By Mahira Siddiqui • June 16, 2012•Writers in Residence
Alison Monahan started The Girls Guide To Law School to help aspiring lawyers have a better law school experience. She received her JD from Columbia Law School, where she was a member of the Columbia Law Review. After graduation, she clerked for a federal judge then worked as a patent litigator in a San Francisco BigLaw firm. She is also a current Writer in Residence for Ms. JD.
The obvious question, why blog?
It’s funny… I started this project actually as a book and I have written about three chapters of the book. I have a book proposal and a detailed outline and at some point I realized I was looking at eighteen months of continued effort, at which point I would have a book that no one would have ever heard about or know who I was. So given that I have a web development and design background I thought I should just do this as a website and put it out there and see what happens and that’s pretty much what I did in September. Most of the content were chapters I had already written which were on getting into law school, picking a law school and getting a clerkship. These posts happened to correspond to the clerkship season so the blog got a lot of traffic pretty much immediately; it was a top Google result. So that was really cool and it made me think maybe there is a need for this information and people might want to read it, which is very gratifying. Then I thought if people want to read this stuff then I have to keep writing it.
What have you learned through blogging that you wish you had known during law school?
I think mostly, and this has surprised me more broadly, is the fact that there is a whole community of people who are interested and wiling to give you advice and support, which is new from the time I was in school. Nowadays, you can go on Twitter and there are people from Lexis or Westlaw ready to give you whatever assistance you need. So, I think just the sense of a broader community of people who are actually supportive.
What led you to leave BigLaw?
You know, like everyone else, the hours mostly. I enjoyed the work as far as it went. I was doing interesting work as a patent litigator and I was on a team for one jury trial that went to a whole jury verdict, which is rare these days. There was one case where I was involved in the entire process and we settled right before trial so that was very interesting. After the case settled, I had some time to think about whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing this and the answer was ‘no’. I mean it takes over your life: you wake up, go to the office, maybe on a good day go to the gym, come home, go to bed, and get up and do it all over again. I couldn’t see myself in that role indefinitely.
Did you feel a social pressure to pursue law? Why did you decide to go to law school?
I have to admit it was sort of on a whim. I was working as a programmer during the first post dot.com boom in San Francisco and that job was going nowhere because the entire industry was imploding. It’s a funny story; I remember the day I decided to go to law school I went to lunch after a terrible staff meeting where people were being laid off, our salaries were being cut and we were going to have to work twice as hard. So, everyone at the table made a life changing decision that day. Some of them probably better than mine. One of them became a winemaker, another started her own business and I sat there eating my burrito thinking “What am I going to do?” and I said “Well, I think I’ll go to New York and I’ll go to law school.” And pretty much that was it.
On a feminist note, why not the ‘Universal Guide to Law School’? Why is your blog specifically aimed towards women when it discusses several struggles our Y chromosome partners also face?
Well, obviously guys read my website and they email me. In fact, interestingly enough, I probably get as many, if not more, questions from guys than I do girls. But I think a lot of the information is totally universal. For example, preparing for a law school exam is not a gendered topic. The way I look at it is that if a guy comes to the website and gets past that slightly initial shock of “Oh, there is pink here, this really isn’t designed for me,” then that’s great and they’re welcome to use the information. But I think having that shock of “I don’t actually really belong here” is good for them because that’s what women go through in the legal profession on a daily basis. You walk into a meeting and you’re the only woman sitting at a table with six men, or you walk into an interview and the only people interviewing you throughout the days are men. We’re used to that, “Oh, I don’t really fit in here,” and I think on some sort of meta level having this experience for men is actually important.
From your readers and spectators, what is the most common or recurring issue you feel women face entering law school and the legal arena?
