Law school success, immigrants, and the American Dream

A change of pace today.

A lot of Larry Law Law is about how  — how to kill it in law school, become a great lawyer, etc.

But this post is about why, and weirdly, wherefrom.

(Yes, I just made up a word.  Put that in the Dictionary of Modern Usage, Bryan Garner!)

I like to think that Larry Law Law is about more than just law school and legal careers and what not.

I like to think that this site is a bit about the American Dream as well, and how each of us can help improve — ourselves and others — in pursuit of that Dream.

(I have Canadian students as well.  Insert “Canadian Dream” where you see “American Dream” and we’re not far off.  Except much of your country is colder and has better gravy-smothered French fries.)

I say this because many of us — myself included — are the children of immigrants.

Many of you all (my students) are children of immigrants, or immigrants too, having gotten to know many of you.

(Of course, many of you are not children of immigrants, but your grandparents or great-grandparents or someone at some point was an immigrant, so bear with me.)

Education is a big deal if you are the child of immigrants.  It’s a way out of the limited circumstances of your immediate life.

My family was never exactly poor, but frankly education was the only way I was going to get the hell out of Reno, Nevada (great question: what Koreans in their right minds settle in Reno, Nevada?  No one, that’s who.  My parents were obviously not in their right minds.)

I wasn’t going to be able to get out of Reno as an athlete or poker player or model (although my feet are pretty, I would say).  There was just school.

Funny, isn’t it, how excelling on something mundane like an exam or standardized test can be almost magical in how it can transform your life?

I’m not saying that we live in a complete meritocracy.  We don’t.

But under the right circumstances, killing it in school can make all the difference.

(If you didn’t feel this way, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.)

Mostly, it means more choices — more money, yes, but more experiences, more travel, more connections, more interesting people in your life — in short, more of a chance to make the world a little better and your parents proud.

Becoming a lawyer — already a difficult academic task in itself — in an immigrant family can mean status and pride if your parents come from a country where lawyers are respected, and practically can mean being able to navigate tricky stuff (taxes, lawsuits, immigration issues) that otherwise are frightening.

Sidenote:  In my case, “status and pride” meant that my dad would handout my Big Law business cards to complete strangers in the casino poker room where he used to hang out daily.

He would — I am not making this up — actually puff his chest out, hand a card to said drunk complete stranger, and boast “My son is a lawyer!”

Thanks, Dad.  I’m still waiting for a call from a drunk stranger in jail.  End sidenote.

Still, when I said that killing it in school makes all the difference “under the right circumstances,” what are those “right circumstances”?

Well, basically, in my view, even if you’re smart, you don’t make it on your own.

You also need people rooting for you, helping you up the ladder, helping you to make good decisions.

I went to Harvard as an undergrad.  (Hold on — I’m not saying this to impress you, I’m saying this to tell you what an asshole I was.)

I once visited a finals club — those exclusive social clubs for rich private school kids.  (A finals club is briefly shown, in exaggerated fashion, in The Social Network, an execrable movie, but whatevs).

These finals club kids had connections — their daddies or daddies’ friends got them fancy internships on Wall Street.  They had help — paid tutors (like me) when needed.  They had files at their clubs filled with old exams and essays (I saw this with my own eyes).

And at worst, their parents would support them financially if they messed up completely.

They had every tool, every means of keeping up good grades and getting jobs.

My reaction — when I visited the club, and every time I heard of some rich kid getting some fancy internship that I applied for and didn’t get — was defensive disdain:

“That’s not me.  Look at me, I worked hard, Daddy didn’t help me at all — he has no network and speaks Mr. Miyagi-like English (sorry Dad).  I got into Harvard all on my own without all this added help that these rich babies seem to get.”

But take a closer look at what I was thinking.

Only looking back can I see the terrible attitude, born of a scarcity mindset and envy.

Of course I wasn’t a rich kid like they were.

But in my moments of envy, thinking those bitter thoughts, I had utterly, horribly, ungraciously, ignored and forgotten every single person who helped me along the way.

My life was filled with mentors and people willing to help.  They steered me, encouraged me.

There were teachers, but there were other, older students who had been there.  Many of them (not all) were also the children of immigrants, but they had been there before.

I got into Harvard because of hard work, sure.

But it wasn’t just hard work.

I was lucky, too.

I went to a public school where there were older students who got into good schools (rare though it was), and those older students befriended me.

They were role models and advisers.  They made me see that it WAS possible to excel, even at a public school in Nowheresville, Nevada.  They gave me tactical and strategic advice and real encouragement.  And they gave me friendship without strings.

Even at Harvard, though filled with assholes (like myself), there still were many, many other friendly older students who were more than happy to give advice and and help me get better.

Even before and in law school, my life was crawling with mentors.

I did well in law school, I am positive, because a high school friend who had gone to Harvard Law forced me to have drinks with him.

He brought his BARBRI Conviser Mini Review book to the bar, shoved it in my hands, and told me to pre-study the law, to never write case briefs, to start to look at real exams when I arrived at school . . . does some of this sound familiar?

I am positive without my friend’s intervention that I would have, like, briefed cases (gasp!) or some other dumb thing in law school that would have resulted in bad grades.

And when I got to law school, there were other students, upperclassmen, always willing to help me or answer questions or make me think what I wanted to do was possible.  To me this is the key.

So, sure, I didn’t have the exact kind of network or benefits or riches that those finals club guys had.

But I did have my own, different networks and riches.

Many, many people helped me.

Any success I’ve had in my life was somewhat attributable to smarts and more to hard work, but a huge amount of it was luck in having people willing to help me — the right mentors to find me, guide me, and encourage me.

It was luck.  I could have received the wrong advice.  While I sought out mentors, I didn’t control which mentors would help me and if they had any clue what they were talking about.

Weirdly, in this narrow sense, we may have more control over the luck of others than the luck we receive.

That is, once we actually know what we’re doing, we may be better placed to bestow luck on others, to mentor those younger than us.

So, if I could leave you with one thing in this post, it is this:

Attain some success — in law school, as a lawyer, in life — and pay it forward, as soon as you can.

Once you have some success in something and can convey know-how that is useful to someone else, become a mentor and make luck for other people.

And pick mentees who can use the help — those who don’t have a network, don’t have riches, but have the desire and ability.

I feel like this is a great way to make a difference in life.

You don’t have to do it on a big scale or create an institution.

(And if you can help in a big way, do!  Save the world!  We need help!)

But, if I could ask you to do one thing, it is to be a mentor to someone else.

Answer questions, meet people for coffee, and help someone who can use it.