Big Law One Year In: 18 Actually Helpful Tips for First-Year Associates


It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been a full year (!) since I started as an Associate at a big law firm. In reflection and celebration of these last twelve months, I’ve compiled a list of the top 18 tips that I hope to pass on to the next class of incoming Associates.

Some of the tips below can be applied to work settings outside of the law firm, while others are specific to big law. Keeping in mind the usual disclaimer that my experience will not necessarily be the same as yours, I hope that you’re able to take some tips as you embark on your first year!

The Big Picture

    1. One of the most helpful frameworks I’ve learned during this year is “execution vs. expertise.” The general idea is that clients come to lawyers for – you guessed it – execution or expertise. As first-year Associates, we likely don’t have the same level of expertise as more senior attorneys, and so one place where we can shine is in execution. In my practice, I interpret this as staying highly organized, following through on my assignments and following up on pending items, and going the extra mile to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and that I’ve helped make the partner’s and client’s lives easier.
    2. Another helpful framework is “facts vs. law.” Here, the idea is that we should strive to know more than the partner with respect to the facts, the law, or both. For example, with respect to the facts, I should be very familiar with the financials of the company or the specific characteristics of the company’s business that affects our legal analysis. With respect to the law, this can mean that I am very familiar with a specific line of cases or series of Internal Revenue Code sections and related regulations about a certain topic.
    3. Set up personal and professional goals for yourself at the start of the year. You don’t necessarily need to broadcast these goals to the entire world, but the act of setting goals will help you prioritize what’s most important to you in these next twelve months.
    4. When setting up your professional goals, take a look at your firm’s practice group benchmarks to see what your group expects of you this year. Last year, I printed out this document and highlighted a few items that I especially wanted to work on. This included things like: write 1-2 formal substantive memos, co-author 1 article in an industry journal, attend 1-2 onsite client meetings with senior attorneys, present current developments (such as new Treasury regulations or Tax Court decisions) at an internal practice group meeting, etc.
    5. Identify sub-areas that you’re interested in within your practice group, and reach out to senior attorneys who specialize in that sub-area to get involved in relevant projects. Now that you’re officially in a practice group, this first year is a great opportunity to explore what you like within that group. For example, Corporate is a large umbrella practice that contains many sub-areas, such as M&A, emerging growth and venture capital, etc.
    6. Try to say “yes” to every project, and with a positive attitude! Keep in mind that this is a balance, however, because you don’t want to end up in a situation where you overpromise and underdeliver. Overall, it’s generally good to have a reputation as someone who is enthusiastic about taking on projects and is willing to pull her weight. That way, when you’re actually in a position where you’re unable to accept a project, people will be understanding because you’ve said “yes” nine times out of ten in the past.
    7. Don’t stress out if you’re not billing 40 hours per week from the start. It’s all a very normal aspect of starting up, especially if you’re in a smaller group or if you haven’t had many chances to get to know folks in your group during your summer associate program. So, go out there and advocate for yourself and try to get work! Ask for strategic advice from other attorneys within your group, and don’t be afraid to reach out to folks outside your office for work.
    8. Be present at the office more often than not (even if you’re technically allowed to work from home whenever you want). This will almost always lead to more work rather than less, especially if you’re known as someone who chooses to come into the office every day. This will also allow you to develop organic relationships with folks in your office, both attorneys and staff alike!
    9. I encourage you to get involved in one organization outside of your firm. You might be able to swing two or more organizations, but it may be too much depending on your workload and the general stress associated with transitioning into your first year. Getting involved in an outside organization is a great way to meet new people, which is definitely more difficult after graduating from law school. It’s also a great way to get involved in the community, especially if you’re getting settled into a new city. The organization can be law-related (such as your local Asian American Bar Association) or not, but I think the point is to start building a community outside of the firm.
    10. Take care of yourself – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, etc. Exercise to the extent possible, especially if your firm offers access to a gym inside the building! I exercise every weekday morning (mostly powerlifting, with a mix of running and stretching and foam rolling) and it’s a great way to start the day off with a fresh mind and body. Also, try to maintain your friendships (especially with non-lawyers!!) and keep in touch with your parents. You’re in an exciting time of your life – allow your community to join you on this journey.

The Nuts and Bolts (aka How to Lawyer)

