a litigator would, so if you have a suit that’s like this kind of fact pattern, how strong is that going to be in terms of like the likelihood that it’s going to get thrown out.
Allison: I think the whole scope of learning about civil rights litigation in particular is kind of like, like there's no remedy for most of American history, and then you have an expansive remedy and then you have a real narrowing, and so figuring out which suits are still valid within, like now that we’re in the territory, chronologically, of that narrowing has already happened, like which suits can you get into court and which suits are valid. So that was just an amazing class, because it was so practical, and I learned so much, and I paired it with a clinical experience where I was doing some of, or like working on some of those suits, so that was really interesting. It was also the class that made me cry the most, because the cases we read were just heartbreaking, and you couldn't be in that class I think, I think people, because they self-select into a class like Civil Rights Litigation, like I don't know, maybe you care about racial injustice in America or something like that. So you’re probably in it with some kind of personal story about why you care about it, and then you have to read this horrific case law.
Allison: Sometimes the stories are horrific of what happened to people, and sometimes it’s, well always the stories are horrific, and then it’s compounded sometimes by the court just sitting back and saying, “No remedy.”
Allison: Yeah, but that has been a real stand-out course for me, and I highly recommend for folks who are headed to law school, look for clinical work, look for classes that teach you how to actually do the work. Unless you’re just 100 percent wanting to be a legal academic, which that’s great too.
Allison: But if you want to practice, look for the people who will teach you how to do that.
J.Y.: Yeah. Well before you went to law school you did a public interest webinar for us. So it makes sense that this class, you know, is right up your alley. I take it you’re still interested in public interest?
Allison: Yeah, yep, all the way.
J.Y.: All the way, nice, nice.
Allison: Yeah, and I’m definitely willing to chat over email or, I definitely want to be a resource for folks who want to do that, because I think there's far too many barriers keeping people out.
Allison: And if we can help each other, I think that’s half the battle. So email me.
J.Y.: Great. Yeah, we’ll share your contact information at the end.
J.Y.: What was it like? I mean, I know Harvard has a career office that provides a lot of resources to help students find jobs, but I would say probably like 80 percent is, the weight is probably like 80-20 private-public?
J.Y.: I don’t know if that’s still true.
Allison: I think that’s a good guess on sort of the ballpark figure. My favorite anecdote about how this works at Harvard can be summarized very briefly, which is there's OCS, the Office of Career Services, and then there's the public interest counterpart, which is OPIA, the Office of Public Interest Advising, that’s right, the Office of Public Interest Advising.
Allison: So OCS, even if you’re a student, like I didn’t have any questions about whether or not I was going into the private sector. Like I did not need to explore it. I think I just spent enough time outside of law school before I went that I had my mind completely made up. Some people come in more marginal and they want to do a summer at a firm and a summer at a public interest organization, and then pick, and I was like, “Nope. That’s fine. You guys do your thing, I’ll do my thing.” Here’s the anecdote that I think describes the way the river flows at this school. I can't get off the OCS listserv. Like I physically cannot get them to remove my email list from all of their notifications.
Allison: And I think they just see themselves as so essential to every student, and they don't really believe you when you tell them you don't want to do private work.
Allison: They’re like, “You’re going to change your mind. We’ll just keep you on here.” So yeah. But there's a lot of great support at OPIA. I think there's a fair amount of institutional resources that go into that as well and yeah, you can really tell where, what a school prioritizes and if they really care about public interest based on if they’re willing to invest money.
J.Y.: The private firms have so much money to invest into recruiting, so it makes OCS, the Office of Career Services, the one that, that’s the office that sets up all of the on-campus interviews, which —
Allison: Yes, yeah.
J.Y.: Which I guess you are a 3L, so you would have already done this at the beginning of your 2L year, if you were going the private route, it would have been a year ago that you came back to campus, like toward the end of summer to get all dressed up and do your… I’m sure that’s what most of your classmates did.
Allison: Yeah, yeah.
J.Y.: But they have, you know, those firms have the money to send their associates and partners in small armies to —
Allison: Right, totally.
J.Y.: — Cambridge every year to —
Allison: I do go to the free dinners, like I do shamelessly do that.
J.Y.: Nice, yeah.
Allison: And then if partners talk to me, I just try to talk to them about how much of their income they’re going to give away. So that’s my tact.
J.Y.: Yeah, yeah.
Allison: But yeah.
J.Y.: It’s harder for the public interest firms to recruit, it’s just you know, financially they’re not as well positioned.
Allison: It’s just never going to be the same, and so I think it just becomes very early in your career. There's just this binary where there's a lot of hand-holding the private route, because you can just sign up for these on-campus interviews and you can meet someone who gives you a job offer after a week and you can just say yes to that, and you can kind of cruise, you know.
Allison: It’s not just the money too, I think it’s the job security, and people having a sense of where they’re going more than a year out. Like that’s pretty invaluable to a lot of people and I understand that. Like the uncertainty in public interest is one of the, I think the major things that makes it difficult.
Allison: But then if you do public interest, I think you just have to look at it more like the regular job market. Like no one is going to go find you your job for you.
Allison: That’s a very weird thing that happens at law school for the private sector, but really doesn't happen in most places.
J.Y.: Right. Just so, I’m sure a lot of people already know this, but just so we’re absolutely clear, the weirdness gets, it’s like inverted. In the normal world, yeah, you just, nobody serves up jobs to you and you're just like, hmm, I think I’ll take this one.
J.Y.: You have to blast your resume, you have to make contacts, you have to find out where to apply, who’s hiring. It’s not standardized, in other words.
J.Y.: But it’s almost inverted in law school where, like we said, every year the firms just all come, and they just recruit you. So it’s really, I heard it described as the path of least resistance.
