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U. of Texas School of Law 2017 and Dublin High School 2011 Alum Kirsten Johansson on Surviving Law School

July 10, 2017

DUBLIN, CA–As part of our Life in College and Life After College series of profiles we’ve followed Dublin High School alum through many adventures. Our next interview is a must read for any student considering law school. University of Texas School of Law graduate Kirsten Johansson shares her experiences surviving three intense years of law school including summer internships that led to a full-time job on graduation. Kirsten graduated from Dublin High School with the Class of 2011, then completed her undergraduate degree at Southern Methodist University. Kirsten contributed a Life in College article back in 2015 about what it takes to get into law school; we recently caught up with Kirsten, who is now preparing for the California Bar Exam, in-between marathon study sessions.

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Kirsten on her first day of kindergarten (in Dublin!) and last day of law school

OneDublin.org: Given what it takes to get accepted into law school, and the work required to graduate, what did it feel like to walk across the stage and accept your degree?

Kirsten Johansson: “It felt fantastic! After three years of long nights and tons of stress it was wonderful to earn my degree. At the same time it was bittersweet because I still have the Bar Exam to study for immediately after graduating.”

OneDublin.org: Did 1L live up to its reputation?

Johansson: “There’s an old saying about law school: the first year they scare you to death, the second year they work you to death, and the third year they bore you to death. It sounds silly but it really is true. The hardest thing in the first year is how scared you are, you have no idea where you stand with your peers. Everyone around you is so smart. It’s really the fear that makes 1L so hard. Realistically you have no extracurriculars, all you are doing is school, and you’re not allowed to have a job. While the material itself isn’t particularly hard, your entire grade comes down to a single set of exams, and you don’t know how you stack up against your peers.

“You definitely feel the curve, you feel it all the time. If someone knows something you didn’t know, then you feel like you’re behind. I started law school straight out of undergrad so I had less life knowledge compared to people who started later; for example, someone who had already purchased a house would have a better understanding of a mortgage. Comparing yourself to everyone else can be difficult.

“Most people form into small study groups, and within those groups it’s very cooperative. The group I was in took a bunch of old practice exams, which at the University of Texas are published online. It would take three hours to take the exam and six hours talking them out. Inside the groups it was collaborative, but groups didn’t share information with each other.”

OneDublin.org: How important were study groups?

Johansson: “I don’t think they are absolutely critical because some people study better by themselves. By the time I was in my third year of law school I didn’t use study groups, I knew how the process worked. That said, study groups can be a really helpful tool for pointing out things that you missed in practice exams. The practice exams don’t have answer sheets so it’s good to have other people to discuss the answers. Study groups also help with morale;we’d take an exam and all go out to dinner together. Study groups can really help you get through the experience, and were where I made some of my best friends during law school.”

OneDublin.org: Looking back, what would you have done differently in your first year based on what you’ve learned since then?

Johansson: “One thing I think I did well was to not get too stressed out in the beginning, because when you first start law school you don’t know anything. Some students were starting to study for exams during the first month of law school and the reality is you don’t know enough. I found it really helpful to go out and have fun in the beginning, to participate in all the events that are organized to help law students get to know each other. Time management and giving yourself breaks, especially during finals period, is really important. During finals I felt like I could never take a break, I barely slept during the last couple of weeks. I don’t believe that approach is necessarily beneficial, I don’t think I learned as much because I wasn’t sleeping. The most important thing I learned is you have to give yourself a break when you are tired.”

OneDublin.org: How much did the movie portrayals of law school match the actual experience?

Johansson: “It really depends on the professor. Some professors are very much like the professor in ‘The Paper Chase’, where you are called on with rapid fire questions, and you better know what you are talking about. For those classes your only option is to be really well prepared every day. Other professors have on-call days, where a portion of the room is on-call on a given day. Knowing your professors’ approach helps you prioritize your time.

“I’ve had cold call professors, I’ve had professors that call only one person for the entire class, and I’ve had professors who just lecture, who’ll answer questions if you raise your hand but otherwise it’s a lecture.”