    1. When in doubt, ask questions! I’ve had many partners tell me that they’d prefer me to stop by and ask a clarifying question rather than to unnecessarily spin my wheels. BUT (and this is an important but), obviously use your judgment and don’t be annoying. What does this mean? Try your best to understand the assignment and spend some time struggling through it so that you have a better idea of what questions to ask. If you have multiple questions, try to group your questions together into one email / one conversation to show that you’ve thought through the assignment and that you’re trying to avoid multiple rounds of questions.
    2. Start the year off by building a solid foundation of good time hygiene habits. So, try to enter your time (including the narrative) at the end of every day. I’ve seen attorneys track their time in different ways (e.g., timers, Excel spreadsheets, pen and paper), but this is important regardless of your time tracking method. One reason is that you’re less likely to “lose” time or sell yourself short on narratives because you wait until every Tuesday (or whatever day it is) to frantically enter time. Another reason is that you can reduce the task of entering time to just a few minutes each day, rather than spending hours (I’ve heard horror stories) stressing at the end of each week and month. Finally, and perhaps the most important, is that your time entries are a form of attorney work product. You want to make sure that both the billing attorney and client understands the value that you’re adding to the team.
    3. Also related to time entries, be sure to confirm the “format” of your narratives with the relevant supervising attorney. Narrative formats may differ between different offices or groups at your firm, and it may even differ within the same group! For example, my group generally (but not always) refers to me as “Attorney Hong” and other times as “I. Hong.” It doesn’t hurt to ask for last month’s invoice for a specific client so that you can make sure your narratives don’t stick out like a sore thumb.
    4. Especially when you’re first getting started, ask how much time you expect assignments to take so that you can be sensitive to the client’s budget. Over time, you’ll get a better intuition of how long things should take, but it definitely doesn’t hurt to ask.
    5. On the same note, keep in mind that it may have been a while since the supervising attorney was a first-year, so time estimates may be off. Try your best to manage expectations and be sure to check in with the supervising attorney, say, once you’ve used up half the time to reevaluate the timeline.
    6. Get familiar with your firm’s resources. Your firm may have a virtual processing center that can run 50 redlines or convert 15 PDF files to Word docs. There may be an awesome legal secretary in your office who is an expert at filing certain types of forms or is familiar with how a partner likes his work done. This type of knowledge is invaluable!
    7. Always carry a pen and notepad with you, or at least within easy reaching distance if you’re sitting in your office. You never know when a partner may stop you with a quick question as you’re walking down the hallway!
    8. While we’re on the topic, this is a matter of personal preference, but I like to take notes on paper rather than on my laptop. While I’ll bring my laptop with me to meetings just in case, I find it easier to stay focused (and signal to others that I’m paying attention) when I’m writing things down on paper. I also find it easier to take notes on paper, especially since we like to draw and diagram a lot in my practice.

And that’s all for now! Let me know if these tips were helpful or if you’d like any other advice or lessons learned from my first year. Congratulations on this new chapter, and good luck!

The Ultimate Guide to How I Passed the California Bar Exam


It’s that time of year again! 3Ls everywhere are either enjoying their last semester of school ever or scrambling to learn all of Securities Regulation in the few days before finals. And somewhere in the back of their minds, the black box of bar prep looms in the distance.

I graduated from law school in May 2018, sat for the California Bar Exam in July, found out that I passed the Friday before Thanksgiving (a cruel joke of timing played by the State Bar every November), and was sworn in as an attorney in December.

As the first person in my family tree to attend law school, let alone be a lawyer, I remember all too well the feeling of self-doubt, confusion, and anxiety that set in once I started bar prep. I hadn’t taken Real Property or Evidence during law school, and I definitely believed I had forgotten everything I learned in 1L. How in the world would I learn 13 subjects in 2 months??

Now, a year later, I want to share with you the mistakes made, lessons learned, and what I would do differently if I could rewind to my first day of bar prep.

Before I begin, I’d like to give a quick shout out to Brian Hahn of Make This Your Last Time (MTYLT). I relied heavily on his Magicsheets and Approsheets, which I describe in more detail below. He’s written about virtually every aspect of preparing for the California Bar Exam, from study skills, technical breakdown of essays, and exam day mindset. Be sure to check out his website and sign up for his newsletter! (I have no financial affiliation with Brian or MTYLT. I just think his bar prep resources are great!)

I’d also like to make a very important disclaimer — my experience will not be the same as your experience, and I’m not claiming that my approach is the one and only way to pass the California Bar Exam. Rather, I hope that this post can help demystify the nuts and bolts of preparing for the exam.

What do I need to know about the California Bar Exam?

According to the State Bar, the California Bar Exam is given twice each year in February and July (click here and here for details). The exam is given over two days and consists of the following parts:

  • Five one-hour essay questions
  • One 90-minute Performance Test
  • 200 multiple-choice questions (the “Multistate Bar Examination” or “MBE”)

The written portion of the examination (essay questions and Performance Test) is administered on the first day, with three essay questions given in the morning session and two essay questions plus the Performance Test given in the afternoon session. The MBE is administered on the second day, with 100 questions given in the morning and 100 questions given in the afternoon.

The examination covers 13 subjects, including Business Associations, Civil Procedure, Community Property, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Evidence, Professional Responsibility, Real Property, Remedies, Torts, Trusts and Wills and Succession.

So, the California Bar Exam consists of three parts, and I’ve listed my key takeaways regarding each part below:

  • Five one-hour essay questions
    • All 13 subjects are fair game.
    • Because the essays are California-specific, you’ll need to know California law regarding these subjects.
    • Very IRAC-heavy and formulaic.
  • One 90-minute Performance Test
    • Designed to “test an applicant’s ability to handle a select number of legal authorities in the context of a factual problem involving a client.”
    • A Performance Test question consists of two separate sets of materials, a “file” with instructions and various client facts that will be used to solve the problem, along with a “library” of cases and/or statutes that provides the law that will be used to solve the problem.
    • Probably the most realistic, lawyer-like part of the Bar Exam because tasks may include writing a legal memorandum, persuasive brief, client letter, etc.
  • 200 multiple-choice questions (the “Multistate Bar Examination” or “MBE”)
    • Just the MBE subjects (Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Evidence, Real Property, and Torts) will be tested.
    • Because the MBE is utilized across various jurisdictions in the United States, you’ll only need to know federal law regarding these subjects.