Allison: Yes, definitely.
J.Y.: You do almost nothing, and then you get multiple job offers from law firms.
J.Y.: Yeah, totally not like that with public interest. So what have you been working on? You’ve had two summers under your belt.
Allison: Yeah. So I did two public interest summers. It’s a little bit easier at HLS. I know not every school can do this, but we get a small stipend. It’s sad when you compare it to the salary of your peers, but it’s also, it covers some summer expenses and makes it feel, takes a little bit of the sting out of it, because these folks are usually not able to pay interns. So the first summer, I was at an organization in St. Louis called Arch City Defenders. Some folks know about them, because they started to get a lot of notoriety when Mike Brown was murdered, and Ferguson was rioting, but they’d been on the ground before that. I wanted to go learn about community-based lawyering and how to partner with community activists for change and what role lawyers play. And the other thing that really attracted me to them and made me want to spend my first summer there is that they have kind of a blended model where they do a lot of, all of their clients are poor folks and a lot of them are also homeless or housing insecure. So that’s their focus is on like those people for their client base. But they have some fluidity with where they work in the law, and so they do a lot of civil-side traffic fines and fees. They’re pushing back on those systems of functionally fining people for poverty or even just like fining people for very arbitrary things. They’re pushing back structurally by filing lawsuits to try to get those practices deemed unconstitutional, and then they’re also doing direct services, helping people get reductions in those fines or have these little traffic courts actually do an income analysis and realize these guys are indigent and they shouldn't be putting them on these crazy payment plans, and they have a little bit of a criminal practice too, because if they end up with a client who they’re kind of otherwise committed to who maybe came through the traffic court and they find out they have more serious criminal matters, they can be involved. So they’re sort of a, because they’re community-based lawyering organization, they are I think a little bit more flexible and nimble with the needs, and I just really love them because they’re so unpretentious. They’re like, “Oh, we just started sueing these cities because it looked like what they were doing was unconstitutional, and we didn't really know how to file these lawsuits, but we were like — ” So here’s the calculus they did. They were like, “We could either file a lawsuit and not really know how to do it and maybe get it thrown out, or we could do nothing, and we’d rather look like idiots and try than be too afraid because we want to be perfectionists and we never serve anyone. So their whole ethos is kind of like, “Let’s do it,” and I just really liked that.
Allison: So that’s our city. That was my first summer, and my second summer I was the Public Defender Service in D.C. So they just handle a subsection of the indigent criminal cases that arise in the District of Columbia. And they’re sort of known in public defense circles for being a great place to go get trained and I’ve had kind of three to four major interest areas in terms of practice that I’ve been exploring in school and criminal defense was one of them, so I wanted to go to the best place, well, what people say is the best place in the country. There's wonderful places to be trained everywhere, but PDS is really high-quality in terms of their intern program, so I wanted to go there and experience that. And now I’m doing CJI, which is the indigent criminal defense clinic at Harvard. So PDS was a great primer for what I’m just stepping into now.
J.Y.: Did you get to work on real cases when you were at PDS?
Allison: I did yeah. My caseload was actually lighter than I expected, and it was because the, I was actually working under two attorneys, which was a little bit unusual, but both of them had lighter caseloads than they’d expected. So one of them had a trial that then —
J.Y.: Sorry, what were their caseloads? Do you know?
Allison: Oh, PDS is really different. So I don't know their exact caseloads. I didn't come onto all of their cases. They would pull me on to specific ones. But the PDS lawyers have an incredible situation, because they handle under 30 cases a year, which in the realm of public defense is unheard of. Like, unheard of.
J.Y.: How are they able to do that?
Allison: How are they even doing it? Yeah. Well, there's a couple things happening. One is that there's —
J.Y.: Wait, sorry.
Allison: There’s a split system in D.C.
J.Y.: Just to build a little more tension. Before you address that, I just want to make sure everyone knows that that’s —
Allison: How much you usually do, yeah.
J.Y.: Yeah, that’s completely, yeah. Maybe you can speak to that.
Allison: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So there are some places that have been sued for unconstitutional caseloads. Like you can have upwards of three —
J.Y.: Wait, for real?
Allison: Oh yeah, yeah. This is a whole thing. You can have upwards of three hundred cases a year as a public defender in counties that are really overwhelmed. And let me just, I was doing just a little bit of number crunching, because I was like, “Am I an insane person for wanting to be a public defender?” There are 260 working days in a year.
Allison: Three hundred cases, 260 working days. So all I took out was weekends, I didn't take out holidays, I didn't take out any of that, right?
Allison: I mean, and there's these terrible stats from a lot of public defense agencies that the average that a public defender can spend on a case is like seven minutes.
Allison: I don’t know, that’s like a floating stat in my head that I read somewhere. I don't know where it’s from or the methodology of how they got there, but it’s horrific.
Allison: So PDS is a flagship public defense agency, and really what they’re trying to do, they have a very cush situation. I’m not going to frame it as anything other than that, because they don't have to handle that volume of cases, but what they’re trying to do is a lower caseload at a very high quality and train folks to send out all over the country so that when you’re met with those sort of crushing caseloads, you have a sense of what good advocacy looks like, and you don't just become another cog in the wheel that’s like stamping someone’s constitutional right to a defense attorney while not actually giving them that service. So yeah. Yeah. So that’s the tension.
J.Y.: Are they just really well-funded? They must be highly —
Allison: Yeah. So they’re federally funded.
Allison: They’re weirdly well-funded. There are some complications, like right now they have a hiring freeze, because they’re like a weird proxy part of the federal government. But they’ve been weirdly well-funded for a long time, and I don't know all the politics behind that. But it is, it’s in their charter or their, it might be like the sort of preamble to the law that created them, that they’re supposed to be this flagship, really high quality public defender for the whole nation to emulate, and so I think the federal government has always found it somewhat important to fund them.
