How to become a lawyer

On Becoming a Lawyer

I am not going to talk about those formal hoops that you need to jump through over the coming years. Go to the bookstore later today and pick up that frightening pile of casebooks. This morning, I am not interested in specific course requirements and bar exams. Rather, I want to talk about becoming a lawyer in a broader sense. As you go through law school, and your careers, it is not enough to simply maintain your professional credentials.

I encourage you to be creative, passionate, and grateful.

First, Be Creative

As Dean St. Romain noted, my work focuses on criminal justice, and especially work with China. As is obvious, I am not from China, nor do I have any cultural ties with China.

When I started taking Chinese, I was the white girl in Chinese class. People would look at me curiously and ask, “Why?” At that time, Japan was still seen as Asia’s economic powerhouse that was taking on the United States. The tragedy at Tiananmen Square had just occurred, and China was only gradually emerging from years of communism and strict state control over the economy.

Nearly two decades later, people look at me like I somehow peered into a crystal ball and foresaw China’s meteoric rise. I cannot claim to be that prescient, but I did see that there was an opportunity to learn about a country that was not on most people’s radar screens and which had the potential to become a leading world power.

Even before law school, I began to find ways to incorporate my interests in China and law by working as a paralegal in the Beijing office of an international law firm. I watched China transform in the late 1990s and worked with multinational corporations who were navigating major changes as China joined the World Trade Organization and integrated itself into the global economy.

During and after law school, I continued to seek out ways to apply my knowledge of Chinese language and history to my legal studies. No one handed me a roadmap. I was happily pursuing an unconventional career path.

Today, I work with judges, lawyers, NGOs, foundations, and academics on pressing issues in China’s criminal justice system. In particular, I am involved with long-term projects to reform procedures used in death penalty cases.

China executes more people than any other country. The exact number is unknown to the public because it is a state secret, but there is broad consensus that China leads the world in number of death sentences and actual executions. Through the support of reform-minded officials combined with the efforts of Chinese and foreign lawyers, a policy of “execute fewer, and execute cautiously” has led to greater scrutiny of cases that are eligible for the death penalty and, subsequently, fewer executions.

When I was a 1L, I did not know how my interest in China would meld with my legal career. But, over time, I put those pieces together in a non-traditional way, and I love what I do.
As you are all aware, the legal profession is in a period of transition. It is not enough to simply get good grades, put on a suit, go to interviews, and start up the law firm pyramid as a fungible junior associate. You need to be entrepreneurial and take risks.

What skills are you going to bring to a firm or company or government office that others will not? How will you add value to that organization? How are you going to solve your clients’ problems such that you will be the first person they call the next time they need a lawyer? That will require creativity and independent thinking.

Last month, I had the opportunity to observe the African wildebeest migration. These are large, hairy antelopes otherwise known as gnus. It was a beautiful sight. However, it quickly became clear that wildebeest are not the smartest of creatures. If one wildebeest starts running one direction, the entire herd will follow. Zebras, by contrast, are much more observant and thoughtful about their actions.

Of course, if there is a lion or cheetah, then there certainly is a good reason to run away with the herd. I do not fault the wildebeest there. That being said, do not run in a certain direction just because the herd is going that way. Be a zebra, not a wildebeest. Look creatively at your options, be aware when making choices, and be purposeful in your actions.

Second, Be Passionate

We have succeeded as professors if none of you have a mid-life crisis. It pains me to see students trudging down a path because someone else has told them that it is what they should do.

You might already have found your passion, whether it be intellectual property law or criminal defense work or securities regulation. Or you might think that you have found your passion. Be open-minded as you go through law school. Believe it or not, you might find that you are passionate about tax or patents or something that might hit you totally from left field.

One of the beautiful things about law school is your lack of choice early in the process. The requirements provide you with a solid foundation in various areas of the law, but they also mandate that you to take subjects you might not choose voluntarily.

Even once you leave school, it will be highly unusual if your first job lays a clear-cut track for the rest of your career. Keep questioning and exploring as you hone in on what aspects of the law are going to keep you enthusiastic and engaged not just for a year or two, but for decades.

For me, my experience with corporate law early in my career made me realize that I did not jump out of bed with a spring in my step to go help investment banks issue convertible bonds. But that experience was nonetheless valuable.

It first of all gave me a basic understanding of the complex financial transactions that are fundamental to our modern economy. And, secondly, I have applied that knowledge to my work in a concrete way by asking how economic changes intersect with criminal justice.