Putting it all together, this means that you’ll need to know both California and federal law for the subjects that appear on the MBE, and you’ll only need to know California law for those subjects that appear in the essays but not on the MBE. (There’s some conversation around the extent to which you actually need to know the differences between California and federal law for the essays, but I won’t open that can of worms today.)

Crap, what if I didn’t learn these subjects during law school?

In case you were curious, the subjects I took in law school were: Corporations (which is included under Business Associations), Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Contracts, Criminal Law, Professional Responsibility, and Torts. Perhaps more importantly, the subjects I had not taken were Community Property, Criminal Procedure, Evidence, Real Property, Remedies, and Trusts and Wills and Succession.

As any law student can tell you, I basically took the required 1L courses and not much more, so I was learning a crap ton for the first time. While this definitely was a challenge, I wouldn’t tell my 1L self to maximize my 2L and 3L course loads to include these missing subjects.

For one, taking these subjects during law school wouldn’t necessarily provide a strategic advantage during bar prep. The way that subjects are taught in law school is vastly different from the way that subjects are taught for purposes of the Bar Exam. In addition, I was grateful to spend the limited time I had in law school to take subjects I was actually interested in (sorry, Evidence).

Let me know if you’d like me to write a post on this point, suffice it to say that I wouldn’t freak out if you didn’t take all of these subjects during law school.

Learning to trust myself over Themis

After graduating in mid-May, I took about 1-2 weeks off to decompress from the craziness of graduation and move back home to California. Looking back on my study schedule, I see that I officially started studying on May 24.

However, after a few days, I quickly realized that the Themis study schedule wasn’t working for me. While I liked that the video lectures were broken up into 20-30 minute chunks and that my daily schedule automatically adjusted depending on my progress from the previous day, my dissatisfaction with the one-size-fits-all program pushed me to create my own study plan.

For example, I know that I am a visual learner and that I learn best by practicing. One thing I didn’t like about Themis was the way it allocated time between watching lectures, reading outlines, practicing multiple choice and essay questions, and reviewing. I also felt like the sheer number and volume of tasks was unreasonable (and honestly, counterproductive past a certain point) for the average person to complete. A simple Google search for “Themis” and “75%” will show the reality that not all students complete 100%, let alone 75%, of the program.

This isn’t to completely poo-poo Themis — I vastly prefer Themis to other bar prep courses because of its short video lecture structures and adaptive daily schedule. However, I was fortunate enough that my post-graduation employer (a big law firm) paid for my bar prep expenses and that Themis threw in a free iPad for registering with their company. (I gave my mom the free iPad, so it was a win-win for both of us!) If I was paying out-of-pocket, the calculus would have been vastly different.

All in all, the first 10 days of studying ended up being a wash because I started with Themis’ method, realized it wasn’t optimal for me, and spent a few days freaking out and reorienting myself. After doing some more research into the resources that were available, I created a new plan and got a fresh start on June 3.

What tools did I use during bar prep?

Now with all that out of the way, what was my game plan? This is where Themis comes in. If you’ve already cracked open your bar prep materials from Themis or from any other bar prep company, you’ll see that you were given a literal box of books filled with long outlines, short outlines, video lecture outlines with fill-in-the-blanks, practice questions, etc.

Spoiler alert is that I didn’t utilize any of these materials. Rather, I wanted to ensure that each tool I used during bar prep had a specific purpose that directly connected to the exam.

(1) Crash course overview (Themis video lectures)

To learn new subjects and relearn old subjects, I watched the Themis lectures at a faster speed (usually 1.5x or 1.75x) without taking any notes. The purpose of watching these lectures was to get a quick and dirty overview of the subjects, not to become an expert on the law.

This was essentially the only part of the Themis program that I used, and I definitely would not have signed up for Themis if I was paying out of pocket. I’ve heard good reviews about Barbri’s Conviser Mini Review (CMR) book as a way to learn the law on a budget, but I can’t vouch for it personally.

(2) Create an outline for each subject (Magicsheets and Approsheets)

After quickly watching the Themis lectures, I used Brian Hahn’s Magicsheets and Approsheets as a jumping off point for creating my personalized outline for each subject. Brian describes Magicsheets as “condensed outlines with 95% of the issues and rules you need to know for essays and the MBE in 5% of the length of a traditional bar outline,” and describes Approsheets as “condensed essay attack sheets (templates in checklist and flowchart formats) that help you identify the relevant issues in an essay via systematic issue checking. Go from a blank page to a finished essay or outline.”

The purposes of the Magicsheets and Approsheets were to:

  • Save time: You don’t have time to go through all 800 pages of outlines. Learn the most important law in 50 pages.
  • Find what’s important: Easy-to-spot important rules, elements, and issues (bolded or italicized).
  • Provide organization that makes sense: Nested format that promotes top-level main issues and demotes exceptions and nuances. Tables for easy comparison of related concepts when appropriate.
  • Find those pesky distinctions: Easy-to-spot jurisdictional distinctions, e.g., FRE vs. CA, ABA vs. CA, majority vs. minority law, common law.
  • Help you practice: Comprehensive issues and complete rules organized for quick reference so you can answer MBE questions, issue check for essays / know how to get an essay started, or even base your own outlines on them.

The last bullet was key for me. The Magicsheets provided a finite list of testable issues and bare bones rule statements that contained the entire universe of what I needed to know for each subject. The Approsheets further condensed and organized the information from the Magicsheets into an easy-to-follow attack outline for the essays.

