Podcast: First-Gen Students - What We Wish We'd Known as Applicants, Law Students, & Young Lawyers

In this episode of Status Check with Spivey, five Spivey consultants discuss their experiences as first-generation college students, law students, and lawyers, with a particular focus on passing along advice and knowledge that they wish they had known.

The episode includes Sir Williams, Derek Meeker, Sam Kwak, Peter Cramer, and Rob Cacace, who, among their numerous other accomplishments, have served as law school admissions officers at Stanford, UChicago, Penn, Northwestern, Georgetown, WashU, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin. They have also clerked for federal judges, worked for biglaw firms, led law school career services offices, created pipeline programs, taught law school classes, and published legal writing textbooks. You can read their bios here.

You can listen to the transfer applicant podcast Derek mentioned in this episode here. You can listen to the rankings podcast from Mike Spivey that Rob mentions here.

You can listen and subscribe to Status Check with Spivey on ⁠⁠Apple Podcasts⁠⁠⁠⁠Spotify⁠⁠⁠⁠YouTube⁠⁠, and ⁠⁠Google Podcasts⁠⁠.

Full Transcript:

Anna: Welcome to Status Check with Spivey, where we talk about life, law school, law school admissions, a little bit of everything. I'm Anna Hicks-Jaco, Spivey Consulting's president, and today's episode falls within all of those categories to some degree, but I'll be turning the host's mic over to one of our excellent consultants, Sir Williams, who will be leading a discussion among a group of our Spivey team members who are all first-generation college students and first-generation law students.

They all have law degrees, they were all the first in their families to go to college, and they all have insights and perspectives to share on things that they wish they had known as they were applying to law school, attending law school, and going into their early careers. They talked about a wide range of topics, including harmful mindsets about refusing help and having these specific expectations for yourself and rushing into law school, finding resources as a first-generation student, finding a sense of belonging in law school, figuring out your priorities as far as what matters to you as you work toward the goal of becoming an attorney, advice for networking as a first-generation student, and the importance of finances and debt, among many other topics. That's really just scratching the surface. It was a great conversation, and one that, on a personal note, made me proud to be a member of our team.

I'm going to let them all introduce themselves and talk about their stories in their own words. So without further delay, I'll turn it over to Sir.

Sir: We're here today to talk about what we wish we would have known as first-generation law students. Maybe, if it's okay, I'd love to start off by having everyone introduce themselves. I think alphabetical order by first name works great, so then we'll start with Derek.

Derek: Hi, everyone. Thank you, Sir. My name is Derek Meeker. I am a Partner with Spivey Consulting. I've been working for Spivey Consulting for 10 years now and over 20 years total in admissions. I was the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and I worked for a couple of years as a recruiting manager in big law before working as a consultant.

Just a little bit about my background as a first-generation college graduate and law student: I grew up in a very small, blue-collar coal and steel town on the border of Ohio and West Virginia. My dad was a steelworker. My grandfather was a coal miner. Definitely had some financial struggles. I went to a community college for a year before transferring to a four-year college. I'll share more about some of those challenges during our discussion.

Sir: Thanks, Derek. Okay, next up, we've got Peter.

Peter: Okay, so my name is Peter Cramer, or should I say [properly pronounced in German:] Peter Cramer, because that's my real name. I come from Germany originally. Thirty years ago, I studied law and linguistics in Germany, then I came to the United States, I got a PhD in linguistics, did a degree in Teaching English as a Second Language, and then I did an LLM. So I collected degrees. But I worked for many, many years at different law schools. So I worked at Georgetown University as a Director of an LLM program, and I worked at Washington University in St. Louis as an Assistant Dean. I have a lot of experience in terms of LLM admission and so on, but I'm also first-generation. My parents left school when they were 14 years old. My father was a tile layer; my mom was a housewife. It was not easy to figure out what university is all like. That's about everything about me.

Sir: Thanks, Peter. Next up, we've got Rob.

Rob: I'm Rob Cacace. I work on the Pre-L side of the house, so not the admissions side of the house. I work with folks who are getting ready to go to law school on academic and career preparation. And I think this is my eighth cycle doing that with Spivey now, which is a while.

I also have experience in the Careers Office at Georgetown Law Center. Before that, I had a career practicing law at a public interest law firm and as a law clerk in Washington, D.C. I grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, home to what I think is the best Little Italy in New York. And my parents did not go to college. My dad was a garbage man, my mom was a manicurist, and the college environment, the law school environment was super new to me. So definitely financial struggles, cultural struggles in some ways, and I'll say, as someone who's still in the academy, I think it's getting better. Still work to do, but I think it's getting better. So certainly reason for hope for those out there listening.

Sir: Awesome. Thanks, Rob. Next up, we've got Sam.

