This interview was conducted by Claire Kim, thanks to Johneth Park, a corporate lawyer at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP.
What were your personal motivations in becoming a lawyer?
My father actually wanted to be a lawyer. A long time ago, very few people made the bar in Korea. I guess that sort of had an impact on me. I actually wanted to be a doctor and I went through all the pre-med requirements and I worked at the Dana Farber Institute, the cancer institute in Boston. I was there on an internship doing lab work; I thought that “I can’t do this. I can’t sit in a lab and do the pipette work,” so I wanted to do something different. When I was a freshman in college, there were two elections going on – one in Korea and one in the US, and I wanted to know more about politics, social issues, and that’s why I majored in government. As a lawyer I thought I could actually do something to make a difference. I didn’t know exactly what, but it was always in the back of my mind.
Lawyers often go into law school wanting to be public defenders, but only a small percentage actually do. Is this mostly an economic factor, or is it because motivations change?
Two things. Everyone wants to become a public defender and do something good for society, but once they go to law school, ninety percent actually end up going to law firms; it’s peer pressure. What’s the best firm they can get into? And obviously there is student debt; you have to pay it off. Public defenders make about $30,000 to $40,000 maximum a year, compared to $160,000 for law firm first years. Once you actually start a law firm, some people that I know actually go in thinking that they will stay only to pay off their student debt, but once you enter a law firm, it’s a culture. You get sucked in. With very few exceptions like my college roommate, who actually did a summer internship and got nice summer pay and got himself a nice suit, he chose to work at the legal justice center. He’s been doing this for seventeen years; he’s very happy.
If the initial training for those who want to be corporate lawyers would happen at law firms, where would the training happen for those who want to become public defenders?
Some people usually get scholarships or some kind of stipend. They have certain clinics like women’s centers, or some other legal public defender center. As a public defender, you get paid by the government. If you want to do litigation, going to work as a public defender is the best training because you actually litigate from day one because they want to train you; you’re actually on the job training. For people to go to court at big law firms, it will take about nine to ten years. Until then, you will be writing or doing something for your partner to do the court appearance. Again, it’s a choice of lifestyle: do you want to do it from the get-go? Not too many people choose to become public defenders, because the quality of your clients is not that great – these are like criminals, and you’re doing criminal stuff, and 90% of the criminals are guilty usually. It’s really drudgework, the same work all the time. Enlisting in a big law firm you get to know what the big cases are, you get to work as a team. You get mentoring and training and practice depositions – see, those are useful skills to have.
What would you recommend for high school students that aspire to become lawyers?
I would say if you want to drop in to a law firm for a week, or a day, just to see what a law firm looks like, how unhappy or happy people who work there are like, you should do that. But I think as a high school student, I would do something different. I would do something that broadens my mind. If you want to check it, being a lawyer, after college, there is a program called paralegal work, in which you would work a year or two as a paralegal. You’re not actually a lawyer, but do kind of do things that a first or second year associate would do, and check it out. But as a high school student, you should do something else. As I said, the law office is probably one of the most boring places you can be, unless you understand the law, talk about it, and do something about it. But otherwise, if you don’t understand, you’ll just be standing there. When I was in high school, I actually interned at an emergency room, at a hospital.
As a lawyer, what was the most difficult part? It is the number of hours, or is the work itself difficult sometimes – mentally, physically, or in any other way?
It’s really multitasking; it’s really being able to set priorities, because every client wants their work to be done the next morning. It’s being able to prioritize what really needs to be done, because there are a lot of false deadlines. It’s really trying to figure out the false deadlines and prioritizing work – that is the immediate challenge you will face as a junior associate. As time moves on, it’s finding the specialty that fits you. You’re being paid to give advice, so you have to have a body of knowledge.
How competitive is it to become a lawyer?
If you go to a US law school, there are these things called study groups – you can’t study on your own. Unless you’re good at it, it honestly helps if you work in a study group to exchange ideas, test each other. But then again, if you get into a really good school, you should be fine getting a job, so the competition is not that bad. But if you’re in not as good of a school, there are opportunities only for the top ten percent or five percent to get a job, that makes things more difficult and competitive. It’s the same anywhere – medical school; whenever there are a few good opportunities and many applicants, competition happens. But with you guys, I think SIS is the most competitive educational environment I’ve ever come across. But I think that there is usually a negative perception of lawyers because people don’t like paying for just talking. Doctors actually do something – they get a knife and suture, but as a lawyer, we just talk. There are some bad, rotten apples who try to get the most money out of clients and they overcharge. A lot of TV shows have divorce lawyers who make things worse when the couples are trying to pass things up and the lawyers make it worse. Pop culture does this, but again, as a lawyer in a reputable institution like a law firm or academia, you have to have integrity; you have to be trustworthy. You have to add to your client at minimum cost. Clients don’t really know about your work, so you live and die by your reputation whether you are giving good advice or inefficient advice. So your reputation is very very important.
Are there any myths from TV shows you would like to debunk about being a lawyer?
These courtroom dramas, they don’t really happen. If you do the litigation, that’s the exciting part. There are guys making speeches in front of juries – that only happens five percent of the time. Most cases get settled out of court, because litigation is very expensive. I mean if that’s what is exciting for you, ultimately, be my guest. Also, the courtroom dramas are really exciting, so yes, I do watch them.
When applying to law school, does the undergraduate major matter?
It’s going to be indirect. As a lawyer, you have to serve clients. The more comfortable the client is with you, it’s going to better to work with them. If you’re trying to work with a client that is a health care provider, or hospital, and if you have some background in biology or medicine, they understand your lingo. The comfort level is definitely better and the fact that you have a background may get you more interested and do more studying in that passion. But yes and no; it can help you but it doesn’t guarantee it will help you. But basically, at this point, you should do what really interests you, and not what looks good.
How do people transition from being lawyers to becoming judges?
If you are a US citizen, you have to be super super good in law school. You would clerk for a judge, or you could just become a rock star at a law firm doing litigation work as a specialist. They can nominate you for judgeship, but you have to be super super good. A majority of those that get nominated have extensive litigation experience.
Any final words for SIS students who want to become lawyers?
You can decide to become a lawyer in college, so at this time, just enjoy life. Pursue things that you really want to pursue, and don’t get hung up on this professional track; I think it’s too early, especially for lawyers. It can be a Plan B for a lot of people, and you only have to study really hard for one year to get a job. But being a lawyer is a self-satisfying, respected position; it is a profession, it’s not a job. It’s a procession you need a license to practice. Do things that you really enjoy in high school; you can worry about becoming a lawyer in college.