J.Y.: Yeah, yeah.
Allison: As much as the federal government cares about poor people, like that’s as far as that goes, you know? But it’s a better situation there than a lot of places, and the other thing that is, the folks that absorb the caseload, the rest of the cases in D.C., are like, I can't remember the acronym for it, but it’s part of the private defense bar that gets certified to be public defenders, and they get paid per case, I believe.
Allison: So the way it works in D.C. Is PDS actually handles all of the super serious cases, like all of the —
Allison: — homicides, all of the, yeah, and especially the super-serious felonies.
Allison: And then the lower level misdemeanors all go to the private bar that’s certified to do public defense. So that’s how they split it. But I think PDS takes about 30 percent of D.C.’s caseload for indigent defense. I could be wrong on that.
J.Y.: I have a friend in New York from, she was in my class from Harvard, and she’s been a public defender ever since we graduated. Caseloads started at legal aid in New York, started with, it was just overwhelming the first couple of years, like over a hundred cases, and it’s not really gone down at all, but she just better, she’s better able to manage it, yeah.
Allison: I think people just start to be able to cope, but the thing that kills me about it is I can't imagine that it’s anything less than a trade-off, like that you just pick cases to invest time in, and you pick cases not to. Because I don't see how else you could function.
J.Y.: Yeah, I mean you just look at the facts and you just know that some cases actually you got a shot.
Allison: And I think there's so many more cases where a good lawyer could do something. It’s not like all of these, yeah, like most people are not getting nearly the kind of representation they should be getting, and the government’s not being challenged on their evidence, and there's not time to file proper motions and — it really is, it’s truly a shitshow in most of the country with public defense.
J.Y.: What do you think systematically could be done about that?
Allison: Well, I think prosecutorial reform is super important. I’ve got a case, I’m not going to talk about details, because that’s confidentiality, but I have a case that I just picked up on Monday that I’m like, I don't even understand why the prosecutor brought this. It’s so useless, and when you think about it in terms of things that we should be thinking about on a broader scale, right, like public safety, both for the person who’s charged with the crime, like are they safe, what's going on in their life, but also for anyone else who was involved with the scenario that gave rise to the police report or whatever it was. I just feel like our fundamental framework should be harm reduction. Like I think we should treat crime like a public health issue. And the thing that kills me about our approach, in addition to like all of the dehumanization and the racism and the classism I think the thing that really gets to me is that the rhetoric of tough on crime stuff and, you know, tough prosecution is always about crime reduction, but that’s not what they’re actually doing. And I feel like we actually do know what decreases crime: Help people with their addiction issues, give them mental health care, give them money and ways to earn money when they grow up in neighborhoods that are just totally impoverished and have no economic prospects. Like, those are the things that decrease crime. So if we actually cared about victims’ rights, we’d be doing those things. If we actually cared about decreasing crime and making our community safer, we would be not taking a fundamentally punitive approach to what gets classified as crime in our society. And I don’t think there's an easy answer, because it’s very, very hard and it’s very emotional and people have revenge impulses, and that’s probably natural, but I don't think the state should be in the business of revenge and punishment, you know?
J.Y.: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’m guessing a lot of the stuff you’re talking about has to do with our drug laws.
Allison: For sure, but also like up-charging on — like in assault and battery, if I shove you on the shoulder, J.Y., like if we’re sitting next to each other right now and I shoved you and it was unwanted touch.
J.Y.: That’s battery.
Allison: That can be an A&B.
Allison: How insane is that? In Massachusetts, if you touch someone with your foot while you have a shoe on, which is like most of the time when you’re in public hopefully, that is assault and battery with a dangerous weapon because a shod foot counts as dangerous weapon in Massachusetts. And I know what they’re trying to get at is you can stomp someone with a boot, like you can do damage with a shoe.
J.Y.: Right, yes.
Allison: But I have had clients in past clinical work who have this charge, and it’s like no one got hurt. There was a shoe involved. That’s all. So I think up-charging is a huge problem. Or just converting really stupid normal everyday stuff like bar fights into something that we call assault and battery. Like, there's just not, yeah. So I think drug laws, I think how we deal with low-level violent crime or what gets termed violent crime, and then there's like an entire category, this is kind of my first summer, my 1L summer, there's an entire category of criminalizing lifestyle stuff, and so traffic fines and fees count under that, and vagrancy stuff that applies to folks who are homeless or they’re the ones who get cited for it. And then another, I think a huge driver, and we’ve seen this in New York in particular is police departments just do have quotas. Like, they’re functionally operating with quotas for citations. Not everywhere in the country, but in a lot of places, and that’s a bad incentive system. It’s like being run like a business, right? And that’s really weird. We should be responding to actual crime, not “I need to issue 30 tickets because the city revenue calls for that.” That’s ridiculous. But that’s what's happening.
J.Y.: Yeah, I mean, if you want revenue, you just do it through tax, do it the proper way.
Allison: That’s right, yeah, yeah. But there's all these workarounds, yeah, yeah. So, I mean there's a lot of drivers of the situation we’re currently in.
J.Y.: Right. So that’s, I think that’s all on the, in terms of reducing demand for public defender services, right? On the supply side, I suppose, I don't know, is there anything else besides just better funding? Just more money for them, more jobs?
