By Nikki Datta • August 02, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Nonprofits and the Public Interest, Law School, Pre-Law, Choosing a Career and Landing a Job
This past Spring and Summer, during my internship in the Attorney General’s Litigation Bureau, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Vogel served as a model for the approach I hope to bring to my professional life. My primary lesson from her about soft skills as a female professional was an unspoken one: there is a delicate balance that should come naturally. Kristen always spoke her mind, but made it clear that her opinions were unbiased. She dealt with everyone in the same way, had patience, and stated otherwise negative things in a matter of fact way. While I may have been afraid to tell a colleague when they were irritating me, letting the situation fester until I actively disliked them, Kristen would tell them immediately, deal with any fall-out, and be laughing with them an hour later. She summarized it best herself: “My advice to women is be yourself and be confident in who you are, and you will be treated with respect.”
With this in mind, I thought the larger pre-law community could benefit from hearing from Kristen’s experiences. Despite being someone who was never technically ‘pre-law’ – “[she] focused more on volunteer experiences or traveling experiences…[and] did not decide to go to law school until at least a year and a half after graduating” – her path is one that many of us will likely imitate. In 2007, after majoring in Political Science and Religious Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia, she joined a small non-profit and was staffed in Uganda for a few years. She got her JD from Northwestern Law School in 2013, worked at Jones Day, and eventually moved to the NY AG where she works now. She was kind enough to agree to an interview, and I’ve included an edited transcript below.
Nikki: What led you to law school?
Kristen: Initially, I went to law school because I thought my personality was well suited for the practice of law. I certainly did not think my first job would be at a large law firm practicing corporate litigation. I thought I would like “international law” but I really had no idea what that was. Early into law school, I realized that I really enjoyed learning more about constitutional law and that this type of practice is less common - most lawyers end up practicing corporate or transactional litigation.
N: Did you take a break before law school? Looking back, would you?
K: Yes, I was out of school for three years. For me, that was ideal and I would do it again. I think everyone should take at least one year, because after the time and monetary investment of law school, it’s less likely you will ever have another year to do something else, unless you quit being a lawyer. I think law schools are looking for candidates with interesting backgrounds and experiences, and it’s not necessary to work as a paralegal before law school. But, it is important to reflect that you have done something aside from school during your time in undergrad.
N: Any big LSAT advice?
K: Take as many real-time practice tests in the morning as possible. After the practice test, take a break. In the afternoon, walk through each question you got wrong or right using a practice book, and read why you got each question wrong or right. Learn to understand the patterns.
N: When you applied to law school, how did you choose where to apply? And where to go?
K: I think it depends the most on your LSAT score. Look at the statistics for each school. If you have a great LSAT and a pretty good GPA, then you can apply to less. If you have an average LSAT but a great GPA from a good school (and perhaps something else interesting on your resume), apply to at least 5 top schools, but make sure to apply to several schools where your LSAT score is competitive.
If you are absolutely certain what region of the country you want to live in, you can focus on schools in that region alone. You don’t have to go to Harvard to get a good job in Chicago. If you have no idea what region you want to live in after law school, focus on the top 14 law schools because the name recognition of those schools will broaden your post-graduate options.
I wish I’d realized what it really means to take on a quarter million dollars of debt to go to law school. Take this into consideration when applying to schools and deciding where to go.
N: Why big law? Best parts of big law? Worst?
K: I took a big law job because the job was offered and I knew that I could always leave if I didn’t like it. It pays well and you work with a lot of very ambitious people who always want their legal work product to be the best it can be. I learned a lot of valuable skills that I think all young attorneys at big firms learn. There are also a lot of high stakes or high profile cases. The worst part is that some people in that culture are very unpleasant to work for, you work very long hours doing what I consider “non-substantive” assignments (document review, for example), and you don’t hone certain legal skills that an attorney is expected to have in the future (brief writing, for example).
N: Why did you move to the NY AG?
K: I wanted to write briefs, speak in court, and take depositions. These are not common tasks given to young lawyers at big law firms. I am driven by the story behind a case, which corporate litigation often lacks. At the AG’s office, I’ve realized that the law is far from ideal, and this country needs good and thoughtful attorneys to continue shaping the common law.
N: In your experience, what makes a strong first-year associate?
K: Treat every single assignment like it’s the most assignment you’ve ever received. In time, you will learn to use your judgment on the amount of time and effort to spend on the assignment, depending on the context and the purpose of the assignment. But if a partner or senior associate asks you to review an excel sheet that is 1,000 pages long and highlight certain rows, do it perfectly. Good first-year associates are those that can be trusted, and you do not have to double check their work. When it comes to legal research, a strong first-year associate will research the assignment, but also actively think about the case and come up with ideas that perhaps the others have not considered.
N: And what makes a good litigator?
K: A good litigator can always play devil’s advocate with their case and be willing to step into the shoes of your advocate. I think some litigators get so focused on their own argument or side of the story, and it’s just never that simple. I also think a good litigator does not need to be unkind or contentious to be competitive.
N: What qualities do you feel you've had to cultivate to practice your profession?
K: Negotiating is a skill that needs to be cultivated. It requires observation and practice. Also, learning how to edit your work over and over. The key to good legal writing is editing, and I wish I had learned that right away. I usually hate re-reading and editing my work, but I now know it’s absolutely essential to good legal writing.
N: Have you had any defining experiences as a woman in the legal field?
K: I think the atmosphere for women is much more accommodating in the legal field than it used to be (I’ve heard horror stories from senior female partners). However, there also seems to be a trend now that some men will attribute your success to your status as a female rather than your actual attributes as a lawyer. I find this frustrating, but I try not to doubt myself. My advice to women is be yourself and be confident in who you are, and you will be treated with respect.
Are there questions you wish I had asked? Or responses and thoughts that her path and advice raised? Share them in the comments below!
Nikki Datta is a rising junior at Columbia University in the City of New York. She serves as Executive Editor of the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review and was most recently an intern at New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's Litigation office. She is also the founder and President of Columbia University Women in Law and Politics (cuwilp.weebly.com). Connect with Nikki at: www.linkedin.com/in/nikkidatta