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Dec 09

Year in Review (Part 1)

As the end of the year, and indeed a decade, draws to a close, here’s a customary introspective post.

It’s been a very full year, so I picked out a few themes to write about and broke up the post under those themes. I haven’t written up everything yet, so I’ll be breaking the post up into multiple parts. Some will be posted in the new year.

1. Getting another piece of paper

2009 started with my second and final semester at Stanford.  By the time  my classmates and I had come back from Winter break, we had well and truly settled in and were now focused on making the most out of our remaining time. Spanning only 9 months, the time needed to complete an LL.M. is – unfortunately, in my opinion – the shortest time in which you can get a degree. So, after it all, what did I get out of it, other than another piece of paper and a large hole in my wallet? Did it meet my expectations? What did I learn?

An Expensive Piece of Paper

As I wrote early last year, an Australian lawyer won’t really find a U.S. law degree helpful for their career as a lawyer. Despite the amazing academic experience on offer here, I got the impression that a year of work experience would be more valued by a U.S. firm, even if it’s foreign experience. In relation to this aspect, my expectations were pretty much met.

On the other hand, there is something to be said about having the university’s brand name on your resume. While it might not help so much for legal practice, it certainly helps in other contexts.  Just as there is cachet in Australia if you can say you “read” at Oxbridge, so too in America for certain of its universities. I found that Americans (and people that had been in America for too long) I encountered often used university affiliations as a heuristic of someone’s “credibility”. So much so that the way people reacted to an answer to the question, “Where did they go to school?” was often a physical one – anything from a flutter of disdain across the face, to a raising of the eyebrows and a subconscious straightening of posture. I found it jarring.

My favorite anecdote was when I was attending an interview in New York for the London office of one firm. The firm put on a dinner for the dozen or so interviewees – a couple of Aussies, some Brits, and a contingent of Indians from Harvard, NYU and Columbia. One of the Columbians came up to me at some point in the night and said, “So, where are you studying at?” When I told him, he immediately straightened up in his chair and pulled out his phone. “I’ve always wanted to meet someone from Stanford!” he remarked, eyeing me like an ornithologist would eye a rare bird they had stumbled across in the wild. “Could I get your email address and phone number please?” (He turned out to be a really nice guy and I ended up taking him around campus when he was visiting the west coast. He ended up reciprocating a few weeks later in New York.)

The reason why things work this way is America’s remarkably tiered system of education. Generally speaking, you have your private institutions, which charge an arm and leg. Then you have public state systems, which are themselves tiered. In California, the University of California system (UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, etc.) forms the top branch, with a second tier of state schools beneath that. At the bottom are community colleges which award 2-year associate degrees and certificates. Everything is ranked. Consequently, it makes it very easy for people to pigeonhole others based on where the received their education. While convenient, I’m not sure this is necessarily helpful. For example, a recent study of entrepreneurs found that those with ivy league educations didn’t have a significantly higher success rate than those without.

Compared to Australia, things are reversed. The best universities are all public, and they’re all pretty big. Stanford has under 15k students, while UNSW has almost triple that number. None of the Ivies, with the exception of Columbia, have more than 20k and some are under 10k. But ultimately, I think the best graduates from our universities can mix it with the best from any country in the world, and we didn’t need to pay much more than HECS (or whatever they’re calling it these days) to do it.

Still, one thing I did find true about the graduate student body here is that the calibre of people was not only impressive, but consistently so. At UNSW Law School you basically need to be in the top 0.6% of the state to get in (ignoring full fee payers), so you’d expect consistently high-quality students there as well. But that’s not the case – you do get a sizeable number of slackers, and I think it’s for one main reason: there are people doing law (or medicine) when they shouldn’t be. In part it’s because they came straight from high school and didn’t really know what they wanted to do with their life… but they got the marks, so why not use them? The other part is that education is cheap. If it costs $150,000 to get a law degree, I would expect the quality of students to be consistently impressive in Australia as well because anyone in law school had damned well better be sure they wanted to be there. (I suppose though that trust fund babies are a bit of an exception here.)

So, getting back to the initial question, what I ultimately ended up with was a very fun and interesting break from work. I don’t mean to say it was a year of slacking off. On the contrary, it was a very busy year, and there were a lot of productive things going on. (I’m giving the word “productive” an expansive interpretation in this case.) The difference is I spent it doing things that interested me, on my own schedule, and away from the stress of client demands and deadlines. The tradeoff is that I was paying for the luxury, instead of getting paid.

Inside the classroom, the small size of the law school was a boon. This meant classes were small, and lecturers generally got to know you by name – this happened in all but two of my classes. The quality of classroom discussion was also impressive. Most people didn’t merely speak for the sake of speaking, they had substantive contributions to make, or interesting questions to ask. As I’ve mentioned before, Americans really do have the gift of the gab. Despite this, I would tell foreign students not to be intimidated by the JDs. Class participation does not necessarily translate to better marks in papers or exams (although, where blind grading is not used, getting to know your lecturer does help your marks, and you can do that in ways other than raising your hand in class).

Outside of the classroom, the academic experience was supplemented by a steady stream of high profile visitors and events. I heard Pervez Musharraf, Colin Powell and Steve Ballmer speak at Memorial Auditorium. Supreme Court Justices Breyer and Kennedy were on campus during the year and Chief Justice Roberts was here a few months ago. All things that are easier to organize when you’re sitting on an endowment larger than what most small African nations output in a year.

Ballmer. Photo credit: Andreas Braendhaugen

Steve Ballmer. Photo credit: Andreas Braendhaugen

However, the most valuable thing I got from the experience was not attending class, or hearing famous people speak…

Continued in Part 2

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