Sort of more broadly in the profession, being a woman is still difficult. I think people are really starting to ask the question, “You say you have 20% women partners…how many of them are equity partners?” You also look at judges, heads of organizations, in-house counsel, and general counsel - all of them are stuck at a fairly low level of participation. I think for a lot of women, the common concern is, “Can you even exist in this profession?” Particularly with the loan debt people are taking on, it’s really quite lonely and depressing. So, this question of how do you deal with all this stuff and fit it into any sort of life you want to have is a looming question for a lot of people. For law school, I think to a certain extent you can ignore it, but it’s still in the background. For example, “What are you setting yourself up for and how is that going to work out long term?”
What was the biggest challenge you faced during law school and in practice that you wish you had known before?
For me, my personality type was really externally achievement-focused. If I didn’t get an A in every class I thought I was totally worthless as a human being. I soon realized that isn’t going to happen in law school, there is no way you can get an A in every class no matter how much you study, how smart you are, who you are, or who your parents are. So that was a tough transition, but also not knowing what you’re doing or how you will be evaluated was really challenging.
At the firm mostly the difficulty was the time, hours and personalities involved. Everyone in a firm is working under extreme stress conditions all the time. No one has slept, no one is eating properly and if you’re the junior associate on a team you’re going to be yelled at or politely chastised for doing something wrong, which you had no idea how to do in the first place.
Having such a well-established blog, in just a few short months, what is the next ‘big’ thing you’re working on/thinking of adding to your blog-o-sphere?
I kind of joke now when people ask me what I do, I say, “I’m running a media empire,” because me and my partner Lee Burgess launched the Law School Toolbox and the Bar Exam Toolbox, so I think that’s where we are focusing our expansive efforts, because I think there is a need for a resource.
What is your favorite post to date and why?
I think I’d have to go with the one about What It's Like To Get a Cold Offer. Basically one of the three firms I worked for, all of which shall remain nameless, in one situation actually gave me a cold offer and this post describes exactly how this happened. I felt like this is something that happens not infrequently and probably happens to 1-2 people in a summer associate program. The firms report they have a 100% offer rate, they don’t actually. And no one talks about this. So as a result, no one ever thinks this might happen to them. I certainly didn’t think it would happen to me.
So, I felt like this would be a service to the world to put it out there that this might happen to you and if it does, it’s not the end of the world, you can recover it and it’s probably not your fault anyway. Also, that post goes to the top of the list because that was the one thing I was really reluctant to publish—I sat on that post for a week or two after I wrote it and before I published it. It’s one of those things you can’t get back from. If I put that out here, it is making a statement and the statement is: I’m never working at a firm again. It meant I’m someone who is actually going to say these things and draw back the blinds so I felt really exposed when I published that. But on the flip side, that led to some really interesting people getting in touch with me who hadn’t read these things before and wanted to talk about these realities.
A spunky, insightful up-to-date blog, personal responses from anxious pre-law students, miserable law students, an innovative law school crash course, and a stress-reduction site for bar exam tips—how do you manage it all?
Very barely! It’s a lot of balls to keep in the air. Luckily we have an intern right now who is fantastic and has taken a lot of pressure off. She writes content for the Law School Toolbox titled Lessons From My 1L Year and a ton of other stuff. She has helped in planning our tour to different law schools, the Ms. JD conference and many other projects. But frankly, right now I think we have bitten off a little more than we can chew!
Looking back—would you go back and re-do it again?
I always find that a hard question. I think you have to look at it from the standpoint “Are you happy where you ended up?” and the answer to that is “Yes” and is only the case because of certain, unpredictable things I couldn’t have known in advance. So it’s kind of a funny question, looking at someone else in my scenario: making a spontaneous decision to go to law school with no information, I would say is a really terrible idea and you shouldn’t do it.
What is your advice to women “now’ on the importance of social media in the legal profession?
It’s important to know about the ability to reach out to people. Particularly, one of the most popular articles I wrote was Why Every Law Student Should Be On Twitter. I think women in general are better at building relationships, which is valuable.
Other than that, I would say to jump in a little bit judiciously. For example, Lee and I might follow a law student on Twitter and read some tweet about how much pot they are smoking--even if you’re in California or you have a medical card it’s not a great idea. After all, you have to pass the character and fitness test to be admitted to the bar.