OneDublin.org: Which courses reinforced your decision to go to law school?

Johansson: “I did a few classes which were more practical in application and less theoretical. In one class I worked in a clinic with actual clients, focused on environmental law. It was cool working for a client who was in the community, and trying to make a positive change for Austin.

“I also completed an internship with the State Office of Administrative Hearings, and that was cool because I was working for the Administrative Law judges, helping to write opinions, listen in on cases, and prepare background research. Those practical opportunities helped remind me what it was all about in the end.”

OneDublin.org: What was your strategy for lining up internships?

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Kirsten with the Lawyers Have Heart 10k team

Johansson: “Start early! For your first summer internships you typically apply after you get your grades back. Everyone applies all over the place and you see where you get interviews. After your first year of law school you can try anything you want, as long as it’s related to the legal field. You can work for a firm, you can work for a non-profit, you can work for a government agency – anything that interests you. I applied to 50 different firms and 20-30 different government positions, and you see what sticks.

“For your second summer internship you need to figure out what you want to do for your career because generally your second internship turns into your full-time job, if you are going to a firm. The second internship is a more structured process organized by the university; at Texas Law it’s On-Campus Interviews (OCI) and hundreds of potential employers come on campus and host first round interviews. You can do up to 25 interviews in a week and then firms that like you will invite you to a half or full-day callback interview where they fly you out to wherever their firm is located. It’s three weeks of insanity and you are flying all over the country. Choosing where you go for a second internship is really important because it’s likely going to be your first job out of law school.

“I followed a pretty traditional path – I worked in a firm in D.C. last summer and received a full-time offer at the end of the summer, and that’s my first job. I’m moving out to D.C. this fall after completing the California Bar Exam.”

OneDublin.org: Tell me more about studying for the Bar.

Johansson: “Studying for the Bar is intense. Everyone tells you that before you take the Bar, and I’m not sure anyone really believes how intense the studying is until you are actually preparing for the exam. Studying for the Bar means studying 8-10 hours per day, Monday through Sunday. It’s a lot, and it’s definitely not a fun, relaxing summer. We did have a week off between the end of finals and starting Bar exam prep, but it’s generally after passing the Bar that people have a month or two to travel before starting work, and having nothing to do for the first time in years!

“I’m taking the California Bar Exam which is transferable to D.C. (every Bar exam in the U.S. can be waived into the D.C. Bar Association). Generally, however, there are restrictions on transferring from one state to another.”

OneDublin.org: What type of law are you pursuing?

Johansson: “I’m starting with regulatory work in D.C., that was the reason I pursued an internship in D.C. My current focus is compliance counseling and working with federal agencies.”

OneDublin.org: What advice do you have for high school students who are thinking of pursuing a law degree? Or is high school too early to think about law as a career?

Johansson: “I was an example of a high school student who was thinking of being a lawyer when I was fifteen years old. There are so many people who are going to tell you that going to law school is a bad idea. It is a career choice that means working long hours, it’s very competitive to get into law school and then getting a job. But if it’s something that you really want then you should go for it and make undergrad choices that can help you get there. For me a smaller school, SMU, helped me establish the connections and mentors I was going to need to get into law school.

“Also check-in as you go to validate that you actually want to go to law school. I checked-in on myself to confirm that I still wanted to pursue law. There are definitely some people that go to law school because they’re not sure what else they want to do, or their parents are lawyers. Those are the people who risk not enjoying the law as much as they thought they would.”

OneDublin.org: One last question for fun – what is your favorite movie or T.V. show based on the law and why?

Johansson: “I’m going to choose a T.V. show, ‘Suits’, because it’s so comical to me after having been through law school. The main character in Suits is a trial lawyer one minute, and then a mergers and acquisitions lawyer the next, and his office is eight times the size of any law partner’s office. Suits is okay on the legal analysis, but the main characters wearing so many hats is nothing like a real practice. They also seem to spend no time doing discovery which is a lot of the time you spend as a lawyer!”

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Kirsten and friend at graduation

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