So, working off the Approsheets as a skeleton outline and referencing the Magicsheets for the rules, I created an attack outline for each subject with full (or nearly full) sentence rule statements for each issue. For example, see below for a comparison of the original Approsheets Evidence outline vs. my Evidence attack outline:

Approsheets - Evidence_1


One thing I would change about my bar prep process is that I would have pulled rule statements from a single source. One of many mistakes I made during bar prep was constantly comparing different rule statements and trying to reconcile minor differences in wording to come to the “best” (whatever that means) rule statement. If anything, this added unnecessary stress to the bar prep process, because reconciling three slightly different wordings of the same rule was not an efficient use of time or energy. My advice is to pick a single source for your rule statements (whether from Magicsheets, Critical Pass Flashcards, or even your Themis or Barbri outlines) and stick with it.

Also, don’t feel pressured to have a perfect outline at this point — I continued to refer back to and refine my outlines as I practiced (see next section), and this process of practicing questions and refining my outlines is how I learned (and eventually memorized) the key issues and rule statements for the exam.

(3) Practice, practice, practice (, Emanuel Strategies & Tactics, AdaptiBar)

As you can probably tell by now, watching the Themis video lectures was a small portion of my bar prep experience, and the vast majority of the time was spent outlining, practicing questions, and refining my outlines along the way.

Essays and Performance Test

For the essay questions, I subscribed to, a database of “3000+ essay examples, including both high and low scoring essay answers to more than 200 different essay questions. All of our essays are actual graded and returned California Bar Exam essays and include every tested subject. We provide you with high scoring essays, low scoring essays, barely passing essays, and everything in-between.” has two tiers of subscriptions. A standard subscription provides access to the website until the conclusion of the upcoming California Bar Exam, and a premium subscription includes “model answers for every essay question tested since 2005, in addition to over 300 professional bar grader reviews of essays and performance exams in the database, all written by former official graders of the California Bar Exam . . . Every premium subscription to includes a full set of the Short Review Outlines, Checklists, and Essay Attack Templates.”

I got the premium subscription primarily for the model answers and professional bar grader reviews of the essays and Performance Tests. I found these resources to be incredibly helpful and worth the additional $50 to upgrade from a standard to premium subscription. I personally didn’t find the Short Review Outlines, Checklists, and Essay Attack Templates very helpful because I found the Magicsheets and Approsheets to be superior in their organization and condensation of the key issues and rule statements.

When I first started practicing essay questions, I referred back to my personalized outlines and didn’t stress about timing myself. The goal was to test my outlines against real essay questions and tweak them as I practiced more.

As I became more confident in my outlines and exam day grew nearer, I shifted to timing myself and not referring to my outlines for full 60-minute essays. Sometimes I would simply spend 10 minutes outlining my answer (not writing out the full essay) and comparing my rough outline against the model answers.

(Note: Themis offered individualized grading services and their own model answers for select essay questions, but I never utilized this service for a few reasons:

First, from a timing standpoint, I personally found it faster to compare my answers against the various graded essays and the model answers on

Second, I found it more helpful to refer to the detailed comments provided in the professional bar grader reviews of the essays and performance tests, because they are all written by actual former official graders of the California Bar Exam. In contrast, Themis only offers “a licensed attorney who grades your essays and provides you with detailed feedback.” I’m a licensed attorney, and I don’t think that my feedback on your practice essay would be nearly as helpful as former official graders’ feedback on a variety of actual essays from the exam.)

Multistate Bar Examination (MBE)

I’ll start by telling you why I didn’t use Themis’ MBE questions as my primary resource for the MBE.

First, as far as I know, most bar prep companies don’t offer “real” MBE questions, but rather offer their own made-up MBE-like questions for practice. What do I mean by “real” MBE questions? JD Advising writes that “Real MBE questions are those that the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) creates. The NCBE writes the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) questions. Many of these NCBE-released questions appeared on past exams. They are different than questions that a course makes up as they reflect the style and level of difficulty of the questions you can expect to see on the bar exam.”

In addition, Themis’ explanations of the MBE questions were subpar to the explanations provided in Emanuel Strategies & Tactics, and Themis’ data analytics were subpar to those provided by AdaptiBar (as described below).

Emanuel Strategies & Tactics is widely considered the MBE bible. Brian writes:

“It’s great (and may be the only MBE supplement you need) because it comes with 600 or so representative MBE questions that are all genuine and were previously administered (with the exception of author-written Civ Pro questions) . . . Each subject is prefaced with a discussion of the tricky areas and how to deal with them. Some subjects have an overview of the major topics. There will be tips that revolve around multiple choice in general. The 200-question practice test at the back can be done to gauge your progress sometime in the final month leading to the bar.

How to use: Read the primer for each subject, answer every question on a separate sheet, and analyze their explanation in their entirety, including (A) through (D) for each question, including questions you get correctly.

So essentially, go through the book cover to cover (which is what I did). It’s worth it. Hey, I never said you wouldn’t have to put in the work.”

I agree with the above and think Emanuel is a must-have resource for MBE questions, especially if you are on a budget and want fantastic, comprehensive explanations for why each answer choice is correct or incorrect.