Sam: Hello, my name is Sam Kwak. I'm one of the newest consultants at Spivey Consulting; this is my third year working as a consultant. Before that, I was with LSAC, the ABA; before that I was with several law schools, Northwestern, Stanford, Indiana; before that, I was with a big law firm, Simpson Thacher in New York and California, Palo Alto, as well as Fenwick & West in Washington. And before that law school. So, I've been part of legal education for the last 25 years, and my family moved to the U.S. when I was 10 years old, so I was the first to go to college let alone law school, so I'm always happy to work with first-gen students sharing whatever insights I've gathered along the way and helping their lives.

Sir: Awesome. Thanks, Sam. And my name is Sir Williams. I've been working with Spivey Consulting, this is my fourth cycle. Prior to that, I was Director of Admissions at University of Wisconsin Law School. I did that for I think about seven or eight cycles. Spent a little more time in an administrative role at the system level, the University of Wisconsin system level doing college access across the 26 campuses. So I did law school at Wisconsin from, I don't even remember those years anymore! But before law school, I worked at the University of Chicago Medical Center as a patient advocate, so I was there for three years.

In terms of being a first-generation student, neither of my parents finished college. My dad was a sheriff's deputy, he did some college. I didn't say this, but I was born and raised in Chicago on the South Side. Both of my parents are African American. My mom finished high school and then immediately started working. She spent most of her career working for the federal government as a claims examiner.

So I'm really passionate about the whole first-gen experience, because I definitely can look back on my process of getting to and through college and law school, and can think a lot about how I could have done things better had I known better. Which is really where the idea for this podcast came from—lots of us who've been the first to do something. And that's not to discount the support that we've received from family members and friends and just other generous people in our communities. Often being that first to do the thing means that it's not always the most efficient way, and it's not always the sort of best or most fun way, but, if nothing else, all of us are a testament to the fact that you can do it, even if no one that you know has done it.

Our hope is that, by talking through some of the things that we wish we would have known, we can help you get ahead of the game. And that way you can start your process or finish your process a little bit better than we did, and then ultimately you can pay that forward and help the next generation of aspiring lawyers.

So with that, I'll lay out how we're going to sort of organize today's podcast. It's going to cover three acts. The first act will cover pre-law school, so everyone will go through things that they wish they would have known prior to law school. So that could cover like the actual application process, but it may cover things before the application process. So anything we wish we would have known before we actually started law school.

The second act of today's podcast will cover that period during law school. So if there are things that we wish we would have known in our first or second or even third year of law school—or longer if you did the whole thing part-time. So we'll cover those sorts of things that we wish we would have known or wished people that we loved would have known during law school.

And then the final act of today's podcast will cover post-law school. So things that we wish we would have known or wished our loved ones would have known coming out of law school, even into the first three to five years of your career, things that you wish you would have known that would have made it easier, better, et cetera.

All right, so then I think we'll go ahead and jump in and get started with “what I wish I would have known pre-law school.” Does anyone want to volunteer to share their experience and piece of advice first?

Rob: Maybe I'll just make a general point to just sit out there; people feel free to disagree if they may. This is Rob Cacace from the Pre-L perspective; I've worked with students a lot in this space right, as a liaison to the group here and at Georgetown and in other capacities. And I think I'm always trying to find a balance between being sober and candid and honest and realistic, which is important; that's what we want to give you all here. And what I’ve found is that I think that sometimes there is a lot made from students about the challenges, and I don't want to gaslight students and pretend that they're not there. They are. They exist. And I think in many ways they are manageable, often. So I want to strike a balance between like this gaslighting phenomenon and where, “Oh, no, no, nothing to worry about. Everything's fine. Everything's the same.” And on the other end being ignorant of the challenges. And like I think somewhere in the generous middle is where we want to sit. But I hope we don't catastrophize the problem or make it any worse than it needs to be, because I think there's reason for optimism in the law school environment, which I hope we'll all get into. So that was just sort of maybe just a preparatory kind of comment.

Sir: I really appreciate that Rob. I agree. There's an old saying found in many forms, but the one that's coming to mind is from a Temptations song, and it says that, “It's like the size of the fish that the man claimed broke his reel: it's growing.” So, you know, if you talk to people who've been through a difficult thing, as they continue to retell that story, sometimes they can dramatize it or catastrophize.

And so again, we don't want you to come out of this podcast thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is so hard and impossible. I could never do it.” You really should come out of it saying like, “Yes, there will be difficulties,” but with help and with some encouragement and with some optimism, you absolutely can get through it. None of it is really insurmountable. We've all made it through the worst day of our lives. We've all made it through the worst day of our careers. And this too shall pass. So I think that's a really great way to start us off, Rob. Thank you.

Derek: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that, Rob, and from my own experience working with many first-gen students, I would say that one of the things that is so admirable is the determination and work ethic and resilience and perseverance that I see among these students, and that is a result of the challenges that we’ve faced, and those are some of the most important skills that you need to do well in law school and to succeed as an attorney. And so I do feel like that is certainly an optimistic side of it, is that many of us have those attributes as a result of our experiences.

