After a decade and a half as a lawyer, Jolene Blackbourn, Esq. followed her love for teaching, and now devotes a lot of her time advising pre-law students in the US. She also helps lawyers with their professional interviews, and has set up a series of online courses on interviews within specific fields of law.
Given her expertise, I was quite keen on getting to know her thoughts on legal education and the legal profession, US law schools, as well as how to go about planning one’s professional growth.
In this remarkably candid piece, you write about the perils of pressure and how so many of “us” (if I may use that term) are not even aware of this pressure. Do you think things are changing now? Are more people questioning the purpose of going to law school?
I don’t think so! I think especially first generation students are very eager to make their families proud and feel like they need to prove they are amazing! Also, those from families of lawyers can feel that pressure too (even if unintentional or really self-created)!
Just sticking with that article, you also write about student debt – do you foresee US law schools addressing this at all? Do you think Covid has pushed law schools to rationalise and/or reduce tuition?
I have talked to a few entering law students and it appears the tuition is the same. They will not be getting 100% of their education (the networking and in-person experience) and yet are paying full price!
I think that’s wrong but sadly, it’s happening!
Given your vast experience of counselling pre-law students in the US, what are the most commonly held misconceptions about the law school experience?
Most pre-law students think that one, they can take out all the student loans and easily pay them back when they start working. This is simply untrue and makes many attorneys depressed as they struggle to pay their bills!
And two, [pre-law students think] that they will practice in the area of law that they went to law school for. Most end up in some other area of law and not necessarily by choice. They simply cannot find a job in their favorite field and have loans to repay! So they move on so they can pay that bill.
And once in law school, do you think there are any bits of advice on how to get the most of the law school experience?
Each school has a law school counselor. I recommend getting to know them and check in with them regularly. I would also get to know the people who run the larger organizations on campus. They usually know all the great stuff that is happening in the school.
I would also try to network on social media with people who attended that school recently or are attending. Sometimes their posts will be very helpful!
Not just pre-law, you also advise law students and lawyers on how to go about interviews? And again, what are some of the more common mistakes made here?
In interviews, you need to be honest, but not too honest! For example, if you are applying for a very boring area of law, the attorneys know it’s boring. So don’t pretend you are excited to work there! Say something more real. Like, you know someone who is working in the field and they like it so you thought you would apply and see if you like it.
I do offer some insight into various areas of law at the Legal Learning Centre to help show the interviewers that you have gone above and beyond to research that area of law which would show some extra level of interest. That would impress an interviewer too so any way that you can show that you have really done your research into the firm and area of law, you will have a better chance of success.
How do you see the US legal industry shaping up over the next few years? Do you still see employment opportunities for the foreign trained lawyer?
I think a lot will depend on our November elections! If Trump is still around, it may be worse. He just created a new rule (subsequently rescinded) that international students cannot attend college if it is 100% online. So that does not hold well for the next 4 years if he is reelected!
But, if he is voted out of office, then I think things will move in a much more positive direction for international students.
Lastly, what is one of your favourite pieces of advice received over the years?
I think the best advice I have received is “Begin with the end in mind”. This means that you should not only look at your desire to be an attorney, but what else you want out of life.
Do you want a good salary? To help others? To be respected? To have a nice home and car? To have time to travel? To be able to spend time with family? To be your own boss? Whatever your end goal is (think 10 or 20 years down the road), you then need to evaluate how to best achieve those goals. Then you would decide whether law school/LLM is right for you. Then you would decide if being a lawyer fits into that model.
As a lawyer, you may not be able to attend every school play your child is in. Is that OK? As a lawyer you may have to work 80+ hours in a week, just so you can take a full week off. Is that OK? If you know what you want your future to look like, the informational interviews you conduct should not be about what a day in the life is like. It should be asking the person whether they are able to live the life you want. If they can’t, why can’t they?
Then you can evaluate whether you want to pursue that area of law (or law at all).