I started with Emanuel and paid special attention to the explanations, which were extremely helpful in getting me familiar with real MBE questions. Then, I moved on to AdaptiBar, which includes “1,964 Questions (1,749 Licensed Questions, plus 215 Simulated Questions. NCBE OPE 1, 2, 3 & 4 included).” Note that what were previously known as “OPEs” are no longer available for separate purchase as of March 25, 2019. They’ve been replaced with a different set of study aids that have a mobile online component.

Despite the fact that AdaptiBar’s explanations weren’t as detailed or thorough as Emanuel, the explanations were still better than Themis’ explanations. Ultimately, AdaptiBar was still a worthwhile investment, especially considering the prices that NCBE charges for fewer questions on its store. Brian sums it up nicely:

“In any case, AdaptiBar includes the entire universe of real questions that were tested in actual exams. PLUS questions from NCBE’s Study Aid newly released in 2017 (including 30 actual Civ Pro questions).

Specifically, 1,530 of them make up every licensed question that was previously available through the NCBE. There are 200 Civ Pro and 15 Real Property questions that AdaptiBar’s legal team wrote. There are 210 additional questions most recently released in the 2017 Study Aid, along with answer explanations written by the AdaptiBar legal team. These Study Aid questions can be taken in 100-question formats in random (but proportional to what you’d see on the real MBE).”

For me, the key benefit of Adaptibar was its data analytics and automatic adjustment of the presentation of questions based on your previous performance:

“Turns out AdaptiBar adapts to your performance. Explains the name.

In other words, over time, it gives you more questions of the types that you suck at, and it gives you fewer questions of the types you don’t need more help with. It learns and caters to you so that you can get better practice—automatically.

This means the AdaptiBar software will help you target and shore up your weaknesses, without you having to figure them out yourself!”

(Note: I’ve heard great things about the Critical Pass Flashcards, but I didn’t get my hands on them until late in the bar prep game and didn’t end up using them very much. Some food for thought!)

Putting it all together

Whew, that was a lot of information. Give me the bullet points!

  • The California Bar Exam consists of five one-hour essay questions, one 90-minute Performance Test, and 200 multiple-choice questions (the MBE).
  • You can deviate from (or even completely abandon, as I did) the study plan prepared by your big box bar prep company.
  • For a crash course course overview, I watched the Themis video lectures at 1.5x or 1.75x speed without taking notes. Had I not signed up for Themis, I would have checked out Barbri’s Conviser Mini Review (CMR) book.
  • To create my personalized outline for each subject, I used Magicsheets and Approsheets. I continued to refine and update these outlines as I practiced.
  • To practice essays, I used and my personalized outlines. To practice MBE questions, I used Emanuel Strategies & Tactics and AdaptiBar. If budget is a huge concern, I’d cut AdaptiBar first.

Parting thoughts

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not claiming that my approach is the one and only way to pass the California Bar Exam. Rather, I hope that you can take the aspects that work for you and study in a way that works for you. Trust yourself — you didn’t get this far without getting to know yourself and your study style at least a little bit!

And in no particular order, a few parting thoughts and gentle words of advice:

  • Exercise to the extent possible. I lifted weights and/or ran every morning, which did wonders for my mental, emotional, and physical health during bar prep. Along the same vein, try to take care of your body and eat as healthy as you can!
  • Schedule in breaks every so often. I studied all day for 6 days per week and rested on Saturdays, but I know others prefer to study fewer hours each day for 7 days per week. Do whatever works for you!
  • Rely on your support system, whether that’s your family, significant other, religious community, therapist, etc. You don’t have to go about it alone!
  • Study hard and study like it’s your one and only shot, but also know that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t pass this time around. Be kind to yourself!

Good luck!

The $$$ Talk: What I Wish I Knew Before Investing in Law School


As the first person in my family tree to attend law school, I didn’t have the luxury of pursuing higher education debt-free. However, I know I can, and will, make a positive impact in the world, and I see my debt as a reflection of how much I believe in myself to make this happen. And at the end of the day, I’m willing to put in the time and effort to make the financial investment worthwhile.

If you’re thinking about whether you should go to law school generally, click here to read my first post.

Otherwise, read on for the top 8 things you should know when weighing the financial aspects of law school.

(1) Sticker price of law school

I’ll start with the depressing news. Not surprisingly, law school costs a pretty penny.

For example, Penn Law’s 2017-2018 tuition is $59,382. Adding on fees, health insurance, housing, health insurance, and more, the total cost of attendance for the 2017-2018 academic year adds up to $87,984. Multiplying that by three years (and ignoring the not-so-slight tuition increases that occur annually), the total cost of attendance of a Penn Law three-year JD education is $263,952. A sizable chunk of change!

The same applies for public universities. Berkeley Law’s cost of attendance for the 2017-2018 nine-month academic year is $81,957.50 (California residents) and $85,908.50 (non-California residents). University of Virginia Law’s 2017-2018 cost of attendance is $84,480. For UT Austin Law, $73,831.

You get the idea.

(2) Law school ranking & metrics

It’s absolutely critical that the law school you attend can help you achieve your employment goals. I can’t emphasize enough how helpful it is to seek out people working in the career(s) that you may be interested in, and to have honest conversations to help curate your path through law school and beyond.