One of the things that I wanted to talk about, though, in terms of something that I wish I had known before law school and during college—and this is a bit more on the other side of that—aside from many of the other challenges that many first-gen college students face, such as having to juggle work to help pay for expenses and adjusting to the rigors of college, I was also very closeted and struggling with my sexual orientation at the time. And the reality is that many first-gen students have intersecting identities that are underrepresented or have faced oppression or discrimination. And so there's often this whole other layer of challenges that we have to deal with.

I was fortunate because I had an amazing group of friends that I made when I transferred to my four-year college, and that allowed me to have a mostly positive social experience. But at the same time, being in a conservative state and from a conservative religious family, I was carrying this secret and dealing with so much shame that it was taking an emotional toll, and I was drinking and partying a lot as an escape and coping mechanism. And at the same time, like many other first-gen students, I felt like you know, this pressure to be super successful and that I had to do something really impressive and important, like becoming an attorney, to compensate for those parts of my identity that I felt were weaknesses.

So I was determined to go to law school right after college, and the reality is, I wasn't doing my best as a student because I was struggling with my sexual orientation and some of those other challenges, I was lacking in confidence, and I wasn't ready for law school. So what I wish I had known—I just wish I had the self-awareness to realize that, to take some time to deal with some of those challenges and perhaps get to a more emotional stability, a place of self-acceptance and more self-confidence, both so that I could make a more thoughtful and informed decision about my post-college plans, but also so that I could be better positioned to succeed and thrive in law school.

Law school is obviously difficult. It can be really stressful. And so adding that other element of stress when I already had so many other stressors was not necessarily the best decision for me at the time. And that can just be something that's difficult to come to terms with, but I do think it's important to really think about what's going on in your life and what other challenges, you know, that you're dealing with, and just to ask, “Is now the best time for me to go to law school?” And to realize that it's totally fine to take a year or two to postpone it, if that means you're going to be in a better place, whether that's financially or emotionally or whatever it is.

Sam: I love hearing from Derek all the time, because I look up to Derek for all his successes, and then when he shares these stories, it always takes me back to his humble background, and I will 100% back up Derek's notion that I was in such a rush through college. I was on pace to graduate in two and a half years; I thought that was a good thing. My advice always to students who are coming to us early is, take your time, enjoy college if you can. Take some courses that you never would have imagined were available. For me, the goal was always to finish as early as possible, and I thought that's what the law schools were looking for. But now having been on this side of the business and at law schools, we know that work experience is valued and gap years are valued, and the more life experience you have, the better. We'll get to it, I guess, in a little bit, but when I started working at a law firm, I wasn't even old enough to rent a car. So they were sending me out to St. Louis on a due diligence trip, and the firm had to co-sign through an ABA card, because I wasn't 25, so I couldn't rent a car on my own, right? So those little stories about being unprepared, I kind of chuckle and smile looking back. But just take your time, enjoy college, make friends, build relationships, and there's no rush through this. If I could share one kind of major thing about pre-law experience, I think that would be it.

Sir: I love that. Rob, was that a hand?

Rob: Yeah, I'm happy to jump in. Mine is probably a little more narrow, like sort of assuming you've gotten in, what to think about beforehand. And, you know, I want to answer the question straight on about, what do I wish I knew? So ‘what do I wish I knew’ is you belong, you're in the community, and the community, I think increasingly so, wants to support you and see you thrive. Is every law school equally resourced to do that? Not always. Fair enough. But I think there's a will there to see you thrive. So now what does that mean that you are part of the community? What does that mindset or awareness mean? I think it means it's time to start acting like part of the community, and especially first-generation law students I would say, please get in touch with alumni from the school before you get to campus to talk to them about their careers, to talk about their experience. I'm not saying that you should take each thing they say as gospel truth and reorient your priorities around it, but it's data points. It's starting to learn and understand how the industry works, how lawyers talk about their jobs, their careers. These are important I think for feeling a sense of belonging when you get to school, because you'll know some of the language, you'll know some of the way that people think about careers, and it'll also be something of a shortcut. Because once you get to law school, it's really hard to work in co-curricular and extracurricular priorities like student organizations, careers, frankly even wellness. We've talked about that a lot with Spivey, because the academic experience can be quite overwhelming.

Armed with this knowledge that you belong in this community, take advantage of some of the resources early on, and start building out what could become sort of a “board of advisors” down the road.

Sir: I love that. Peter!

Peter: So I'm bringing in the international aspects here. So when I came to the United States, there were a couple of things that I did not know. In Germany, where I came from, there were no standardized tests. And you have to get used to the mechanics of a standardized test, even like filling out the bubbles and whatever you have to do. So that was a challenge. That was a challenge just to get used to that. And there's a lot of cultural issues in terms of first gen and then going to another country where you have no idea what’s going to wait for you.

