The Day I Realized All My Life Plans Were Falling Apart
By: Marina Miller
“Can I hear from someone other than Marina?” That is what I heard practically every day in my AP Constitutional Law class in high school. It’s not that my comments or questions were wrong or inappropriate, I just always wanted to answer. There was something about that class. I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that my parents raised me in a house where politics and current events were always important conversations, or the fact that the teacher, Mr. Poole, seemed to really enjoy teaching, or maybe just the fact that I wanted to know what my rights were, but there was something about that class that I loved. Other students complained about having to read the text book or brief court cases, but I was interested in it.
The idea of becoming a lawyer was something that people had always joked about with me. My dad would say, “Well you argue enough to be one” or my friends would say, “You have no mercy so I could see you as a prosecutor.” See, my dad worked as a Denver Police officer for almost 30 years. He had always worked closely with district attorneys and would occasionally tell us about how he cracked a case or how he got witnesses to confess. While I always admired what my dad did and who he was, I knew that being a police officer just wasn’t for me. I signed up to take Constitutional Law because I heard great things about the teacher and the class itself, and I didn’t want to take Ancient Civilizations which was the alternative for juniors that year. Little did I know that it would become my passion.
I remember the exact moment that this realization came to me. I had a rough day filled with drama and emotions that only high school girls can produce. I decided that I had to get my mind off of the impending doom that came from the latest rumor or argument. So I went to the library, somewhere I admittedly did not frequent very often, and I opened up my Constitutional Law book and just started reading. I read the homework for the week and then kept going. For the first time in my life, I had decided to do something academic to avoid the harsh realities of life in high school. I thought to myself, “Hmm this is strange. This is not my usual way of clearing my head.” And then I remembered a quote that I had seen online: “The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your
life.” And right then I knew.
“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life.”
However, like most people, I needed some validation. I went to Mr. Poole’s classroom and I asked him “Do you think that I have a serious chance of becoming a lawyer?” The question didn’t seem intimidating or scary at the time, I just wanted an honest opinion from someone who knew the process and myself. He said, “Yeah I think so. You clearly have an interest in it and can keep up with reading.” He asked me what I was planning on majoring in once I got to college. The only plan I really had at that point was to do fashion design and I wasn’t entirely sold on that idea, I said I liked to write and that English might be a possibility. What he told me next is what helped me make a major decision in my life. “Actually lately English degrees have been one of the most sought after degrees for law schools. They know how to look at a text, analyze it, think critically about it and obviously write.” He also reminded me that I didn’t have to decide right away and that law school will always be there if I decided to pursue fashion or some other avenue.
But in that moment I knew. I would declare myself as an English major with the hope of later attending law school. And from then on, I made every major decision with my end goal in mind, and everyone knew. They could see my drive and my desire to get there.
When I got accepted to Colorado State University, I was one of the few people I knew that already had a major declared and continued with that major. I got involved in the Pre-Law Club and minored in Political Science so I could take law-related classes and get to know teachers in a different department who had many pre-law students. I was constantly frustrated with the idea that there was no pre-law curriculum like for pre-med students. There was not much in the form of direct instruction for how to apply to law school. The pre-law advisor at the time gave me a list of classes I could take that might help my resume, but for the most part, pre-law students are pretty much on their own to try and navigate the process.
So I started researching. I learned that the test students need to take to apply is the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). I looked into a few law schools that interested me and learned what the GPA requirements were for admissions. For my freshman year, that was the extent of my research. There wasn’t much I could do at that point. The classes suggested on the list were upper division and I couldn’t take the LSAT until right before I applied so I didn’t see the need to really study for it. I just enjoyed my days in the dorms and made friends, the way a typical college freshman should.
The second semester of my sophomore year is when I really started to focus in on the process of getting into law school. I sat in a class with mainly seniors and they were all talking about how they had internships or connections to the field that they wanted to pursue. I realized that while I had a lot of work experience on my resume, none of it related to what I really wanted to do with my life. I decided to call my dad and ask him for some help. I wanted to get an internship with a law firm, I knew it was early to be thinking about it but I figured it was worth a shot. He sent me the numbers and email addresses of a few of his attorney friends and told me to ask around. Around April I started to think I would have to work at a candy shop my whole life when my dad told me to call his friend Marc. He was a partner at a Denver law firm and said he might be interested in letting me help around the office. I set up an interview with him and he gave me the position. I was so excited, I felt like I had one foot in the door and that everything would fall into place soon enough.
