The Girl’s Guide to Law School: An Interview with Alison Monahan

After I first encountered Alison Monahan on Twitter and spent time reading her blog, The Girl’s Guide to Law School, I knew immediately I had found a kindred spirit. Balancing gimlet-eyed candor with an encouraging and supportive tone, Alison’s insights and actionable advice are a welcome tonic.

Clearly, other people have had the same experience. Only a few months into her blog, Alison’s distinctive storytelling is already widely sought and shared.

Q: A clear POV is essential to effective blogging. I love your blog’s tagline because it succinctly and clearly communicates what the content is about: “Get In, Get Through, Stay You.” Is law school basically an ordeal to be endured? A survival exercise?

A: I’ll be honest – I enjoyed many parts of law school. I found it intellectually interesting, and I liked that I was gaining insight into things I’d been vaguely aware of, but had never thought much about. Now, when I read a newspaper article about a Supreme Court decision, I understand nuances that I would have completely missed before, and I generally know why the case came out the way it did. That’s pretty cool!

The actual day-to-day experience of law school, however, left a lot to be desired. I’d done a previous graduate degree (in architecture), so I had a point of comparison that a lot of law students don’t have. I knew what it was like to work really hard and learn something that was challenging, but I found law school much, much more unpleasant than I’d expected. Part of it was probably that I went to a fancy school in New York City, and I was coming from California, but I just didn’t think most people were very nice! That, more than anything, made it an ordeal to be endured.

 

Q: In addition to the keen insights and impeccable writing, in my mind what distinguishes your blog is its highly personal nature. In the “About” page of your blog you write: “Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and lots of research, I understand more about why law school is so unpleasant, particularly for women. I started this website to share what I’ve learned, and I hope you use my knowledge to make your own law school experience more satisfying and less unpleasant.” Is the blog also therapeutic for you?

A: Interesting question! I think I got most of my law school angst out with my actual therapist, who was really fantastic and helped me reframe the challenges of law school as something I could chose, or not chose, to flip out about. She was absolutely life-changing, and I encourage anyone who’s struggling with law school stress, or any other aspect of your life, to take advantage of the student health services at your school. You almost certainly get free therapy sessions, and it’s a great thing to take advantage of. You’ll learn all kinds of useful coping skills, which you’ll be able to employ throughout your life as a lawyer (trust me, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice). Even if it’s scary to call and make that first appointment, you’ll be glad you did.

As for the blog, there are a few posts that were somewhat therapeutic, I suppose. The post I was most reluctant to publish, and held on to for weeks before I put it out there, was about getting a cold offer from a law firm. Some variant of this story happens all the time at law firms, but it’s something no one ever talks about. Ultimately, I published it for a few reasons. One, just to let people know that this does happen, and that it could happen to them, even if they’ve got great credentials, and worked hard, and have always been successful. Two, to show that, if this sort of thing does happen to you, it’s not the end of the world. Your life will go on, your career will go on, and you’re not a total failure just because one particular law firm doesn’t want to hire you. And, finally, I published it because I could. In the end, it was cathartic to realize that I could tell this story, which is customarily shrouded in secrecy, and nothing bad would happen. At that point, the experience lost any power over me. I think I was holding on, at least a little bit, to the idea that this was somehow my fault, and that I should be ashamed of it, but, after publishing the post, I don’t feel that way at all!

 

Q: When you launched the blog in September 2011 there were already several prominent blogs and Twitter chats addressing current and aspiring law students, and legal education is a frequent topic across the legal blawgosphere. What do you see as your unique contributions to that discourse?

A: I try, above all, to be helpful. That sounds simple, but it’s not. There’s a ton of information out there for prospective, and actual, law students, and some of it is very good. But a lot of it misses the mark, in my opinion, because it’s not particularly action oriented.

For example, I read a law school guide, which said something along the lines of “It’s important to make an outline in law school, and there are various ways to do this. Try several and see what works best for you.” This is true, as far as it goes, but it’s not very helpful. If I’m a new law student reading this, I have no idea how to make a law school outline. Telling me there are various options doesn’t help – it just confuses me even more.

What I try to do instead is to get down to the nitty-gritty: Why do you need to make an outline, and what are some ways you might do it? Hopefully, after reading these posts, a new law student would have a clear idea what the goal of outlining is (which might enable them to come up with a unique way of getting to the goal), and they’d have some practical options to try.

 

Q: Judging from site analytics and comments, what topics/individual posts have resonated most strongly with your readers?

A: My most popular post ever was Why Every Law Student Should Be on Twitter, which got picked up by Above the Law. Beyond that (which was kind of a one-off), the most popular content is the posts debunking myths about law school and the legal profession.

 

Q: While some blogs embrace the frustration and bitterness endemic to law school and the legal profession, your content by contrast seems preternaturally calm and pragmatic. Is that your nature, or is it a byproduct of your experience in the crucible?

A: Probably a little from Column A, and a little from Column B. It’s definitely easier to be calm and collected about the law school/law firm experience when you’re not in the middle of it! If you’d caught me during law school exam time, I most definitely would NOT have been calm! More like completely crazy. But I think it’s good for people who are in the middle of these stress-inducing situations to know that it won’t always be like this – they too can come out on the other side and live a nice life, even if it doesn’t seem like that’s a possibility at the moment.