Allison: Oh, that’s a good question, J.Y. I mean, I think there’s, I think money is a real answer in the sense that you need more lawyers so that the caseloads aren’t crushing so that people stay. And like I’m doing this calculus right now, just quality of life stuff is important to me, and I want to have a meaningful career and do public service with my career, but I don't want to have no time for my family, and that’s one of the main reasons I’m not going straight into public defense, because I can't guarantee that it would feel manageable and I just don't have the bandwidth at this point in my life to throw myself into what could be two to three years of just trying to keep my head above water before I’m even competent. And so if the situation were more like PDS, like you might have 75 cases in a year, I would maybe be doing something different right now. So I think we’re losing a lot of good lawyers who are choosing out of public defense because the life you’re asking them to choose is a very high cost. So more funding for more lawyers for lower caseloads. I think another thing that’s really important is building community within the group of advocates that is sort of like constantly being told that what they’re doing is less important or less valuable than what other parts of the system are doing. So I saw it a lot in D.C., I saw it a lot in St. Louis. And it sort of surprised me. I didn't know there was active disdain for public defenders in courts, but you will see, and this is particularly bad in the South —
J.Y.: Who from?
Allison: Judges, from judges.
Allison: Yeah. And other court actors. Like it’s, I think because at the end of the day they’re people and they might be like hungry or they want to go home, and they don't want to hear another objection, and they don't want to receive another motion. So I think when you’re trying to be a zealous advocate and you’re going with this really intense defense model of, “I’m going to pull out all the stops, and I’m going to do everything,” especially in a case that looks bad, like just looks like it’s going to go a certain way, I think a lot of other actors in the system just look at you as like, “You’re wasting everyone’s time,” or you’re being unnecessarily argumentative, but you’re actually doing your job. Your job is to go, forgive the expression, but your job is to go balls to the wall for the client. Like, that’s your job. So to tell someone “tone it down a little” is like pretty disrespectful to their role, but I saw a lot of judges do that.
J.Y.: I mean when would you ever tell, who would you tell that to? Would you tell the prosecution to tone it down?
Allison: Right. No, it never happens to them. It’s crazy. It’s, yeah. I mean it’s almost, I think a lot of the time there's contexts where there sort of feels like there's this insider club that’s like the police and the prosecutor and sometimes the judges, which is like totally inappropriate, but it happens. They see each other all the time, and I think in some ways they feel like they’re on the same team, because they work for the state. And the defender, you know, works for the client via the state, like the funding comes through that but you’re on the other side and anyway. So there's some really important work happening with Gideon’s Promise, I don't know if you’re familiar with what they’re doing, but they’re building community and training modules with public defenders in the most underserved areas with the most crushing caseloads and the most deeply embedded systemic issues, and they’re creating camaraderie amongst public defenders and helping them have resources outside of the office they work in, which may or may not have a mentor for them who has any time or may or may not even have an ethos of zealous advocacy, because I think sometimes there's kind of a maybe a generation of public defenders or just like geographic areas where people have been doing it for a long time, and they kind of see themselves more as paper pushers, unfortunately, or start to operate that way. So Gideon’s Promise tries to take young public defenders in these particularly difficult areas and give them a lot of emotional support and professional support and just straight-up resourcing. Like, here’s, we’re going to practice closing arguments, so you can feel like you can take things to trial, you know what I mean? So that’s really, really important. I think in addition to the funding is the, it’s the same thing if you want to create any social movement, right? And I think public defense right now is like a mini social movement in the country. You have to create bonded communities so that people can stay in the fight for the long haul. I think that’s what makes the difference. Otherwise people burn out and they feel isolated and they have mental health breakdowns and they quit, you know.
J.Y.: Yeah. It’s a really emotionally stressful job, yeah, in addition to just being, just demanding physically of your time because of the caseload, it’s also just emotionally incredibly demanding.
Allison: Yeah, yeah. For sure. I can talk about this literally forever. I don't know if you want to cover other topics.
J.Y.: Yeah, OK. Well maybe we can pivot a little bit to a big topic, it’s not a specific question.
J.Y.: The big topic a lot of people are interested in is of finances, like the financial realities of what it’s like.
Allison: Oh yeah.
J.Y.: So we all sort of know these numbers are not real until they’re real, until they’re like, oh, OK. I actually am this much in debt.
J.Y.: So what's that been like?
Allison: I mean, that’s really tough. And actually one thing, I’m glad you raised the question because I feel, I personally feel like we just need to talk about it more with each other, and we need to have friend groups where you can talk about it specifically, right, where people feel comfortable divulging more specifics and saying, “This is what's really scaring me.” Or like, “This is the thing I haven't looked at, because I’m afraid to even figure out what's going on.” So yeah. I think this is, well A) It’s a hidden driver behind the bleed from public interest into the private sector, and I really am not trying to say people are ethically obligated to go into the public interest, to go into any kind of public interest work, because I realize the financial strain is really real and the debt is really crushing, but I do think if the money situation were even 50 percent or 40 percent different, people would be making different choices. So I think there's a couple ways to talk about the financial strain.
Allison: And one is being honest about how that’s influencing your decision-making, and I think you just owe it to yourself to be honest about that and not to, like if you’re like, “I need to go to a firm, because I need to pay off these loans, and I just don't want to be beholden to my school to some kind of low-income payment plan because I’m doing public interest. That’s not for me. I want to crush these loans in five years and aggressively pay them off.” Great, good for you, go do it and be honest with yourself that that’s why you’re going to the firm, and if there's other reasons, great. But yeah. I just, I think the hidden thing there under the finances is the emotional stress of how people decide to deal with it, and I feel like we just need a lot more conversation about that. But I just basically believe it’s a really individual choice, and I don't want to judge what other people are doing to manage their debt, because you don't know what someone’s particular obligations are, right?
Allison: Like some folks are coming into law school, they’re the first in their family to get to grad school, there's people back home they’re going to send money to and just moving to New York and taking a job at a high-paying firm and working their ass off is going to be a short-term plan for them.