At the same time, I realized that corporate law was not for me. I left the firm for a clerkship, moved from New York City to San Diego, sold my Blackberry on Craig’s List, put the proceeds towards a wet suit, and learned to surf. That required getting up at an absurdly early hour to balance fun with a rigorous clerkship. Yet I found such joy in my job and in maintaining pursuits outside of my job, that I had more energy despite the long hours.

As my clerkship neared an end, I wrote to a former professor, and now dear friend, that I was determined to find a way to combine my long-standing fascination with China with an increasing interest in criminal justice. He helped me to shift towards working in the not-for-profit sector. It was not the most lucrative choice, but I took the pay cut and it was the right choice for me.

As you go forward in your careers, do not lose sight of why you wanted to become a lawyer. Ask yourself what makes you passionate about being a part of this profession. If you feel that you are becoming unmoored from those core values, if you have lost that sense of joy and catch yourself rationalizing what you are doing, find the self-awareness and strength to make changes.

Third, Be Grateful

This sense of gratitude exists on several levels. Be grateful for the legal system of which we are a part. I know lawyers in other countries who are being locked up simply for trying to be advocates for their clients’ basic human rights. That makes me all the more grateful for our legal system, even though it too is flawed.

I would like to tell you briefly about a Chinese man named Chen Guangcheng. Chen lost his eyesight as a child and, despite a keen interest in the law, he was told that he could not pursue a law degree because he was blind.

Undeterred, Chen bought law books and learned enough about the law to be helpful to his fellow villagers. He first began by assisting disabled people and their families who were being required to pay taxes and fees when in fact they were exempt.

His success drew the attention of other villagers who then sought his help to expose violations to national family planning laws and regulations. Local officials were using brutal methods, including forced abortions and sterilizations, to enforce the one-child policy.

Chen filed a very public lawsuit on the women’s behalf. His efforts to expose flagrant legal violations quickly led him to be a subject of scrutiny as government officials worried that his actions jeopardized their careers.

In 2006, Chen was indicted for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.” The evidence against Chen was flimsy at best. The trial itself was closed to the public, and the government never gave a convincing explanation of how this blind man had somehow mastermind a plot to disrupt traffic. Chen was sentenced to four years and three months for the crime, and the sentence was upheld on appeal.

Since Chen’s release last year, he is technically free, but he and his family continue to face what is euphemistically known as “soft detention” (ruan jin).

Reports of government-sanctioned physical abuse underscore that the term “soft detention” utterly fails to capture the harsh reality of Chen’s post-prison life. There are always government minders outside his home, watching every move of Chen and his family. He is being effectively blocked from continuing his work of harnessing the legal system to expose government wrongdoing.

Chen is not alone. It is a very difficult time for lawyers and would-be lawyers in China who are willing to take on what are seen as sensitive cases. The Chinese government has implemented a huge number of laws and created formal channels for people to sue the government. Indeed, people are starting to do so.

But if the lawsuits against the government are because your child died in a shoddily constructed school during an earthquake, or because you are challenging the state monopoly on labor unions, or because you are sick as a result of pollution and the government is complicit in violations of environmental laws by area factories, then you are likely going to be pushed into a settlement or otherwise silenced. And the lawyers who take these cases are putting themselves at risk of not only losing their licenses, but of also ending up behind bars.

Last December, the Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. He could not attend the ceremony because he is serving an eleven-year sentence for inciting subversion of state power. In a statement issued two days before he was sentenced, Liu said, “I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.”

I too am an incorrigible long-term optimist, yet in the short-term people looking to use the law in China to address human rights abuses face an extremely challenging environment.

Here in the United States, you might not be the most popular person for defending unsavory criminal defendants or challenging entrenched interests. However, you can do that without fear of yourself becoming the defendant simply because you tried to be a good lawyer. Be grateful for that.

Moreover, be grateful for the people who have helped you get to this point and will support you emotionally, financially, and intellectually throughout your law school career and beyond. There is no doubt about it: law school is tough. In addition to pouring your energy into your books and classes and activities, take care of and appreciate the people in your life who make this opportunity possible. Do not wait until graduation to thank them. Do it now, and do it often.
Finally, just because you are becoming a lawyer, it does not mean that you stop being everything else you are. You are sons, daughters, spouses, friends, musicians, athletes, artists. Being a lawyer should complement and enhance who you are today but not supplant it. Through this process of law school you will become a lawyer, but “lawyer” should not become your sole defining characteristic.

I look forward to meeting many of you in class next semester, and hopefully all of you over the coming years.

You have chosen to study law in a special place. Savor your time here at Seton Hall and enjoy the journey that is about to begin.

Thank you.