Another thing that I saw actually in my time as admissions officer is, there are many countries that consider university employees as workers, staff, and so on. They don't always get the respect in their countries. And when you apply to the United States, I would always say, if you apply, use the word “please” and “thank you,” and another cultural thing that goes with hierarchies, in some countries, the higher you are the more power you have, and so on and so forth. Which means, what I've seen quite often with international applicants, when they have an issue or problem, they say, “I need to talk to the dean, I need to send an email to the dean,” not to the “workers” as they are perceived. But I think one important lesson is to learn that your way into the system is by working with these hard-working people in admission who have feelings just like you and me, and who really would not be happy if you just treat them not with the respect you should treat them with. And that's sometimes a cultural thing.

Sir: Oh, thank you, Peter. I appreciate that. Because that sort of cultural sensitivity and sort of being savvy, it can be relevant even for domestic students. So, coming into law school, I was assigned a mentor, like a current law student mentor. And our first conversation on the phone, I just did all the taboos. I'm pretty sure I asked this girl what her GPA was. Just—I cringe now, because she was so sweet about it. So law school is not undergrad, right, they're not the same. And so, you know, when she told me about her very respectable, like, top 20% GPA, and it was somewhere, I don't know, probably in 3.5-3.6 land. And I was like, “Okay, slacker.” This is what I'm thinking in my head! But the fact that she was so sweet, I just, I literally just didn't know any better. And so again, I am thankful that she still talks to me to this day. Because I feel like I was so rude, but I wasn't trying to be, I was just really just sort of ignorant of the sort of norms and mores of the whole law school thing.

But I love that we didn't work together to figure out what we were going to say before this podcast, but my advice about pre-law school ties really well in with everyone's, but particularly Derek and Sam. Because it's a tangent of, it's part of that whole, I don't think you should be applying to law school before you're ready.

And a lot of us, as first-gen students—you've been so driven, you've been so focused, and you just want to get through it and get to it. But what I’ve found is that a lot of times, stuff isn't together. But no one can force you to apply to law school before you've studied for the LSAT, before you've taken practice tests, before you've thought really hard about who you're going to have speaking on your behalf in terms of those letters of recommendation, before you've really thought about how you're going to articulate your professional and educational experiences on the resume.

So, so many people show up to this process, and I mean, they're 10 out of 10 fantastic, but they haven't taken the time to get out of their own way. “I couldn't study for the LSAT because I was working 40 hours a week.” No, that's legitimate. But here's the bigger question: should you maybe wait until you have more capacity to really study for that test? Or is it important that you go right now?

I'll tell you, I worked for three years before law school, and even 25-year-old me, I was literally in the midst of a quarter-life crisis that I thought no one had ever had one before and that I was going to write a book about being 25 and freaking out because all of my friends knew what they were doing with their lives and I didn't. It was like an epiphany. Was it a good time? It ended up working out. But now I would tell people, yeah, let's really interrogate some of these sort of ideas, these assumptions that you're making like, “If I wait a year, law schools aren't going to want me.” “If I don't go now, my chance is gone forever.” None of those things are really true. But because you often don't know what you don't know, like Rob was saying, it's really helpful to sort of tap into resources, whether they're professional resources like consultants—I didn't know we existed when I was applying to law school—or maybe you know somebody who works at a school or you know someone who's done it.

The only resource I would encourage y’all to use sparingly would be your 1L friends, which is another thing that I did. I was definitely blowing up my 1L friends via text. Again, I feel guilty about that too, because I just did not know what 1L year was and why it was taking them so long to respond to me. And now, all these years later, I'm thankful again that those people still respond to my texts too.

But now that we've given what we wish we'd known before we started law school a good treatment, maybe we can now move into a discussion of what we wish we'd known during law school. Does anyone want to kick us off?

Rob: This is Rob again. I would say one of the things I tell students when I'm working with them, our Pre-L folks when I'm consulting with them, is, there are no sophomores in your 1L class. No one's done this before. And it's a really new way of learning as well. So even the students who have what you may perceive as a leg up because they have lawyers in their family tend not to have much of a competitive advantage at all.

In my experience, folks who have gone through law school, even in law school, are not wonderful at describing a strategy for doing law school. What does that mean you? You've got to learn how to run your own race and not look around and go, “Oh, gosh, they must know more because they went to X school,” or because “I overheard her say her mother's a lawyer.” That, in my experience, and I've seen a lot of students come through, doesn't correlate very strongly at all to what the outcomes are.

So learn to run your own race. In part, that's going to be, what did you do to be a successful student to get you to that point? The time management pieces, using professors as resources, that's going to be important. But also being aware that like, law school is taught in a different way. Are you using practice tests efficiently? Are you condensing your learning through outlining and looking at class notes? But the psych-out of “somebody here knows more than I do” tends to be different, I think, even a little bit than college, because it’s a brand-new way of learning, and everybody's new to it. So I try to keep that in mind when I'm working with those folks.