I couldn’t resist telling Mr. Poole, I went straight to my old high school from the interview and walked into his classroom. He saw me and said “What are you, an attorney?!” I told him I was working on it and let him know my news. He expressed how happy he was for me and told me to keep him updated.
I started work during the summer and I loved it. I got to dress like a lawyer every day, work with lawyers and absorb legal jargon that I could not have learned from my college classes. I soon found out that I was working for free and – it turned out – I didn’t get credit either. While it was a bit of an inconvenience, deep down I really didn’t mind because this is what I wanted and I knew it would boost my resume.
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is divided into five sections, all 35 minutes each, with a 10 minute break. However, the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) reminds students that only four of the sections are scored, the fifth section is experimental and is primarily used to pre-test questions that may be used for a later test. Your score is one of the biggest factors in deciding your admissions fate.
The LSAT contains three different question types: Reading Comprehension, Analytical Reasoning and, the bane of my existence, Logic Games (although I prefer to call them Logic Problems because the word ‘game’ implies an element of fun). All the questions are multiple choice and with an optional writing section that is not scored but can be sent to the law schools you choose to apply to. Like the books say, there is no penalty for wrong answers so try to answer every question. One of the techniques I learned from Cracking the LSAT is to pick one letter and use that same letter for any questions you don’t have time to answer. During my internship, one of the attorneys told me that he used this trick and put down B for a large portion of one section when he ran out of time. He later learned had he picked C for those answers, he would have gotten a 170 and could have gone to Harvard. So my letter of the day when I take the test will be C.
When it comes to studying for the LSAT, I started early. I took a free practice test offered by Kaplan through my school. It was early in the morning on a Saturday but I knew I had to do it. I scored a 151 out of a possible 180 with 120 being the lowest possible score. My score wasn’t too bad for my first time but I knew I had to get better. The school I really want to go to, University of Denver accepts on average between 154 and a 160, so I still have some work to do.
If you are lucky enough to afford a Kaplan prep course before the LSAT, I highly recommend taking advantage of that. However, if you are in my situation and cannot shell out $1000+ for a class, there are still options for you! The first step is to take a practice exam. The LSAC website provides free practice LSATS that are real tests from past years. A practice test can help you see which areas you need to work on most as well as help you decide the path you are going to take to studying.
I purchased two books to help me study. Both of the books are published by The Princeton Review, Cracking the LSAT, which provides three full-length practice tests online, and LSAT Logic Games Workout because my practice test let me know that logic games are not my strong suit.
The key is to take this test seriously. It costs $165 and although you can take it multiple times, the first time should be your best attempt and hope that you score well enough to not have to retake it. The LSAT is typically offered four times per year, in February, June, September or October and December. If you want to go straight from college to law school, it is recommended that you take the test the summer before your senior year of undergrad; I chose to take the test in June so that if I do have to retake it I can take the test again in October, right before I send in my application.
I keep in touch with one of my friends from high school who is also interested in going to law school. His name is John Jones II and has been someone that I can talk to about the journey ahead of us. John chose Political Science as his major because he loves politics and felt that it would be the best fit for his future career. John has a unique situation that allows for a different story than my own. He says, “I’m currently taking time off from undergrad to work and gain legal experience, and add to my resume before Law School. So, I won’t be graduating until Spring 2016. Originally I was planning on taking it this June, but now I’ll be taking it in October 2015. I chose October because it will allow me to take an LSAT prep course that summer. It will also give me the option to take it again in December or February if I don’t like my score.”
When asked why he wants to be an attorney, John replied, “I want to be an attorney because the law is always changing and I love a challenge. I’m also a very analytical person naturally, so a law career will suit my natural talents. I’m also a huge history nerd and love learning new things about the legal system in any capacity.”
The best advice about when to take the LSAT I can give is to do what is best for your own situation. As I said, I am taking the test the June before I apply so that I have time to study during the summer as well as have the option to retake it in October. John however, is taking it in October so that he can take a professional course during the summer, again with the option to retake the test later.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give to students thinking about going to law school is to get to know the faculty at your school — especially the pre-law advisor. My school unfortunately does not offer a pre-law major or minor so I had to choose wisely. However, the connections you make in class can lead to great letters of recommendation to send in with your application.
I think another important part of preparation that does not get a lot of attention in LSAT prep books or courses is to get involved and find students in the same position as you. I joined the Pre-Law Club at my school my freshman year, and admittedly I did not go to all of the meetings; however, I am now the Vice President of the club and have been able to make amazing connections within the school and the local legal community because of it.