Allison: I think there's other people that are in that exact same situation who literally would not, like their soul would shrivel up inside if they did that day-to-day and they’re only going to last for a year at the firm, and they should know that about themselves and feel free to be who they are knowing that that’s going to make other parts of their life maybe harder, like the financial part. But yeah. It’s super real. A stat that I read that I think is helpful is in the same, I can't remember what this time period was, but in the same time period where undergraduate tuition increased by 100 percent in the U.S., law school tuition increased by 300 percent.
Allison: So you’re just dealing with outrageous numbers and the only thing that’s worse I think is med school.
J.Y.: Oh man.
Allison: Yeah. So I mean I think of it as a house, student debt is a house in a lot of relatively nice cities, right? It’s more than one house in some cities. Yeah. I mean it’s just a hard reality and some people are also carrying over undergrad debt too, so that compounds it, you know. I don't feel like I’m saying anything helpful.
J.Y.: Oh, no. Here, so I think the year that I graduated was when Harvard, what is the word, just restructured how they do loan forgiveness, and they made it much more inclusive and they took down a lot of the barriers to entry. Like it used to be that you had to do XYZ things and now it’s just like, “OK. If you just don't make enough money, we’ll just start paying off your loans.”
Allison: And they’ve actually just redone it again. I don't know if you heard about that.
J.Y.: No, no. So what is it like now?
Allison: It’s coming into effect this year.
J.Y.: I always tell people when they’re considering offers from different schools to look very carefully, specifically, at each law school as an individual because they’re all so different.
Allison: Yes. I totally —
J.Y.: They’re all so different, and a lot of schools are really stingy about helping you pay back your loans, and a lot of schools are very generous about it, and it’s a whole spectrum. So yeah, can you tell me about what, yeah, what's going on now?
Allison: Yeah. So I actually need to catch up and read in more detail about it.
Allison: But one change that they’ve made is, there's a bunch of changes. Like, a lot of it has been around family stuff, so like you were saying before, you could work in any kind of public interest job and just be, like you could just graduate from Harvard Law and decide to be a teacher, and then they will still help you pay off your loans.
Allison: So that’s really great. So I think where there were like still significant gaps after the reform that happened in your year was about, in particular it was hard for folks who have families to survive on the —
Allison: — you know, on like the graduated scale of how much of their money Harvard was still taking.
Allison: And then it was, I didn't even know about this until I started reading. I wasn’t on the committee that helped shift LIPP (low income protection plan) , but some of my friends were, and it was incredibly hard for people who had children with disabilities, because that can be so much more costly, and the school wasn’t taking that into account enough. So a lot of the calculations for how your contribution to paying off your loans is determined based on how many children you have has shifted both in terms of giving you better coverage for any kid.
J.Y.: Oh nice.
Allison: And also ensuring that coverage will be more appropriate for people who have children with special needs.
Allison: So that’s one change that I remember reading about, and I need to go back and look at more.
Allison: But I think this is another, like if you know you want to do public interest, this is another reason to really try to go to the top three, because I mean I think there's some other gems out there that are doing well with supporting public interest students, but you’re going to get the best funding for how to pay off your loans if you go to Stanford or Yale or Harvard.
Allison: Because they have the money to put into it. So I think if that’s your goal, and you don't want to be dissuaded from it and you also know that the debt would be pretty unmanageable for you otherwise, definitely like you were saying J.Y., look into the loan forgiveness programs of the particular schools you’re interested in, and consider shifting your timeline in when you go to law school in order to shoot for those more competitive schools, because it could really, completely change the trajectory of your career.
Allison: You know?
J.Y.: Yeah. No, for sure. It’s not so much of a, it’s less of a concern if you’re going to private practice, you know.
Allison: Yes, yeah.
J.Y.: OK. So let’s shift gears a bit. Someone brought it to my attention that the title of this webinar is “What’s law school really like?” So we haven't really talked about that at all.
Allison: Not just pontificating about the state of public defense.
J.Y.: Right, right.
J.Y.: But yeah, OK. I guess what’s law school really like, Allison?
Allison: That’s such a broad question. Oh. I’ll try to like, I don't know, create a little soundbite. It’s like simultaneously so much more challenging and so much more delightful than I was expecting. So it’s —
J.Y.: That’s a wonderful soundbite.
Allison: It really has been both.
Allison: Yeah. And the years are really different. I think this is the pattern I saw. So 1L, the best analogy I’ve got for it is like it’s the fire hose, or it’s like an immersion environment. Like I kind of, so I spent a semester abroad when I was an undergrad, and I remember I didn't have, I was in Spanish-speaking country, in Argentina, and I didn't have good enough Spanish skills when I went to articulate the thoughts that were in my head, but I could speak in baby Spanish, and so I would be thinking something nuanced and complicated, and I would be like, “I’d like to have lunch,” that was all I could say to the people around me, and it was just really weird and socially isolating until my capacity caught up to what I was actually capable of saying, and I think there's a similar dynamic in the first year of law school, where you’re like, what a minute, I know I’m a smart person, I know I can learn things. But it just feels like you've been demoted, you know? You just get floored, and this isn’t going to be everyone’s experience. Like some, there's these unicorns running around who just love it and want to stay in law school forever.
Allison: And all the details of the case make so much sense to them, because they already have the basic framework, and I’m like searching for the framework like it’s a mystery. So 1L is just, I think, an overwhelming immersion environment, and unfortunately, even though there's been significant reforms in how law school is taught, I think the kind of background thing going on is it’s always going to be the case and it has been historically that in law school you kind of teach yourself the law, and then most professors show up to class to have what they consider to be interesting conversations about the finer point of the case or something that they’re personally researching or working on. And not every professor is doing that, but a lot of them are. So it’s weird, because before you can start teaching yourself the law, you have to learn how to teach yourself the law, and that’s the thing that you’re good at by 2L, I think. 1L you’re like, how do I even be a student here? And then the other thing that’s weird is it’s not a rubric, you’re not just checking off expectations, and no one’s telling you how to do it, and it’s truly the case that everyone finds their own way in terms of how to be a decent or a good law student.