Peter: Thanks, Rob. And actually, that reminds me of something. When I studied for my LLM in the United States, I sat in a classroom with JDs, and so I heard very confident U.S JD students talk a lot of nonsense. But very confident. That reminded me of the kind of, you come into law school as a first-gen person with a lot of inferiority, you know, complex. You feel like, “I don't know, they all have so much of a leg up.” But I saw that again, JDs, very many, had the confidence to say something that was not correct.

The nice thing about it, the long and short of it is, you learn a new language. You come in there and you learn a new language. If you are a JD student who has family in academics, if you are a person who is first-gen, or if you're an international person. So you are all pretty much on a very similar level, but you don't always realize that.

Sir: That makes so much sense. I definitely appreciate the language part. I think a lot of first year law students, as you start to learn these new words and terms, you start to incorporate them in your everyday vocabulary. You know, you're standing around with friends, and something happens you're like, “That's a tort, ha ha ha!” It's part of learning. It's a neat part of learning.

Other sort of experiences or thoughts about things we want to do? Okay, I see Sam.

Sam: Yeah, so what Rob was talking about before and kind of what you added, Sir, you know, it's just true that you don't know what you don't know. But I’ll also add that there's more you need to know, right? So kind of what Peter's getting at, I felt sort of this imposter syndrome before I even knew what that term meant. My parents didn't go to college, so the fact that I graduated college and I'm in law school now, I felt like my job was to finish law school. I didn't have to maximize everything, I didn't go after journal, I didn't go after the top grades. That gave me a sense of comfort and peace, and my friends appreciated that. They all kind of noted, I was able to stay calm during exams, and I was able to stay calm during OCI and just, I had this sort of, like, “whatever will happen is already gravy and a bonus.” I'd already progressed and advanced to that next level, so, I just wanted to make it through.

And it's interesting that we're having this conversation. I wanted to note that, I don't have the numbers, but being a first-generation law student, I bet there are more majority of that group than the students who are actually, what, second or third generation and so on. So you belong, as a first-generation law student.

And I did one of those pre-law institute programs called CLEO. It was a six-week program. And they told us, “After you go through this program, you're going to have about a three-day advantage. That's it. It's not going to be like a semester's worth or whatnot.” And whatever ConLaw courses you took in college isn't going to be applicable in law school. You don't know ConLaw until you go through ConLaw in law school. So, I think it's Rob or Sir, you mentioned the law school experience is so different from undergrad that all it comes down to one exam. That was kind of a big shock for me that we didn't have quizzes; we didn't have midterms; we didn't have showing up to class, you got some points. None of that. It just comes down to this three-hour exam, which was sort of a very tough thing to get used to.

Sir: Totally.

Derek: What I would say I wish I'd known, and I think Rob touched on a little bit of this earlier, I just wish I had reached out for help earlier. I wish that I knew that it was okay to reach out for help. I actually went to law school part-time, for one, I just, I wasn't sure that I could afford to go full time, but I was fortunate in that I ended up landing a legislative internship that I had applied for. So going part-time just made sense. I didn't want to put off law school, because again, I was so determined to do it even though I really wasn't ready. So I was working full-time and going to law school at night, and I was in that same place of denial that I was in college and basically on the same path and happy to maintain a B average. Barely at times, I might add.

You know, I didn't take advantage of any student support or mental health services on campus. I think it was probably two years into law school before I sought counseling after I came out to one of my best friends, who was my roommate at the time. And I think as first-gen students, again, we just feel so much pressure to succeed and to push through no matter what obstacles come up, that we sometimes feel too proud or ashamed to ask for help. And that was certainly the case for me. But, you know, when I finally did, I felt so much better. I did so much better. And what I have learned is, asking for help is not a sign of weakness at all. I would say it's quite the opposite. It's a sign of strength. It's a sign of courage and self-awareness. And I think the resources, as Rob mentioned, resources are better now. I think law schools are doing a better job of making them visible and accessible. You know, if you're struggling in any way, whether it's academically, emotionally, or financially, just reach out to anyone at the law school or on campus, whether it's the dean of students, a professor, an upper-class student, whoever you feel comfortable talking to. I just feel that that's so important, but sometimes we have to be given permission and encouragement to do that.

Sir: I really appreciate you sharing that, Derek, because a lot of times, for various reasons, people think doing things the hard way is like a flex; it's something to be proud of. It's not. Oftentimes people do things the hard way because they don't realize that there is another way, a more efficient way, a way where you can be more supported and protected and encouraged while you go through it. So it's about having that vulnerability to say, “Hey, you know what? I don't know something,” or “I'm really struggling, can you help me with ___,” and you'd be amazed at how quickly people show up. Not just your classmates—administrators and faculty and like all sorts of people you didn't even think of, will show up and do everything they can to support you. There's no shame in that.