Students that are pre-law, have a long road ahead of them, and it is almost never an easy road. For this reason alone, it is so important to find students who are going through the same thing as you. They might know helpful information for you and vice versa. You can study together, and commiserate during the times when you feel like giving up. You can bounce ideas off each other and quite possibly make a lasting friendship in the process.
Unlike many pre-professional majors, i.e. pre-med or pre-vet, etc. your chosen major does not necessarily make a big difference when applying to law school. What admissions officers like to see is that you have taken a variety of classes that challenge you. My pre-law advisor gave me a list of classes that are offered at CSU that are helpful to take if you plan on applying to law school. Some of these classes include Philosophy classes in logical thinking, Writing Arguments and even a Literary Criticism class. Again, since a pre-law curriculum is not something that law schools require of their applicants, it’s important that you pick classes that you can do well in and enjoy, as well as classes that will challenge you intellectually.
Through the CSU Pre-Law Club I gained an amazing opportunity to attend a networking event called JD Rams Dinner, an invitational fundraiser hosted by CSU Alumni who are now practicing attorneys. I was honored to be invited and very excited to mingle, (albeit awkwardly so) with people who have been in my shoes. The president of CSU would be there, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts as well as the governor of Colorado, and I got invited! I learned how to fight my uneasiness and join conversations that were already in progress, how to firmly shake someone’s hand and that when you introduce yourself in a professional setting, don’t just use your first name.
During one of my conversations with a local attorney, I asked him what the best piece of advice was that he could give to potential law students. His answer surprised me. He said, “Take some time off, if you can. Travel, learn new things, experience things you might not have, because once you’re in [this industry] you’re in. And getting out isn’t easy.” My pre-law advisor had told me the same thing, “make sure this is really what you want to do.”
But how are we supposed to know if this is what we want to do if we don’t know what to expect? If we don’t know where we will end up or if we will even make it? How can anybody know what they want to do with the rest of their lives at such a young age? I let those questions sink into the depths of my mind and continued smiling and nodding along with conversations.
Somewhere in the middle of dinner, I had a thought that terrified me. The school president, Tony Frank, was talking about how higher education is on life support and that if we remained hopeful, we would prevail. And then the Dean of the college introduced another attorney and I found my mind going fuzzy, I drowned out the words I was hearing and thought, “I don’t know if I want this as my life. What if I don’t want to do this?” and “Can I picture myself like this in the future?” A year ago I would have jumped at the opportunity to rub elbows with high powered attorneys, but now that I got here it seemed overrated and even boring. For the moment, I pushed those thoughts aside and continued the dinner in a professional manner.
Soon after, I met with my pre-law advisor, Courtenay Daum, (who also ended up being my Civil Rights and Civil Liberties professor) to talk about what my next steps were. She gave me some advice about asking for letters of recommendation and then told me that it’s hard to encourage students to go to law school if they really aren’t sure. According to the American Bar Association, law school application numbers have decreased by 24% in the past three years and that “the enrollment figures are still 20 to 25 percent higher than the projected market for new jobs requiring or preferring a law degree.”
Then, I found an article in the Denver Post titled, “Many Law Degrees ‘Worse than Worthless’” which discussed an interview with a law professor at University of Colorado who kept a blog called “Inside the Law School Scam.” In his blog he talks about the reality of law school today versus the perception that many people have, he says, “We also know that barely even half of all law graduates are getting real legal jobs within nine months after graduation. Many graduates aren’t getting into the profession at all, and a number of those who do survive for a few years then wash out because of a tremendous oversaturation in the market. Unless you are in certain elite sectors of the law, practicing law is a continual struggle as opposed to a stable and predictable career.”
Then I looked at the University of Denver Law School’s website yet again. I was staring at the cost of admission and just wondering, how can I possibly do this for three years? With the indirect costs (living expenses, books, etc.) costing over $10,000 and direct cost (tuition, fees, etc.) costing approximately $44,000 a year, I just cannot seem to wrap my head around taking out near $162,000 in loans, plus my undergraduate loans to possibly make $60,000 a year consistently and still hopefully have a wedding and a family like I planned.
A slight panic attack set in. Say I don’t get into law school, or choose not to go. I have an English degree that I pursued in hopes of helping me in law school. I don’t have any work experience or internships related to writing, and the career paths for someone with a bachelor’s in English who doesn’t want to teach and has no related experience are slim. Cue the panic about choosing the wrong major. Add the lack of motivation I have had for school in general at this point, and I am quickly headed for a breakdown.