Look into whether alumni from the law school(s) you’re interested in have been able to pursue the type of career you’re seeking. I consider the best resource to be current or recently graduated students, since they can provide you with up-to-date and (hopefully) honest information about their law school’s job prospects. You can also reach out to each school’s admission office and ask them to put you in contact with relevant alumni. Feel free to read online forums, but like any anonymous Internet forum, take everything that is said with a rock of salt.

Also, be vigilant about checking bar passage rates generally as well as for the specific law school(s) you’re interested in. After all, even if you graduate with flying colors from an ABA-accredited law school, you legally cannot practice law until you pass your state’s bar exam.

(3) The reality of post-law school employment prospects and salaries

Regardless of whether your primary goal is to work in “big law” right out of law school, I personally would caution against attending a non T-14 law school. (T-14 refers to the top 14 law schools in the nation as ranked by U.S. News & World Report.) It’s certainly possible to find a job that is both personally, professionally, and financially satisfying from non T-14 schools, but the journey is undeniably more difficult.

According to U.S. News & World Report, “[a]lthough six-figure starting salaries are the norm for graduates of top law schools who enter the private sector, the salaries of most newly minted lawyers aren’t even close to $100,000… Among J.D. recipients in the class of 2015 at ranked law schools, the median private sector salary was $68,300, and the median public sector salary was $52,000… The financial payoff of private sector law jobs can be enormous, especially at large corporate law firms with $160,000 [note: $180,000 as of June 2016] starting salaries. But the chance of getting one of these coveted six-figure salary jobs is slim unless you attend a law firm feeder school.”


However, for Penn Law, which is currently ranked as #7 law school in the nation (and thus qualifies as a T-14), employment and salary metrics tell a different story. Out of Penn Law’s 258 students who graduated in 2016, 253 are employed, 3 are enrolled in a full-time degree program, and 2 are seeking employment. For salaries of all job types, the 25th percentile salary is $125,000; median is $180,000; mean (average) is $149,011; and 75th percentile salary is $180,000. When looking solely at law firm salaries, the 25th percentile, median, and 75th percentile for salaries are all $180,000.

A running joke at Penn Law is that the “worst case” scenario is that you’ll land a big law job in New York paying $180K per yearmaybe at a law firm you weren’t too hot about. That’s a much different calculus than being at a law school where a substantial percentage of students are unemployed upon graduation or unable to pay off their loans according to their desired timelines.

(4) Financial aid packages

Generally, top law schools offer both merit-based scholarships and need-based grants. Merit-based scholarships at Penn Law range from a few thousand dollars to full tuition. There are special merit-based scholarships for students seeking academic training and practical experience in public interest law, as well as for scholarships for Teach for America alumni and exiting corps members. Need-based grants are based on financial need as measured by FAFSA (the same financial aid application you filled out for undergrad admissions).

Just like in negotiating undergrad financial aid packages, there are strategies to leverage multiple financial aid packages from similarly ranked law schools to negotiate a better deal from your top-choice law school(s). The main caveat, however, is that this kind of negotiation will work best for schools that are similarly ranked.

How exactly does this negotiating process work? Suppose you are accepted to both Michigan Law and Penn Law (congrats!). Michigan Law offered a financial aid package that would end up with, say, $40,000 in out-of-pocket costs to you annually. Penn Law offered a financial aid package that would result in $60,000 out-of-pocket. You can contact Penn Law’s Admissions Office, emphasize that you would love to accept their offer admission (but unfortunately cannot due to financial aid reasons), and bring up that Michigan Law offered you a more favorable package. There’s a good chance that Penn will ask you to send over Michigan’s financial aid package, and Penn will match Michigan’s package (or at the very least give you some more money to narrow the gap between the two packages).

(5) External scholarships

Since my senior year of high school, I’ve been very aggressive in applying to scholarships. This was the case throughout undergrad and continues to be the case in law school. Granted, in my experience it’s a bit more tricky finding scholarship opportunities for law students compared to undergrads, but they are definitely out there.

I won’t make this sound sexier than it is — it’s very tedious and time-intensive to even find law student scholarships in the first place. You can use scholarship databases like FastWeb to start your search, but I wouldn’t stop there. I’ve found that scholarship databases are generally out-of-date (has scholarships that no longer exist or has contact information that’s outdated) and not comprehensive (missing new scholarships that have been recently created).

So, where to look? Are you doomed to dig through the Internet forever?? Not at all! Here are a few tips that, in my opinion, optimize for searching for the most valuable scholarships with the least amount of time and effort:

If you are “diverse” (a vague term of art in the law school / legal employment world), search for scholarships for women, minorities, minority women, etc. I am an Asian-American woman looking to practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I pay special attention to scholarships offered by affinity bar organizations, such as NAPABA (National Asian Pacific Bar Association), APABA-SV (Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Silicon Valley), and AABA-SF (Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area).

Search for scholarships specific to your law school’s region. I attend law school in Pennsylvania, so I look for Pennsylvania or Philadelphia-specific law school scholarships. Great places to start include Penn Law’s financial aid office, Drexel Law’s financial aid office, Temple Law’s financial aid office, Villanova Law’s financial aid office, etc.

If you attend law school in a region out-of-state or if you’ve lived in a certain area for a decent amount of time, check out regional scholarships that are intended for law students who are residents or former residents of the area. So, even though I currently attend law school in Pennsylvania, I’ve also lived in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay Areas. I’ve also lived in Central California for about five years. So, I keep an eye out for law school scholarships tied to these areas. Here, too, the best resources are law school financial aid offices that are located in these areas (e.g., UCLA Law for Los Angeles area scholarships or UC Berkeley Law for Bay Area scholarships).