I was quickly going to talk about how, after Derek just gave this whole story about working all during law school, a lot of students, again, think that that's like a requirement or a necessity. And again, for many people, not everyone, but for many people, I think it's suboptimal. And I'll give you a really quick scenario. I often saw students who they were eligible for like up to $2,000 in work-study, and so they wanted that work study. But the work-study pay rate was like $10 an hour. And so I'm like, wait, so you want to trade 200 hours for $2,000? And that sounds like a good trade before law school. But let me tell you, during law school, that's not a good trade. You should sleep and eat and study with those 200 hours. And if you at all can, borrow the $2,000. And I know that that sounds terrible, and I feel it, and debt is not good. But that is not a good trade. And it's a really good way to start thinking about it. To trade your time for money that way, you're going to want those 200 hours more than you're going to want that $2000. And if you polled 100 people that went to law school, I'm really confident that 90 of them would agree with me.

Now I think Rob also had another point on this sort of topic. So I'm going to turn it back to him.

Rob: Yeah, I just want to give a quick piece of something that I see a lot again, and it's students in law school feeling uncomfortable in a networking environment. And the narrative goes something like, “I just don't know what to do. I don't feel like I belong there. They don't want to hear what I have to say.” And I think, what I wish I knew is, there's a lot of superpowers first-gen students have in these environments. And I think a couple of reframes are just points to consider.

First is these are often not sales environments where you're showing someone, “Oh, hire me, you know, I'm the best person in the room.” They're learning environments. They are places that you can go to deepen your understanding of different legal fields, different employers, things like that. So there's an expectation to listen as much as there is to talk. And so going in with a bit of a reframe that, I don't have to be here selling.

That said, once you do get into talking, in my experience, personally I think working with our first-gen students, there's something about our backgrounds, the narratives, the things you've heard here today that tend to pop in a networking setting, tend to be memorable. There's a way to take this too far and turn it into something, the crass word for it, something like poverty porn like, “Oh, wow, look at that story. That hard luck story is so impressive.” I'm not saying we have to go there and mine it for that, but sometimes people love talking about the odd jobs I had growing up in that very specific neighborhood I grew up in. That was memorable for them. And that's what you're looking to have in these more relaxed settings. So I want to make that point.

And I think another sort of reframe a little bit is, there are many legacy students in those environments who are deeply uncomfortable as well. They're not anyone's cup of tea particularly, very often. The people who love it are at business school. They're not in law school. You know, I think my wife who's like 10th generation college but deeply introverted, like, she does not want to walk in any of these rooms. I sort of like it. I think, there's data that first-gen students are higher on social intelligence because of some of the communities you grew up and the way we grew up. So you can lean on some superpowers and some reframes here to make networking okay. Because it is a very important part of success in law school.

Derek: I want to echo that and say I agree 1000%. You know, I'm just going to quickly add that I interviewed a client that I worked with two years ago on a podcast. So some of our listeners may have already listened to it. But if you haven't, I would encourage you to do so. He was a transfer applicant, transferred from the University of Idaho to Harvard Law School. Part of his background was that he had worked in a steel mill after college, and he shared with me when he got an interview at one of the most prestigious law firms that they saw that on the resume, and that's what his interviewer was most interested in and wanted to talk about. Even after he shared that, and I said, “You need to write your personal statement about that for your application,” he still resisted! But I finally convinced him to do that, and that's what he wrote about, and he got into Harvard, and he's now working at one of the top law firms.

Sir: Yeah, and that's the thing, it's one of those things, you really don't know what you don't know, and there’s a lot of stuff that first-gen students have just sort of done; they haven't given a second thought to it. And it's like, no, let's dig into that. That's actually like a really powerful story that you just signaled a superpower that you didn't realize you even had. And it's because a lot of times, because you don't know what you don't know, you've not worked in admissions, you'll self-select out. You'll think, “Oh, no one's interested in me. No one's interested in this story.” I sold women's shoes for five years all throughout college. I literally left that job because I said, “I want to go to law school, and selling women's shoes, isn't going to get me closer to law school.” That's why I quit and did another job before I started law school. But now, I could really write a really compelling personal statement, a really interesting personal statement about five years selling women's shoes. It takes some skill to get women to trust me, a 5’10” large male, to take my fashion advice about what shoes sort of works best with their outfit. And so I learned some things working and selling those shoes and met some cool people, right? Like I sold shoes to the voice of Lisa Simpson, which is a nice sort of party conversation. Or that time I got to chase Usher through the mall, because I wanted his autograph. Those sorts of things.

But this segues really nicely into, because networking is a big part of those post-law school outcomes, let's see what folks have to say about, what is it that you wish you would have known coming out of law school? Either in those last few months or in those first few years. I'm going to pick on Peter.

