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Jan 10

Year in Review (Part 3)

This is the third post in a series. The previous post is here.

4. Getting a job (or at least trying to)

It was 4.00am on a Friday morning in October, and I was bearing witness to carnage.

Having just flown in from San Francisco a few hours ago, I was sitting in my hotel room bed, wide awake and trying in vain to shake off the jetlag before an interview that was only about five hours away. Only a month after arriving into the US, in early September 2008, I had been invited to interview with a major US law firm. They had offered to fly me, along with about a hundred other LLM students from universities around the country, up to New York for the weekend and had booked us all into the downtown Hilton. I had never been the beneficiary of such corporate largesse, and it seemed that things were still going well in corporate America.

But it was now October. Lehman Brothers had declared bankruptcy only a couple of weeks ago, after the Feds refused to bail them out, and the world was still reeling from the shock. I had switched on Bloomberg on the television, and had spent the night watching bloodshed in the form of line graphs that were reshaping themselves to look like precipices in real time. That week, the Dow had opened at 10,325 and promptly crashed through the 10,000 point mark for the first time since 2004. It had continued to hurtle down. By Thursday afternoon, it had closed over 15% down at 8,763. And now, the European markets were beginning to open to a new day of mayhem.

The view from my window looked straight out over the wreckage of the old World Trade Center. Although it was now a construction site, it was still a pallid, deathly hole in the city that never sleeps. Indeed, I imagine that many businesspeople on Manhattan were also having a sleepless night that night.

October was a turning point, marking the start of the worst job market in the history of US LLMs, although we didn’t quite know it yet. The interview weekend, and associated expenses invested in it by Cleary Gottlieb, presented a solid, but ultimately misleading face on a legal market that was about to have the earth fall out from underneath it. When we had arrived in August, the 2Ls were busy with OCI (on-campus interviews) for summer associateships. The LLMs were told that we were welcome to turn up at any spare interview slots for networking purposes, but most of us were pretty relaxed about this. After all, we had a job fair tailored specifically for LLMs in New York scheduled for January. So, for now we were content to wait until then before starting to network and jockey for jobs.

In contrast, a friend I bumped in to at the Cleary interviews who was taking an LLM at another university had hit the ground running. He already had procured offers from Cravath and Sullivan & Cromwell, and the offers came with signing bonuses. Given what was about to happen, this was astounding. By January , rivers of blood were flowing, and firms were cutting 10-20% of their attorneys. Bonuses were eviscerated, salaries were frozen.

January’s Columbia job fair was a wash. While I was there, I grabbed lunch with a friend I had made from the Cleary interviews who was studying at Columbia. He told me that the word on the street was that some firms interviewing at the job fair had absolutely no intention of hiring anyone—they were there only because Columbia had threatened not to invite them back if they didn’t make an appearance this year.

As the US economy continued to implode, LLM students nationwide in the class of 2009 were confronted with the fact that they had managed to pick perhaps the worst year in human history to do their LLM. The chart below probably sums it up the best:

So, away from the framework of a structured recruitment cycle, I was left to pound the pavement by myself. I sent out literally dozens and dozens of resumes to firms and companies. I used my network where I could – asking friends to forward applications to hiring partners, getting Professors to provide referrals, and periodically follow-ups. In the end, I failed to land even a single interview.

Naturally, I began to doubt myself. At the start of the year, I was told that grades matter quite a lot to U.S. employers. However, by all accounts, I had a successful academic year. On my transcript there is only one subject (out of 12) in which I could have possibly received a better result (prizes included). Yet, it was still pretty disturbing.

Most of my classmates were in the same boat, and many of them returned to their home countries after little success with finding a job in the US. In the previous year, 8 or 9 LLMs had taken the California bar exam, presumably because they had procured jobs at Bay Area firms. In comparison, the total this year with legal jobs in the Bay Area was zero. Only about 15 of us stayed in the US to do the bar exam – all but two opting to get New York qualified.

In the end, I think it worked out positively for me in that it gave me the opportunity to work with a startup after graduation, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. More on that in another section.

5. Getting admitted to the California Bar

With no indication of where I’d be working after graduation, doing the California Bar was an impulse decision for me. The process is pretty expensive. The State Bar of California charges over $1,000 worth of fees, including a registration fee, an exam fee, a moral character application fee, and a fee for taking the exam with a computer. On top of that, most people enroll into a bar preparation course. Although there are other bar prep providers, BarBri has a virtual monopoly over the industry, and their bar prep course will set you back somewhere in the range of $3,500. For that price, you get to attend their video lectures and receive about 10 kilograms worth of books.

