Today we have a great interview with Kathleen Hunker, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Economic Freedom at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Kathleen graduated from Columbia Law School with a J.D. and an LLM from University College London. Her untraditional legal career in the policy field taught her some valuable lessons about law school life, the bar exam, and career choices.
Kathleen, thank you for speaking with us today. Let’s start with a question for our pre-law audience. When and why did you decide to go to law school?
I had an interest in law and politics since a young age. Law school was always on my mind, but I was hesitant in committing to it until my senior year in college. I was an intern at the Heritage Foundation and one of the researchers there held a forum to talk to the interns about law school. His primary questions for was, “why are you considering law school?” I brought up my interest in studying political theory and law more so than actually practicing law. For someone interested in the theory more than practicing, I thought a PhD would be the better option for me. But he gave me the best advice, saying a PhD would mark me as an academic and potentially limited the positions I could apply for, especially in I had a PhD in political theory. A law degree, he said, could lead to a much broader range of positions in legal practice, academia, or the private sector. That summer it became clear to me that a law degree would open more doors.
We know the application process can be overwhelming for many. What do you wish you had known during the application process?
A couple of things really. First, I wish I knew how early the deadlines were for the top tier schools. I didn’t know that many schools have different deadlines. Secondly, I wish I had known just how early you need to start to be well prepared to apply. The LSAT takes several months, it takes time to get a recommendation, to write and edit your personal statement – everything takes time. And if you don’t know you want to apply to law school until last minute in your senior year, there is a lot of anxiety.
What are your thoughts on a student taking time off before they apply to law school?
I think there is no need to rush. Given all the parts of the application process, students should consider taking time off before law school to pursue a job and get some experience, unless they know there’s a school with a deadline they can comfortably meet, and they have a high chance of getting in. In general, I think it is better to wait and have the best application possible and do whatever it takes to get to that point. Competition for law school is still tough so you need to present your best self. There’s no reason to run a race with your legs tied together. I went to law school with many people who took time off and very few felt that hindered them when applying or while in law school. If anything, it helped them because they had more experience to bring into their application.
Once you were in law school, what did you find to be the hardest part?
When it came to academics, I had a hard time adjusting to the exam format. Many of my exams were open book, so everyone had access to the important information. The key then was to be able to type quickly and in the stream of conscious. At my undergrad, all our tests were written, so I was not the best at typing quickly. Because of all this, I put a lot more prep into practicing for exams as a 1L.
Also, figuring out what extracurriculars to focus on was difficult. I went to law school to pursue my academic interest in the philosophy behind the law, not necessarily to practice, so I was torn between activities that nurtured my interests and those that gave me practical experiences. It was really a question of “do I follow what I want to do or do I develop the marketable skills that will lead me to a good firm or a clerkship?”
What advice do you have for people more interested in the legal theory part of law school?
Basically, you need to decide if you want your interest, in theory, to take precedence over your interest in actually practicing law. What you decide changes your approach.
If you eventually want to practice in a big firm or be legal counsel, or any traditional legal role, your academic interest, in theory, should be more of your hobby than your main focus. If your true passion is the philosophy of law, then you should take classes that reflect that, while making sure you hit the core classes that will help you get positions after law school. Clerkships are great options since in the courts they really apply the philosophy behind the law. This is especially true at appellate court level, since instead of just applying precedent like they do in trial courts, the appellate court is where they question why the precedents exist.
What did you want to do after law school?
I had expected to practice law by clerking or going into big law for several years and then transitioning into my true passion, which was policy. This seemed the best path because you need both experience and a good bank account to work in policy, which as a sector traditionally has low pay. So that was my expected path. There are definitely set tracks for certain professions and the tracks for the legal field are pretty rigid. If you want to practice in big law, for example, you need to have had a summer internship. If you want a clerkship, you should participate in a clinic.
Where did your career end up taking you after law school?
I did a J.D. LLM joint degree, getting my LLM from University College London in Comparative Law. Since I did that last semester abroad, I graduated a semester behind so that put me off cycle for hiring and interviews for big firms. So, I was as looking for a placeholder position to lead up to applying at several big firms. I got a position at the Cato Institute to do policy and law so that was a great opportunity. When my position at Cato ended, I found a spot at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where I am able to blend some legal practices into my policy work.
How do you balance your academic interests with your career?
I looked for places where I could do both policy and law. And they are linked, so it was not too hard. Having a good philosophical base on what makes good law carries over into determining what makes good policy. In policy, you are applying legal principles to a broad audience, but the same fundamental principles still apply.
How has your dual degree helped you?
Pursuing an additional degree is a good way to follow any interests you might have. Double degrees allow for specialization, give you a broader network for connections, and increase the chances of finding a mentor. A double degree also helps you distinguish yourself from other job applicants. I found all of this to be true.
Speaking of applying for jobs, what advice do you have for 3L students?
Unless you are a 3L with a job offer, put emphasis on applications so you don’t go off cycle. Take advantage of the remaining time you have in law school and all of the resources you have as a law student. Externships, clinics, programs, pro bono opportunities – all of those will not be available to you when you graduate. Use them to your advantage to build a network, distinguish your resume, and demonstrate interest in the area you want to pursue.
Your 3L year is a great time to do all of this because by your last year, you have hopefully learned how to handle law school. You have extra time now. It’s only one of the few times in your legal life that you will have time, like between law school and the bar and between the bar and your first job.
What was your experience with the bar exam?
To study for the bar, I approached it as any other exam: I put the appropriate time and effort relative to the difficulty of the test. I took the February bar because of my graduation date, and it was a good time in my opinion, since I didn’t want to go outside into the frigid New York winter!
Looking back, I think the hard part of getting a J.D. is law school because of the work required to get a good grade in even one class. When you think about it that way, the bar exam is not bad at all since it is the only academic thing you have to focus on while studying for it, the parameters for the test are set, and if you follow them you have a great chance of success. Most of my friends who didn’t pass simply didn’t take it seriously enough when studying.
What are your thoughts on whether or not to take the bar after law school?
I would say it is definitely easier to take the bar right out of law school instead of later in your career when you realize you need to be a licensed attorney to do something and now you have to go take the bar. Plus, at that point in your career, you will be so far removed from school and studying that you will have to get back into the school groove to start studying for the bar.
I have found that lawmakers treat a licensed attorney much differently than someone who just went to law school. Being a licensed attorney will lessen any extra hoops you might have to go through during your career. You never know where your career will take you, so taking the bar right after law school is the best way to stay prepared.
Any final advice for our readers?
What helped me the most in my career so far has been my willingness to pursue opportunities regardless of where they were. If there is an opportunity in some state that will advance your career, if you can, don’t limit yourself by saying, “I don’t want to move to that state, I’d rather stay closer to home.” The U.S. is great because of the mobility everyone has. It is a large country with diverse states, all with their own industries, politics, ideologies. Take advantage of this and you will eventually navigate to where you want to be! Go for it!
We thank Kathleen for her time and great advice. To read more about Kathleen, click here.
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