There are a surprising amount of scholarships dedicated specifically for those pursuing a career in public interest law immediately after graduation. You can also search for scholarships tailored for specific areas of law, such as real estate law or tax law.

(6) Bar prep representative

As I mentioned earlier, you cannot become a licensed lawyer until you sit for your state’s bar exam and complete additional relevant requirements. And, of course, it isn’t cheap to go through this process. For example, fees to become a licensed attorney in the state of New York include a $250 application fee, a $100 “non-refundable technology fee”, a $100 laptop fee (even though you’re using your own personal laptop for the exam…), and more.

One thing I wish I knew earlier in law school is that law students can apply to represent major major bar examination prep companies (e.g., BARBRI, Themis, Kaplan) on campus and, in return, get reduced/free bar prep courses. Based on my understanding, you sit at table at school for a few hours per week and promote the company’s bar prep offerings. There are additional incentives to recruit as many of your peers as possible to your respective bar review company.

If your immediate next step after graduation is public interest (as opposed to big law, where your law firm will likely pay for bar prep and exam fees), this is an option that can save you literally a few thousand bucks in bar review fees. Just to show you what I mean… As of October 2017, BARBRI is advertising its New York state bar review course “for as low as $2695” and Themis is advertising “High-quality bar review at a reasonable price” of $2,095.

 (7) Federal loan repayment assistance programs

The federal government offers four kinds of income-driven repayment plans: Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE Plan); Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE Plan); Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR Plan); and Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR Plan).

You may have also heard of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which forgives the remaining balance on your Direct Loans after you have made 120 qualifying monthly payments (120 months = 10 years) under a qualifying repayment plan while working full-time for a qualifying employer, generally a government or non-profit employer.

Being a risk-averse person myself, I personally did not want to rely on PSLF and essentially bind myself for ten years to a loan forgiveness program that might not exist by the time my ten years are up. Since the program began in 2007, the first waves of public service loan forgiveness were theoretically set to occur in 2017. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of controversy (and litigation) surrounding the U.S. Department of Education’s wishy-washy position on whether it will actually honor the loan forgiveness promise it made to PSLF borrowers. At the end of the day, it’s a really crappy, uncertain position for more than half a million people who relied on PSLF in making major life and career decisions.

(8) Post-graduation student loan refinancing options

You also have the option of refinancing and consolidating your student loans. This may help you secure a lower interest rate, decrease your monthly payment, or both, depending on your individual financial situation. You can choose to refinance with the U.S. Department of Education (check out FAFSA’s FAQ on student loan consolidation for federal loans) or you can refinance with private banks. In general, it’s a good idea to refinance if you have private student loans or if you have federal student loans and don’t plan on taking advantage of a federal forgiveness program or income-driven repayment plan. You also need strong credit and a steady income to qualify for refinancing with private banks.

Should I Go To Law School? Start Here.


A little about myself

My name is Irene and I’m in the final year of my JD at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I’m also pursuing a Master’s in Social Policy at the School of Social Policy & Practice here at Penn.

I’m a first generation law student and a child of Korean immigrants. I grew up in Los Angeles Area, moved to San Francisco Bay Area during high school, and have been based in Philadelphia since college. In college (also Penn…sensing a bit of a trend here) I majored in Political Science with a concentration in American Politics. I worked and interned throughout undergrad and went “straight through” to law school, which means I didn’t take time off to work full-time between college and law school. My legal interests primarily lie in corporate/M&A and international tax, but I’ve found myself gravitating towards many fields of interest, including affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and international women’s human rights, just to name a few.

And an (actually very important) disclaimer!

This series of law school-related posts will be most relevant to the Penn Law experience and more broadly to T-14 schools. T-14 refers to the top 14 law schools in the nation as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. Penn Law is #7 according to the 2018 rankings. That being said, like any other ranking system, take these law school rankings with a grain of salt.

This series also assumes an interest in private sector / “big law” firm employment as the immediate goal after graduation. However, rest assured there are a variety of career paths that you can pursue after law school, including:

Clerking for a judge (“law clerks” or “judicial clerks” provide direct assistance and counsel to a judge in making legal determinations and in writing opinions by researching issues before the court)

Becoming a prosecutor (such as by joining the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, which presents cases in criminal trials against people accused of breaking the law)

Becoming a public defender (such as by joining the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a non-profit corporation that defends people in court who are unable to afford legal counsel on their own)

Joining the in-house legal team at a company (such as by joining the Corporate/M&A team at Apple or Facebook)

Working for a non-profit organization (such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Southern Poverty Law Center, Community Legal Services, or Asian Americans Advancing Justice to name a few)

Starting your own business, and more!

Keep your eyes peeled for a future post detailing career paths that you can pursue (and how you can do it!) with your law degree.

At the end of the day, each person as a unique experience in law school, and I can really only speak to my perspective. That being said, here are a few of the most common questions I’ve received from friends and strangers alike about deciding whether to go to law school.

How do I know whether law school is (or is not) for me? What are the right motivations for someone to go through it?

Great question! It’s always surprising to me how few people take the time to seriously think about the reasons why they are going to law school, and instead jump right to questions about admissions.