I was at an auction night at the law school, and one of the lots up for bidding was a California BarBri course. Initially listed at $800, I couldn’t resist putting in a bid and found myself in a rapidly escalating bidding war. In the end, I won the auction at a substantial discount to the retail price of the course, but it was still a little scary forking over a couple of grand to do a bar exam I had only decided to do a few minutes before.

The California Bar Exam has an infamous reputation. While it is almost impossible to fail a law school course, short of academic misconduct or assaulting your professor, it is very possible to fail the bar exam. Because California’s exam has the lowest pass rate out of all 50 states, it is usually identified as the toughest bar exam in the nation. This is slightly misleading, because California unusually allows people without law degrees to take and pass the bar exam. This drags the overall pass rate down since people without a law school education generally do very poorly. California also allows people to retake the exam unlimited times and, because the pass rate for re-takers is less than 20%, this also drags the overall pass rate down. Nonetheless, it is an exam that isn’t to be taken lightly.

The exam is three days long and completely closed book. Day one consists of answering three essay questions in the 3-hour morning session, and taking a performance test in the 3-hour afternoon session. The essays are each on different topic areas (from over a dozen topics) and are typical problem-type fact-scenario essays. The performance test is an exercise in drafting some sort of legal document (like a memo of advice or affidavit) based on a file containing briefing documents, fictitious case law and statutes, and other source materials. The second day is the MBE – the multi-state bar exam – which consists of 200 multiple choice questions about federal law. This exam is also administered by several other state bars including New York. The third day is a repeat of the first.

Assuming you already have a law degree, then the only thing you really need to have to pass the bar exam is a good memory. You don’t need to be particularly analytical and the material is not difficult to understand. This is because the course materials basically contain masses of black letter law: legal principles, their exceptions, and exceptions to those exceptions. Your task is to rote learn all of them. Your legal education – where you spent three years learning to issue spot and apply law to the facts – will fill in the rest. If you don’t have a good memory, like me, then you’re in for long hours of memorization by repetition.

The BarBri course is actually very well constructed. Paced over two months, if you follow the schedule, you’ll be fine. When I say “follow the schedule”, I don’t mean complete everything on the schedule. You only need to do maybe 75% of the things there to put yourself in a good position to pass. If you try to do everything, you won’t have a life and you’ll drive yourself crazy in the process. It is important to have a life during bar prep.

I divided each day of the BarBri course into morning, afternoon and night periods. Lectures were in the morning. After lectures, I would take a nice long lunch, then choose to do something fun in the afternoon or night period. I would use the other period to study, giving me roughly an 8-10 hour working day. The “something fun” would often be going to watch a movie, playing squash, or hitting the golf course. It also involved other activities like going to Six Flags, or a place like this:

(I edited together that video during a study break as well.) I even managed to fit in a trip to Shanghai to celebrate my dad’s 60th, the week before the bar exam. Stress relief is important, and it helps to keep things in perspective as well.

I also liked to mix up my study locations: in the library, in my apartment, on a grassy bank by the swimming pool, at Starbucks, at McDonald’s(!), next to the White Plaza fountain, and on the Area 51 lawn. It was summer, and I wasn’t going to miss out on all that sunshine.

How you choose to memorize stuff is a pretty personal decision. Some people like to use flash cards, some people like to just read and re-read things from a book. I summarize questions and answers on paper, then cover up the answers with another a sheet of paper.

I’m also a big fan of group study. For learning material, I don’t think it’s particularly productive compared to plowing through the material solo, but it importantly introduces a social element to things – knowing that you’re not in it alone, and that other people share your fears and uncertainties, is a big help with the psychological side of the bar exam.

The psychological challenge the bar exam imposes is not insignificant, but whatever you do, don’t psych yourself out of it. Compare it to the German bar exam, which consists of 55 hours of exams over 11 days.  Or the Japanese bar exam which, until recently, had a pass rate of 3-4%!

Doing the bar exam itself is an exercise in endurance. Answering the questions is a very mechanical and dry process. Don’t try to be artful in your answers; just grind it out. It’s boring and tiring, but you have to do it.

Continued in Part 3

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