 

Q: Your bio on the site is a bit cryptic, with a whiff of mystery: “I’m a 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School. I was a member of the Columbia Law Review, I clerked for a federal judge, and I did a stint in BigLaw. In short, I did what lots of people think they want to do when they apply to law school. Trust me, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Be careful what you wish for.” Are you still a practicing attorney?

A: Right now I’m only doing pro bono work. A couple of times since I left BigLaw, I’ve explored starting a small practice with friends. For various reasons, the stars haven’t aligned yet on that, but it’s a possibility going forward. I don’t think I’d work for another firm, since I have a more entrepreneurial mindset, but I’m not completely opposed to practicing law again at some point in the future. My California bar membership is active, but I’ve officially “retired” in Massachusetts.

 

Q: What have you enjoyed most about your legal blogging journey so far?

A: This sounds like a cliché, but it’s the people I’ve met. Lawyers get a bad rap, but many of them are interesting, intelligent people who want to make a difference in the world. Having a legal blog is a great way to reach out to people, since I can ask them to share their experiences and advice. Most people are happy to help, and have really useful info to share with aspiring lawyers.

 

Q: Can you share any “ah ha” moments – good or bad?

A: Sure, I had two very early on, in the first week or so after I launched The Girl’s Guide. In all honesty, I didn’t expect anyone to find or read the site for awhile. I’d told all of my friends about it, of course, and I reached out to some old law school professors (shamelessly, I admit), but the idea that a random person on the internet might find it, and read it, seemed a bit farfetched.

So, I launched it and went on about my life. Within a few days, one of my posts on scheduling clerkship interviews was a top Google result, and someone had found me on Twitter and asked me to guest post regularly on their site. I was shocked, on both accounts.

The “ah ha” moment was twofold. One, search engine optimization and social media really work and can help you spread ideas very efficiently. Two, people might actually want to read this stuff!

 

Q: How’s Twitter working out for you? Do you actively participate on other social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn discussion groups)?

A: Twitter’s the best! I was reluctant to join (and only did so because my web designer added a “Follow me on Twitter” button to the site), but it’s turned out to be awesome. I love how there’s such a community vibe to the whole thing, where everyone’s trying to post useful content that other people will appreciate. And it’s amazing how easily people can connect. I’ve got a bunch of “Twitter friends” now, that I’d never have met otherwise.

I’m also on Facebook and LinkedIn, and I think those have their place, even if they’re less active (at least for me). LinkedIn groups for law students and such are useful, because you can spread content and build a reputation as someone who knows what they’re talking about and is trying to help. My own LinkedIn group is pretty small, and I generally forget to update it. Facebook’s getting more active as I make more connections, but Twitter’s the clear winner for me!

 

Q: Do you have any plans to add other media to your mix (e.g. videos, webinars, conferences)?

A: Actually, yes, there are a couple of exciting things I’m working on. I’d like to start doing some podcasts, so I’m talking with Ann Levine about possible topics for her Blog Talk Radio show. I’m also working with Lee Faller Burgess, of Amicus Tutoring, on a course to demystify the law school experience, which we hope will be really helpful, and make law school less of an ordeal. Stay tuned!

 

Q: What do you say to prospective law students who ask “Is it worth it?”

A: I guess I’d ask what they mean by that. My question in return would be, “What do you want to get out of it?” If a prospective law student can answer that question with a decent level of detail, then we can start evaluating whether law school can meet their expectations.

I don’t think you can say, in the abstract, that law school is “worth it” or “not worth it.” Sure, you could calculate the cost to attend and your expected level of earnings over a given career path, and say you’ll be financially better off (or not) if you go to law school and everything goes according to plan. But that calculation leaves out a lot – Will you like your job? Will your work be meaningful? Will you be able to eat dinner with your kids (or even have time to have them)? Will this path make you happy?

These are big questions, and most of them can only be answered in retrospect. The mission for the prospective law student is to get as close to an answer in the here-and-now as they realistically can.

The way to do that, I think, is to find out as much as possible about the profession, and to talk to lots of practicing (and former) lawyers. When people are gathering information, it’s critical to be aware of natural heuristic biases (paying more attention to information that confirms your preexisting opinion, for example, and less to information that contradicts it).

The hardest part of this analysis is to find a way to really listen to what people are telling you. There’s a lot of wishful thinking out there, and law schools, to be frank, sometimes prey on this. The reality is that law’s a difficult profession, and it’s not a path to guaranteed riches. For the right person, it’s a good option. But far too many prospective students either fail to do their research, or put aside the feeling that maybe this isn’t a good idea, and end up bitter and disgruntled.

Don’t let this be you! Make sure you know what you’re getting into, before you commit to a legal career. Only later will you know if it was worth it.

Thanks a lot for having me on Shatterbox!

 

Alison Monahan started The Girl’s Guide to Law School to help aspiring lawyers have a better law school experience. She’s a 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School, where she was a member of the Columbia Law Review. After graduation, she clerked for a (totally awesome) federal judge for a year, then worked as a patent litigator in a San Francisco BigLaw firm.

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