Peter: I think you're picking the worst person, because when I came out of law school I went into administration, you know? But, based on the experience of so many of my former students and now my clients, you know, international applicants, so to say, that then have gone through law school, again, I think it goes into the whole “networking.” Keeping those connections and following up on them. And you really have to be very active. It's not that easy for international applicants, because there are a lot of cultural norms, for example, there is like maybe male-female dynamics or so that kind of prevent people from interacting with each other. That's pretty much what the post-law school experience is, and what I would say like for international students, the networking is incredibly important, but it's also fraught with cultural barriers.

Derek: I just wish I had understood finances and debt better and paid attention to interest rates and the consequences of taking a forbearance on student loans. It was so easy to get a forbearance paying student loans, even during times when I really didn't need to. I just kept putting off paying as long as I could, or I would pay back my loans a little here and there. I just had little regard for how much interest was accruing. And the weird thing too is, I kept getting this message from other people that, “Oh, education debt's not real debt. It's fine. It's fine.” And—not true. Education debt is real debt.

So when I look back, the amount that I initially borrowed and the amount that I ultimately paid back is so shocking to me. The good news is, because of all this, I'm so debt-averse now. If I can't pay for something outright, I won't buy it. I have a spreadsheet. I probably view my bank account balances and my credit score way too often, I’m obsessive about it. And I just wish I had made that spreadsheet a long time ago, during law school or certainly right after. That's the biggest thing is just, there should be a class. Maybe there is now. I don't know. I think law schools are doing a better job of it. But if there were a class or a seminar on how to manage your personal finances, I would absolutely say take advantage of that.

Sir: I second that motion. Rob?

Rob: I want to pick up on a thread on that. My macro level “what do I wish I knew” is that it's okay and really I think preferable to sort of define what success means for yourself, success and happiness. Because the law school environment is a hard one where you can really externalize your sense of success, and it's about status and rankings—stay tuned for more on that from Mike.

But you've got to define it for yourself, because at some point, if not, the fact that you got the degree or people's expectations start running the story instead of you running the story. I hear a lot of people go, “I got the degree; I should do X.” Did you get the degree because of what the degree should do for you, or because of what you want to do with it? At the same time, there's nuance here, there's complexity. Money is real, and the need for money is real. And I think a lot of first-gen students often feel like they can't talk about it as much, or they should be doing public interest to help the communities they came from in some capacity. But everyone's got to define this for themselves, and it's dynamic, right, and it could change over time. As one of my high school friends said, “First get the bag.” That's a strategy for some, right? Go out there and make the money you need to pay off debts, and then do the thing that really moves you in life. Okay. Or maybe if you want to really be doing the public interest route early on—how is that going to live and exist with the financial realities that you're facing? I think defining success for yourself, checking in with yourself periodically, and being honest about the place that money has is really important.

Sir: I love that, Rob. Sam.

Sam: We had a session at our annual meeting last year where we were discussing about, if we could redo it, would we go to law school again, or apply. Everyone shared such wonderful stories. But what Rob just said is so true, but especially as first-gen law students, I remember going through OCI being so confused, and a little bit of what Peter said—I didn't grow up in an Asian culture where we're talking about ourselves, and it was the community’s success, not individual success, and it was my family's success. But you can't say that; you have to talk about what you accomplished and what you did at this organization, you know? So everything was tough. And when you're choosing law firms out of a list and you can't even say the names or pronounce the names of half of them, but you're being asked to choose which ones you're going to interview and then ultimately go to. And all you get is a book with the list of short descriptions about what the practice area, like you can't tell what the differences are. So you just have to go through it.

And think I kind of knew that big law firm life wasn't for me, but I couldn't pinpoint it, but they pay you so much money from the beginning that, how do you walk away from that? Like my first-year bonus, even though I was only there for what, two months, three months, was more than what my family made in a year, ever. I had student debt like Derek mentioned, my parents had a mortgage, so I did everything I could to take care of and settle all of that before I pursued my own kind of work-life balance. Which you know, I never even knew what that kind of meant or—I'm still trying to figure that out now. I think I have a fairly good grasp of it now, 20 years later. But when I'm going through law school back in early 2000, no idea what all this was. Reddit or it's these boards, all these students asking about big law firm jobs and how they want it. I really wonder if they really know what it is to be in those kind of environments. And Rob's partner, Jordana, has this great podcast about what her experience is like, and she worked at the law firm right across the street from mine, and we had a good conversation reminiscing about what our life was like back then. And it's just so incredibly tough to navigate and try to figure out anything, with whatever resources.

I mean, I went to school with a great career services office, but they can't really tell you or show you what life in the big law firm is, right? So, I'm not asking Rob to do a better job of that in the law school administration setting, but we're all chasing these rankings just by name. And that's how I picked, what’s the highest ranking in what city, and I wish I could go back and choose what I wanted, but I'm not sure if I would've known what I wanted back then.

