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[Jasper Kim] Law school: So you want to be a lawyer?

April 27, 2011 - 18:42 By 최남현
But what is a lawyer’s life like in a “typical day” and what types of career paths (both domestic and international) exist with a law degree or as a lawyer?

Before law school, I had a fuzzy idea of what the law as a profession actually meant. Law school itself, especially in the United States (and increasingly in Korea), trains people to “think like a lawyer.” As part of this, most if not all American law schools offer a series of course offerings, from broad to more specific, to train students to a think like a lawyer.

But relatively few courses are offered related about the law as a career, or some course to that effect. It’s almost as if once you knew what thinking was a lawyer was all about, that the rest was the easy part. In fact, it’s often just as challenging. And in part this is because, for many, it’s fuzzy and unclear.

In my particular case I always knew that I wanted to enter into investment banking (before entering academia), not a law firm. This set me apart not only from the rest of my peers, but from the rest of the thousands of others who were also attending law school across the country and the world. At the same time, some part of me was also curious about the typical day of those actually practicing law. But it was hard to discern exactly the schedules of working professionals in so many career fields.

As a law student, I heard of many success stories of those who went on to became law firm partners. Yet I also heard of people who were equally “successful” in careers outside the traditional areas of law. But where did they work, how did they get there and what do they do every day? This I wasn’t quite sure of as a law student.

After law school, I was fortunate enough to enter into investment banking, the profession that I originally wanted. But what I discovered ― like with many if not most other careers ― is that the “insider” view can sometimes clash with the “outside” perception of a particular career field. So I thought to myself.

After several years in banking and finance, I landed into my current career field as a professor at the world’s largest women’s university. One part of my job as a professor that I actually enjoy very much is to provide career advice for both undergraduate and graduate students.

For a notable group, law school is an increasingly popular choice. So once a student tells me of their interest in attending law school, I then often ask, “So what do you imagine your life being after law school?” Sometimes, this question elicits some thoughtful silence with a reply like “I’m not sure, maybe work for the U.N. or a big law firm, I guess.” Other times, it evokes replies like “I want to be a corporate lawyer” or “I want to argue cases in a packed courtroom.”

Then I ask, “So do you know what this means exactly from the time you get up to the time you go back home and sleep?” Often the reply to this question is met with some thoughtful silence with vague notions of the typical life of a lawyer in characters personified in TV shows like Ally McBeal, Boston Legal and LA Law (all very good shows in their own right, please don’t get me wrong).

But even assuming that portrayals of lawyers in these types of popular TV shows are in part correct, there are many parts of being a lawyer that is not portrayed in the mass media or entertaining TV shows.

So where does one get details and information about this, short of actually tagging along with all sorts of lawyers during their typical day? At most, most law students get a couple opportunities during summer internships to get a sense of just one specific legal career field over the course of a few weeks. I found this type of conversation to occur over and over again with many students from many backgrounds and universities in the United States and other regions.

From a global perspective, the added supply of available lawyers who possess practical legal skillsets will allow the private and government sectors to choose from more lawyers with more focused specialties whereby such lawyers can add value immediately in their particular fields. Thus onshore businesses will be able to afford to hire specialized lawyers for specific departments for negotiations and global expansion efforts.

At the same time, Korean government branches, both related and unrelated to law, will have access to a greater pool of government lawyers who can articulate and negotiate the interests of the Korean republic when confronting other states head-to-head at the negotiation table.

But of such wide array of career fields, which one best fits which type of person? This is an answer that can only best be answered by understanding the “typical day” day of traditional and non-traditional professionals. 

By Jasper Kim

Jasper Kim is a department chair and associate professor at Ewha Womans University. His recently released books are “24 Hours with 24 Lawyer: Profiles of Traditional and Non-Traditional Careers” and “Korean Business Law: The Legal Landscape and Beyond.” ― Ed.