I called my sister to talk to her about my fears, I told her that I was thinking about taking at least a semester off before law school. I explained to her that I planned on getting a job, ideally as a paralegal, and making sure that it is something that I truly want. However, as a wiser, older sister, she reminded me that while that seems like a good idea, too often people plan on taking only one semester off and then going back to school but then life gets in the way. Things happen and we can’t always control them. She said, “I just don’t want that to happen to you and then look back and wish that you would have gone.” This is all true.
Leonard Cassuto, an English professor at Fordham University and a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education asserts, “A disturbing 50 percent of doctoral students leave graduate school without finishing the program.” And while it wasn’t my sister’s intention to confuse me more, that’s what ended up happening. Do I take time off and try to experience new things, try to rekindle the fire that I once had for the law? Do I go straight after graduation and hope that it is everything I had hoped for? I let those questions stew in my mind and tried to continue to focus on school.
Once again another opportunity presented itself to me through the Pre-Law Club. The club was able to invite a current Colorado Appellate Judge and former CSU alum, Judge Dennis Graham, to one of our meetings and the officers were able to take him out to dinner with Dr. Daum afterwards. During the meeting, someone asked him if he saw any advantages to taking time off between undergrad and law school. He said “Absolutely. Take some time. Travel. Get your head on straight because it’s hard work.” Dr. Daum told me the same thing. She said, “If you’re having any doubts, take some time. Crush the LSAT and apply later. Or apply, get in, and ask for deferment. Law schools want you to do well so if you tell them you just need some time to refresh, they are usually pretty accommodating.”
Now I had made a decision. Taking time off before applying and after taking my LSAT would be what was best for me. The only thing that was left to do was to tell my parents this plan. I wasn’t sure how they were going to take this news. My sisters both had the same plan and then never ended up finishing college. While traveling seemed like a good idea, getting money to do so wouldn’t be easy. Having a degree that I might not necessarily be using, wasn’t going to be very appealing to my parents. Just a few weeks earlier my dad was encouraging me to apply to George Washington Law School and think outside of Colorado, so he didn’t seem to understand how seriously I doubted myself. I knew I had to tell them eventually though.
The next weekend I went home for Easter and to drop what might be a mini bomb on my parents. I wasn’t too worried about telling my mom. Her main concern has always been my happiness and whatever can increase that. My dad of course is concerned with my happiness as well, he also knows that what I choose to do for a living will greatly affect that happiness.
My dad agreed to go to the Denver Art Museum with me that weekend since I had to write a paper on it for a class. I thought that would be a good time to tell him, it would just be him and I so I could really explain why I was thinking this way. In the car on the way home from the museum, I said, “So I think that after I take my LSAT this June, I’m going to take a break and maybe take a semester or two after graduation before I apply to law school.” I explained that everyone had told me that taking time off would be a good plan and that I wanted to make sure it was something I really wanted to do before I take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. He said, “The problem is, once you leave school, it’s really hard to get back into the habits you had.” Similar to what my sister said, I realized he had a point. Even going back to school after summer vacation is hard. Would I really end up being happy if I didn’t ever go back? There were still so many questions I had and no one seemed to have the answers.
So here I am, set to graduate early, registered to take the LSAT and just trying to find that passion I had in high school. I never thought the words “I’m halfway to giving up on law school” would come out of my mouth, but they did, tearfully so. And I have consistently found myself wondering, am I burning myself out by trying too hard to achieve my dream? So much so that I don’t know if that’s even what I want anymore? I’ve always panicked at the thought of not being accepted to law school, of having those rejection letters come pouring in, and having to say to people at graduation, “Actually I didn’t get in.” Every job I’ve had, every internship, every extra-curricular activity has been for law school. And now I wonder, did I actually do a huge disservice to myself?
I still don’t have the answers, but what I do know is that time is on my side. Like Mr. Poole said, “law school will always be there.” Taking time off to try and sort through my thoughts, answer my questions and get my head on straight is the only solution I can see to relieving some of my stress and discovering what my true path should be.
The best advice I can give to potential law school students is to do your research. Ask as many people as you can for their advice. Take time off if you aren’t sure because it is a huge investment to make, especially if you are not passionate about it. Experience things in life that are not related to your current career plans. Live your life and figure out what you love to do. Whatever you love to do, do that. And remember, “The only time you fail is when you fall down and stay down.”