To answer this critical question, you need to first think about a deeper, not-directly-law-school-related question. What do you like to do, and how will getting a law degree help you do more of what you like to do? For example, do you like research and writing? Do you like interacting with people one-on-one? Does the idea of arguing in court excite you, or are you more excited by helping businesses achieve their goals? Do you want to represent the people who sue, the people getting sued, or both? How comfortable are you with ambiguity?

After thinking through these questions, the necessary follow-up question is: After weighing the costs against the benefits, financial or otherwise, is law school still worth it?

I view law school as a means to an end. This is separate from the fact that I genuinely enjoy law school and have had some of my most formative experiences here. I see law school as the means to do more of what I love to do, which involves learning new things, reading and writing, building long-term relationships, and making other people’s lives easier by helping navigate the complexities of flawed legal and administrative systems. For me, these things translate into being a lawyer, and law school is a necessary step towards that goal. I know that my law degree will enable me to accept more opportunities to do these things that I love to do. I want to build my career in the intersection of law, public policy, business, and technology, and for me, law school can help make that happen.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that you should go to law school if you know how it will help you do what you love (both professionally and personally). The other side of the coin, which I hope more people would seriously consider, is that you should not go to law school if you’re not 100% sure how law school will make this happen for you. I’m no expert in law school (or life for that matter), but I do hope you have motivations to attend law school that are not just “hey, what else can I do with my liberal arts degree?” or “I like to argue” or “my parents want me to make money” (spoiler alert: it’s not as simple or easy as it may seem to land that lucrative big law job).

Speaking of money, it’s no surprise law school is a significant investment. How do I know if law school is financially worth it for me?

I may sound like a broken record, but this is important enough that it bears repeating: Everyone’s situation is unique and there is no one but you who can decide whether law school is worth it for your individual situation.

That being said, there’s quite a few moving pieces to the financial aspects of law school that I’ve detailed in another post. Click here to read my post on the top 8 things you should know before investing in law school.

What if the reason I’m pursuing law school is to practice in such a way that isn’t necessarily extremely lucrative? Are there alternative paths for people who want to work on social justice / public interest law?

First off, I want to emphasize that my perspective on the public vs. private sector debate rests on the belief that both sectors need to push in the same direction in order for any long-term, sustainable social progress to be made. I also believe that the line between public and private is not so clear-cut and that magic can happen when public and private collaborate and work together towards a single goal (but that’s a post for another day). Ultimately, as a practical matter, I believe that developing a private sector-oriented perspective will greatly enhance our understanding of how the public sector can approach similar problems, and vice versa.

That being said, if you are interested in pursuing a career in public interest law, there’s a critical question of timing. We have long careers ahead of us, and there’s no reason to pigeonhole the rest of our lives to the first job we get out of law school.

So, I encourage you to think about whether you want to go into public interest law immediately after graduation, or whether you are OK with working at a law firm for a few years and later pivoting out into the public sector. How will either path help you do more of what you love, and what is the price (financial, personal, or otherwise) that you’re willing to pay to go down that path? This necessarily requires you to define what a career in “social justice” and “public interest” means to you, as the line between public and private sectors are much blurrier in practice.

I also encourage you to read my post on the top 8 financial aspects of law school you should know before taking the plunge.

Should I go “straight through” from undergrad to law school, or should I take time off or work for a few years before starting law school? Will I be “behind” if I wait?

Unless you or your family/relatives are able to pay for your law school education debt-free, there are a few critical components to consider when thinking about the financials of law school. After seriously thinking about the threshold question of whether law school theoretically is good for you, now you need to consider whether it’s practically a good move at this point in time.

Before I talk about the pros and cons of going “straight through” (graduating from undergrad in the spring and immediately going to law school that fall), I want to reassure you that the only timeline that matters is your own!

According to a Law School Admission Council (LSAC) report of ABA law school applicants by age group, each year 22-year-olds constituted the largest group, and about half of all applicants were between 22 and 24 years old. Around 30% of applicants were between 25 and 29, and close to 20% were over 30. For each year, the median age was 24, and the mean was between 26 and 27.

For Penn Law’s entering class of 2020, the age range is 20-35 with an average age of 24. That roughly means that the average first-year student had two years span between graduating from undergrad and starting law school. (I was on the extreme end of things. I was 19 when accepted to Penn Law, 20 when I matriculated, and I’ll be 22 when I graduate. Crazy stuff!)

Long story short, you won’t be “behind” if you take off a few years before going to law school. In fact, I would argue there are pros and cons to both options (going straight through vs. taking time off).

Should I Go To Law School- Start Here. (1)

So when people ask me for advice and say “I’m on the fence about law school and I’m not completely sure whether this is the right move for me,” I generally tell them to wait (and this is coming from someone who went straight through from undergrad to law school).

Law school will always be there, and there’s very little reason to rush in investing $250,000+ and three years of your life in something you’re not sure how it fits into your larger life goals. The last thing you want is to dig yourself into a massive hole of debt (and insane 6-7% federal student loan interest rates) only to realize that getting a law degree won’t help you become the best person you can be.

So, feel free to wait before jumping into law school (or not). There’s nothing wrong with waiting another cycle, retaking the LSAT, kicking butt at your current job, and ultimately positioning yourself to get better results from an admissions and financial aid standpoint. There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to get a head start on your career and get your schooling out of the way sooner rather than later!