Allison: And part of that is because people have different priorities and values. So my grades are not a very high value for me. Like I don't want to fail out of my classes or do poorly, but I personally believe that the amount of time and effort it would take to bump my grades up I’d much rather put that time and effort into clinical work and working with clients right now.
Allison: So that’s my priority, and that just a personal choice I made. Other people, the No. 1 thing they care about is if they get Latin honors at the end of all this.
Allison: And so they’re investing heavily in that kind of last lap to get their grades good.
J.Y.: What I recall was that grades mattered at Harvard for two reasons. One is if you wanted to work at the top three law firms or something like that. And the second reason was if you wanted to clerk, or I guess the [the third? 00:41:06-0]third reason is if you want to be an academic at some point. So if those three, if you’re not all that interested in those three things, then I think grades just don't matter, right?
Allison: Yes. I think that is true. And it’s more true for a place like Harvard, because you’re going to get by on how the school is known in terms of, yeah, like people may or may not for your GPA, and then you can be like, we don't really have them, it’s weird.
J.Y.: Right, yeah. It’s, everyone just gets, it’s still pass/fail, or high pass/pass/fail?
Allison: Yeah. It’s like, so you can actually fail, then there's low pass, then there's pass, then there's H, honors, and then DS is dean’s scholar, and that’s a very, like a handful of students get those in every class or one or two, I don't know. I kind of want to address a question that popped up on the chat about — do you see this, J.Y.? — about why can't we do more to prepare for law school?
J.Y.: Oh right, yes.
Allison: I was kind of, so Buck, I’m going to try to answer your question. I did a little bit of the Larry Law Law stuff before I went to school, and I guess I feel like the reason why you can't really prep that much for law school is because, it’s kind of like saying, why can't I prep for an immersion environment by reading a Spanish book for two hours a day before I go to a Spanish-speaking country? Like, it might help a little bit to read that book, and you’re certainly going to increase your vocabulary, but you’re not being thrown in yet, and I feel like the only way that I could have done significantly better in law school, like I really truly feel like there was nothing that could have that I could have been putting my time into in my summer before my 1L that would have made me feel competent. Like it just would have been such diminishing returns in terms of, “I put in all these hours, and then it wasn’t even the right thing I was doing anyway.” Because what you'd have to do to be really competent in 1L is have already taken 1L. You just couldn't do it twice, you know? Because the environment is so immersive, and the other thing is you’re getting all of the formative courses, right? Like, you’re getting Contracts in the first year, you’re getting Civ Pro, you’re getting Property, and you see how they intersect, especially like Property and Contracts have a lot of kind of ancient, historic intersections because they’re derived from English Common Law and the Magna Carta and stuff like that, and you just, you have to learn it as you go, as you’re reading cases and as you’re literally spending hours of your life sitting in a classroom listening to other people talk about these things, you just start to catch up. And I am very, like I don't believe that there is no way to prep for it. I just don't know what it is. I have heard that some schools are starting, I know Harvard’s doing this, they’re starting programs for folks who are first generation college students in their family who are now in grad school, so they’re like extra first generation grad school. Like no one in their family even got close to grad school, and they’re doing preliminary prep stuff with them to help them feel more comfortable and less alienated when they get to school, and I think a fair amount of that, programmatically, is “Here’s some language you’re going to encounter,” “Here is what XY and Z means and when people throw out these words, here’s some other concepts these words are connected to.” And maybe everyone should have a course like that. They’re calling it 0L at Harvard. Maybe everyone should do that. I’m not really sure, because I didn't go through it, but I just feel that it takes you six months to year to learn how to be a law student, and it’s unfortunate that you can't come in already knowing how. But I can talk more concretely about how it’s different. Because I did well in college, and it just never felt like a super big struggle for me in college. So what's different in grad school, I think this is true at a lot of grad schools is you have this reading assignment, it’s longer and more complicated than the reading assignments you would get during undergrad, and you’re supposed to not just read it and have some ideas about it, you’re supposed to go to class fully loaded, you’re supposed to have already thought about what it means, synthesized it with all of the other course material up until this point, and maybe have some novel comment about it. It’s just a high-level of functioning with brand new material, and that’s what makes it so hard, because, so you kind of have to have, I think, the whole first year under your belt for most students to start to get to that level where you have a mind map of the law, and you can relate it to different things, because you now have familiarity with all of these things, but you didn't have any familiarity before. So when you first start reading, it’s like, when you only have building blocks, how can you see the big picture, like the map? So after 1L, you have a sketchy somewhat holey map, and then you can keep filling things in as well as make interesting connections and have sort of internal commentary as you read cases that make sense and is line with legal academia. I remember 1L year, for my peers who were really good at this before me, I remember constantly being like, oh my God, how do you even, how are you reading the subtext of the policy argument when they’re not even making a policy argument overtly, they’re just, you know, talking about some common law thing, and that’s their justification for the ruling, but then you think it’s this policy thing. Like, I didn't catch on to all of that stuff until much later, and then in my civil rights litigation class that I’m talking about, I was totally there. I’m reading these opinions that are basically torpedoing the power of school desegregation cases, and all that they’re talking about is localized control and how the federal government can't interfere too much in the blood of a community, the very heartbeat of a community is schools and parents and families, and we can't let the government get their fingers in there. And I’m reading this and that’s the facial reasoning for the decision, and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this is backlash from Brown v. Board,” right? Now I can read on that level, but I couldn't read on that level before.