Sir: That's perfect advice.

And Rob literally said what I was going to say, which was constantly check in with yourself. And I give that advice because law school for most people happens at a very, air-quotes, “unfair” time. If you add five years to any age in your twenties, who you are and what you want and what matters to you probably drastically changes. 21 to 26, 26 to 31, 29 to 34. I'm terrible at math. I hope all of that was right. But the idea holds!

And so, if you're constantly checking in with yourself about, “Okay, I got out of law school and I got the bag. I'm working at the largest firm that pays the most money.” You should be asking yourself, “Okay, am I still happy?” Because again, what you wanted right out of law school is different when you have a partner and when you have a family, when you have serviced that debt and now it's almost gone.

And so if you're always checking in with yourself, you're more likely to never wake up too far from happy every day. And it’s not a perfect recipe for it, but if you're really thoughtful about why you're doing the things that you were doing before, and whether those things are still serving your current interests, it puts you in a much better position to make good decisions for you. And at the end of the day, this is one of those things where you get to be really, really selfish. How am I going to spend half of my waking hours for the next 20, 30, 40 years? If you figure you sleep eight, and you work eight, and you do other stuff the other eight—how am I going to spend that time? It's okay to be selfish, and it's okay to say, “You know what, I got what I wanted, and it was great, and now I don't want it anymore.” And that's a really good time to pivot.

All right, well, we have hit our three phases: during law school and before law school and post law school. I just want to know if anyone has any sort of parting wisdom that they didn't get to share that they'd love to tack on before we sign off. I really appreciate everybody. I mean, Derek, Rob, Peter, Sam—thank you. But yeah, who has something to close us out with?

Derek: I would just say, it's okay if you make mistakes. It's okay if things don't go exactly how you want them to. I shared a lot about my struggles. I wasn't the best student because I wasn't in the best place, dealing with things around my identity, and I still turned out okay. I mean, so, you know, I think I turned out okay! Ultimately became an Associate Dean at Penn Law School, so—and I don't emphasize that to brag, but just to say that my path was far from linear. There were so many bumps and so many things that, yeah, looking back, I wish I could have done it differently or whatever, but all of those things, just, I feel like they build character and self-awareness. So be gentle with yourself, be forgiving of yourself. There are few things that are such big mistakes or so terrible that they're going to prevent you from getting into a law school or getting the job that you want. Just stay at it. And as part of the theme that's been throughout this discussion, trust your instincts and follow your heart. Pay attention to the things that you enjoy, and do the things that you love. It's all going to be okay.

Sam: You did more than okay, all right? But yeah, there is no one right path. You heard from five different members of our panel that we all took different routes, we all ended up in different directions. When you put on this sort of artificial, “I have to do this by this date and then make this,” that's when it kind of becomes more difficult to challenge and navigate your life that way. Being adaptable, I think, is one of our superpowers as first-gen students. Because we've learned that between—if you grew up in different cultures, you know that there's no absolute one right culture to follow and then the other culture is wrong—it's usually good parts and bad parts of both, and you have to figure out what those are. So be graceful to yourself, and give yourself a lot of breaks, and be kind, like Derek said, and I think that's great advice.

Sir: Yeah, I wholeheartedly agree. If you need to hear it in a song, I'm a big musical person if you haven't figured that out—

Derek: Are you going to sing??

Sir: I'm not going to sing, because I don't have the rights to this music. But “History Has Its Eyes On You” from Hamilton, I love that song. It's very moving. It's George Washington talking about, basically how he made all the mistakes. You get through it. As a first-generation student, there’s just many times I just remember thinking, “I can't afford to make this mistake.” It just feels so fraught. And I think it's important to understand that you're not alone, and that again, like, it's okay! And because we often do our best learning behind those mistakes.

So like Sam was saying, give yourself space, give yourself grace, and surround yourself with people who are going to give you some love and encouragement. And if you can do those things, you know, you're going to be—statistically speaking, you're going to be okay.

Rob: I love that, Sir. And I want to be mindful that, you know, at the end of a longer podcast, more voice is not always helpful, but just like, there are going to be mistakes, but even reframing, a mistake is just an experience. And if we don't attach a normative judgment to it, that it's good, bad, often like when I'm working with first-gen folks, it's the notion that someone on the other side of this first-gen divide has a better sense of how to do this or is doing it differently, but I promise you they're making mistakes too. And at the end of the day, it's just life, and we're not going to know if there's a perfect route out there. So the adaptability, the grace, all these messages, it's like, keep moving towards your mountain, build out a community of support, be honest with yourself. That's the best we can do.

Sir: Thank you. All right, everybody. Well, think we've said everything that we can say. I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much. Thank you for listening, and we'll talk soon.