Law Careers: Four Alumni Share Their Paths to Law

On January 24, 2016, the Rockefeller Center, Dartmouth Lwyers Association, and the Center for Professional Development co-sponsored “The Paths to Law Alumni Panel,” which featured Brian Martin ’06, Lavinia Weizel ’04, Janos Martin ’05, and Lindsay Zahradka ’07.

During the session, each lawyer had interesting answers to a variety of common questions from undergrads interested in law school.

Biggest common misconceptions or misunderstandings of a lawyer’s job:

The biggest misconception the panelists touched upon was the inaccurate portrayal of the day-to-day lives of lawyers. Lawyers’ lives are not Law & Order or How to Get Away With Murder.

In fact, Weizel noted that most of the time spent at work was research and reading. Since law is hierarchical, one may simply be researching for months before they ever have their first appearance in court. Even certain types of lawyers rarely go to the courtroom even after years of experience. Zahradka noted that in her field, Bankruptcy law, she almost always worked out deals over the phone.

Advice for getting in to law school:

All of the panelists agreed that taking the LSAT in college was the best option. First, if gives test takers the opportunity to retake if their scores weren’t as high as expected. Next, student schedules are far more flexible than work schedules, even if it doesn’t always seem that way at Dartmouth. The panelists advised attendees to study during off-terms and breaks. They noted that law school admissions were much more numbers-driven than undergrad and that the LSAT was one very important factor.

How to choose the best law school for you:

All of them cautioned against the idea that you “shouldn’t go to a law school if you don’t get into a T10.” While some suggested that you should go to the best school you get into, all of them agreed that it was far more important to be in the top of your class at a lower ranked school than be at the bottom of a top-ranked school. Employers will sometimes only consider applicants in certain percentiles, even if that applicant is from a T10 school.

Two important parts of picking the right law school are knowing what type of law you want to be doing and where you want to do it. The panelists agreed that taking a year or more to work after graduation before enrolling in law school was a generally good decision in order to narrow this focus and settle on a region to live in. While lawyers who graduate from Harvard and Yale can work almost anywhere in the country, most other law schools are deeply entrenched regionally.

Almost all of the panelists took a couple years off and formed clear career goals in that time. On the other hand, Zahradka did go straight to law school and found it was the best plan for her. While she noted that others might be “burnt out” after undergrad, she found the “momentum” energizing.

It also makes sense to take time to decide if law school is a worthwhile investment, especially after considering your career goals.

The law school investment:

Today, undergraduates’ biggest worry is the job market and the economy. Many recent law students have graduated and passed the bar only to find that they did not have a job after graduation. What’s more is that some who ended up getting jobs, were employed outside of the legal section: a law degree didn’t make them more qualified for their job or the position didn’t require a law degree.

In light of the fact that tuition alone for law schools can ring in at more than $150,000 for three years, students worry about the returns on the investment they’re making. What’s more is opportunity costs entices students to banking or consulting, for high early returns with little investment.

The panelists responded to this acknowledging these fears while pointing out the various reasons to get a law degree. First, they agreed that money was not the reason to get into law. Zahradka pointed out that, “many older lawyers got into the business for the money and they found out that they didn’t enjoy the day-to-day work. You really have to know what you’re getting yourself into.” The panelists nodded in agreement as Zahradka described her love of shifting through copious amounts of reading to find small important details.

As a bankruptcy lawyer, her advice was to quite literally “crunch the numbers.” She explained, “you should be realistic about your ability to pay, I recommend treating law school debt like a mortgage – make a spreadsheet.” Janos Martin chimed in about the hierarchical structure of legal work and cautioned students to be wary of what they would realistically be doing after graduation and what they could pay. He noted that his decision was made in large part by the fact that his career would be directly enhanced with a law degree.

The biggest difference between law school and undergrad:

All the panelists agreed upon one point: law school was much more difficult than undergrad. Law school admissions and employment opportunities afterwards were much more numbers-driven than undergrad. Everyone seemed to care a lot more about grades. Along with that, they also liked that their experience was much more collaborative, study groups and the sharing of information marked each of their law school learning styles. Building these “professional” friendships with classmates was one of the biggest keys to success.

Weizel noted that all students seem much more focused: almost everyone took classes very much related to their end career goals and didn’t waste time in classes that wouldn’t help them in their particular type of law. She noted that successful students had this “laser focus” and the work ethic to treat law school like a real job, studying for five hours after class each day.

The theme amongst the panelists was about commitment. With resolve and planning, Dartmouth students have the potential to be extremely successful in law school. The panelists demonstrated that law school can be a great investment for those who have specific goals in mind.

Submitted by Tori Nevel ’16, Student Program Assistant for Internships  

Alumni Panelists' Bios.pdf