J.Y.: Right. So just, you’re saying that what got you to be able to read at that level, there's just no substitute for time and experience?
Allison: Yes, yes. How concise. Yeah.
J.Y.: Yeah, that makes sense, that makes sense. I don't think there is, there isn’t a substitute. I mean I’m sure, did you use, I think the popular examples and explanations series?
Allison: Yeah. I think those were helpful. I taught myself evidence with that. You don't have to go to Evidence class if you don't want.
J.Y.: Who’d you take evidence with?
Allison: I’d rather leave that for another forum, a non-public forum.
J.Y.: I think I might have taken Evidence with the same professor.
Allison: Let’s just say I found class less helpful than trying to learn it on my own.
J.Y.: Yeah. OK. So I just became aware that we only have about 10 minutes left. So I’m going to try stop talking and just open it up to the audience. If you guys have questions, now’s the time. OK. Ryan just asked the question. Ryan, can you un-mute yourself?
Ryan: Hey, sorry. No, I was just commenting, some other people were talking about the previous subject, about preparing for law school before you actually go. And I was just kind of echoing what your experiences were. I think it’s definitely possible to get a head start, but my situation’s kind of unique because I majored in law.
Allison: Oh, yeah. So that’s already a little bit of a head start.
Ryan: After a month or two in school, everybody kind of starts figuring it out, and then I think it just comes down to who puts in the time and effort.
Allison: I feel like it took me more than a month. I’m going to say I was treading water for quite a while, but yeah, I’m sure everyone’s on their own timeline. I think by the end of 1L people are, everyone’s in base level of competency for the most part.
Ryan: Sure, yeah. And thanks for doing the webinar, by the way. Sorry that wasn’t really a question, more of a comment.
J.Y.: That’s OK.
Allison: Oh, no, that’s great, thanks.
J.Y.: Yeah, that’s fine. Yeah, I also remember just being a 1L and just being kind of overwhelmed, both by the classwork and also just a little bit overwhelmed by how ridiculously hardworking everyone was. I was a pretty hard worker in college and getting into law school, but that’s just the norm. Apparently that was just the norm. You know, I was definitely, I felt like I was probably like one standard deviation above the mean at least for undergrad in terms of how many all-nighters I’d pull, and how hard I worked, but then it’s like you get to law school, and it’s like, OK, yeah, there's more you can do.
Allison: Oh totally.
Allison: It’s the, people work so, so hard here, and I’m sure that’s true at most law schools.
Allison: I mean it’s really incredible.
J.Y.: Simon, you have a question? Can you —
Simon: Hi, Allison and J.Y. Can you all hear me?
J.Y.: Yeah, hi. How are you?
Allison: Yeah, hey Simon.
Simon: Hey Allison. Good to talk to you again.
Simon: I was hoping if you could talk about what was your process for outlining courses and preparing for exams, including maybe doing practice exams, and what strategies have you found most helpful to you over your first two years, taking exams?
Allison: Well, it was funny when J.Y., when you guys asked me to do this, I was like, hmm, maybe there's other people who like did better in law school you could ask. Again, I just, grades weren’t my priority and so I really was just like focused on passing my classes. Now I had a fair amount of anxiety about passing them, you know? But I found it super overwhelming to start outlining early because, kind of for the same reasons that I talked about with, I’m not sure how you could better prep for 1L besides like doing 1L. There's just, like you have to get the skeleton of the class or, yeah, you have to get the skeleton of the class to know where to put certain things, right? Like, does this go up near the arm, which is the section of the class that’s on, I don't know, some concept. And so I felt like if I started outlining too early, I didn't have enough of a picture of the course to organize where things should go and figure out kind of what buckets to slot them into. But if I outlined later in the course, it was much easier. And my system actually that works the best for me, which it took me, I was in 2L when I figured this out, is to look at a bunch of old outlines from other students and find one that I think is high-quality or maybe find two and start to merge them, and then I use that as my base notes for the class, so I printed out, write my notes in the margin, and then basically convert someone else’s outline into my outline. I don't know anyone else who does that. Like a lot of people like making their own outlines. I find it overwhelming because, because I just felt behind in terms of the concepts and I, for some reason looking at someone else’s work when they had already gone through the class was incredibly helpful for me in terms of organizing thoughts. And I don't spend a lot of time outlining, and I don't spend a lot of time on practice tests.
J.Y.: Yeah. That sounds like my experience too. Did you, were you able to get like, there are a lot of student organizations that have really good outlines, like, what were some of the, the Harvard Law Review definitely has a great outline I think, yeah.
Allison: I’m sure, I mean, yeah, I’m sure there's tons that do. I know the BLSA chapter has outlines and yeah, so if you’re in clubs you'll have access to past students, their outlines. Harvard has a bunch of them up on, well it was HLS Dope and that site closed, and now it’s Too Dope. So some student made a website that also functions as an outline bank, and some people are probably pickier than me, and are like, “Oh, the best outlines aren’t here. The best outlines are hidden in the basement storage of Fed Soc, and I have to get into Fed Soc to get the best outlines,” but I was just like, look, these are fine for me.
Allison: Practice tests really do help. If you care about grades, I do suggest you take practice tests, specifically ones your professional wrote. Don't bother with anyone else’s unless you know, it’s sort of like using fake LSAT prep questions.
Allison: Like why would you do that when there's so many real, there's so much real LSAT material out there, you know.
Allison: So use all of your professor’s material before you even think about going elsewhere. The class that I feel like I was able to control my grade in was one where I happened to, because I was a 1L and I was experimenting, I did some practice tests, and I looked at the answers, I looked at the answers of students who did really well in that professor’s class, and then I kid you not, this is what I did. I mimicked the tone that they wrote in. And the tone was arrogant asshole, and that’s not how I write. But I just wrote like that on my exam, and I got an H in that class, and I was like, “I am pretty sure this was not about my arguments, it was about coming off super confident and being like, ‘Everyone else is stupid, and here’s why.’” So that experience actually made me be like, this is trash. The grading system is trash. I don't care about this. I want to help clients, I don't care about my grades.
Allison: So I just didn't invest time doing that, because I was like look, when the stakes are real, when there’s a judge and I need to figure out what that judge responds to, then I will use this particular skill set of mining information from other people about how to make good arguments for this person, but I’m just not going to spend the time doing that with my professors, because I don't really care enough.
J.Y.: Yeah. Nice.
J.Y.: So I really like Amanda’s question. Amanda, let’s see if we can unmute you.
Amanda: Oh, hello?
Amanda: Hi. So basically I already wrote my question, it’s just like I’m really struggling. You said about like how the private sector was the path of least resistance, and then I guess a [INAUDIBLE] for me, I’m just going straight from undergrad, now I’m taking a gap year, and then I’m sort of like, I don't want to sell my soul to a career that’s not so meaningful, but also I’m not really sure I want to go to public sector, and then I’m really afraid that just because of the stress of the law school and all the recruiting, am I just lose what I really want, and I guess just like no, because you’re having such a certain goal and everything, I wonder what advice you might have for people like me.
Allison: Yeah. It’s a great question. I think there's a lot of people in that situation. And it’s not like it’s a, like I sort of feel like one answer to that question is spend more time outside of law school. But if you know for sure you want to go to law school, and you just don't know what arena of practice you want to go into, then there's not really any reason to spend more time not doing law school or not being a lawyer. But I guess sort of, if you spend more time away from grad school before you choose into it, I think you, just by virtue of being older, know yourself better and maybe will feel a little bit better able to navigate some of those very personal decisions. But I think something that I don't really hear people talking about a lot that I think is really true, and I just want to say this to respond to your question, is people are much more influenced by our environments than we like to believe. Like we think we’re static and our personalities are set, and our values are set, but give someone two years in a totally immersion environment, and they’re going to be influenced by it and probably changed, sometimes in significant ways, sometimes in more minor ways. And so I think you have to accept that. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just socialization and psychology and I think you have to think about what are the things about you that you don't want to change, and then watch those things, and then there are red flags if they start changing. If you’re like no, this is core to me, this is Amanda, this is who I am. I don't want this thing to go away, and if I ever betray this value, then I’ll know that I’m not operating as my true self in the world. But all these other things are not really important to me, and they could go either way, and if those things shift and flux, and if your priorities change, then that’s great. Then you've just figured out what you want at that time in your life, which might be different than what you wanted now pre law school. So it’s a very personal journey, I don't think anyone will be able to make the decision for you, but there will be a fair amount of hidden pressure to do the firm route, and so I think you just need to decide under what terms would you be OK with that.
Allison: And also be self-aware, take the time to reflect during school, because it is really easy to make decisions because it’s fast and safe.
Allison: And it’s not stressful once you've made your decision.
J.Y.: I would also say try stuff out. That’s probably something I didn't do a good job of when I was in school. There are so many opportunities to try stuff out, like tons of clinics [CROSSTALK] practice. You don't know. I mean I’m like you. I was like you, Amanda, in that I went straight through. But a little bit unlike you, I actually went to law school because I was so ready and willing to sell my soul for, it was cheaper back then. It was only $165,000. Now I think they raised it.
Allison: What a bargain.
J.Y.: So I didn't actually get to, I didn't really even want to try out a bunch of other stuff, but yeah. I think just explore. And I totally agree with what Allison said about, the environment shapes you, it really does. So if you are worried about kind of unconsciously falling into the path of least resistance, well then the burden is on you to create an environment, like maybe surround yourself with like-minded people who are thinking about public interest, hang out at OPIA instead of hanging out at OCS, right?
Allison: That’s been super important to me, especially this year, is having a community of other public interest people. I think I had, maybe I had enough determination on this bath that I would have done it no matter way. I’m not sure if I can really say that, because again, the environmental thing, but having a core group of friends and a community that I feel very plugged into that knows me and knows what I’m doing and why and we talk about it, that’s very important. We actually, my housemate Katrina and I host this dinner twice a month that is for, basically it’s for left-leaning Christians at the law school, which both of us are, and it’s all public interest students, and we just sit around and talk about how our path in our careers is intersecting with how we conceptualize our faith and what motivates us and drives us and last night we had the dinner, and we shared what inspires you. So people brought passages or someone they looked up to, and we talked about that. And it sounds kind of cheesy to create that context, but it’s really powerful and really helpful and very centering. So whatever that looks like to you to stay true to what you believe in, I think that’s really important, to then go create that, create community around that.
J.Y.: Yeah. So it is, you’re already, you know, I think Amanda, you’re already really sensitive to just even notice that, because it’s the path of least resistance, it becomes like the default state. So if you don't do very much, just expect that this is the default state like that’s what everyone’s [CROSSTALK] end up doing.
J.Y.: OK. So we are at the end of our hourlong webinar. Thanks so much, Allison. This has been a pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed it.
Allison: Yeah, me too. Well thank you for asking me and good luck everybody. I don't know. It’s worth it in the end if it’s the path for you. That’s, I guess, the summary. Yeah.
J.Y.: All right. Well have a good night.
Allison: Yeah, you too. All right. Bye.
J.Y.: Hi there. J.Y. from the present. If you enjoyed that conversation, please consider giving us a like or a positive review on iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, we’re all ears. Please send those to email@example.com. This is something very new for us, so I’m sure there's a lot for us to learn, and I really want to make this work for you, so please don't hold back. I’m looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you.