Interview By: Anastasia Golovashkina
UCULR: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your thoughts and experiences with us! The aim of this interview is to provide an accurate and informative depiction of real life before, during, and after law school. First, let's talk a little bit about college. What did you study as an undergraduate, and how does your major relate to what you currently do? Do you have any advice for current undergraduates?
Dr. Derrick Johnson: I majored in Political Science and minored in Philosophy at the University of South Florida. USF is known for having a very rigorous political science program, and I took a lot of courses that helped me develop strong critical thinking skills – political thought, political theory, political analysis, law and politics. These courses sharpened my thinking abilities, and helped prepare me for everything that I’ve done since. USF didn’t have a pre-law program, and once I got into political science, law school seemed like the next logical step.
UCULR: Tell us about your experience as a law student. How (if at all) did it differ from what you had expected?
DJ: I actually didn’t go to law school right after college. Halfway through college, I decided to go for a Master’s degree in Public Administration. I then received a one-of-a-kind opportunity to take on a junior legislative position with a state representative. I worked with the District Office in Tampa, learning a lot about government, law, and the Bar Administration, slowly realizing that law school would be my next step. I applied to three schools, was accepted to two, and ultimately chose to attend the University of Miami School of Law.
Most people will tell you that the first year is very intense, semi-miserable experience – and it is. There are certain things you have to do; a certain mindset that you need to succeed. In the first year, you realize that you’re surrounded by a group of very competitive people who all want to be in the “top 5%” of the class. Your schedule is also pre-selected, with Constitutional law, torts, contracts, and intro courses. What I found especially surprising was that I wasn’t allowed to work, and had to take out loans and look for scholarships. I was fortunate to receive a substantial scholarship, but law school tuition (especially at a private school) is very high.
UCULR: What career path have you pursued since graduation? How has your legal background helped you? How have your goals evolved over time?
DJ: In my third year of law school, I took a course on litigation and clinical skills. The first semester incorporated trial training, and allowed me to qualify for a professional training program, where I was paired up with a law firm that would train me. I was essentially an intern. I was assigned to the State Attorney’s Office – and from the very first case that I tried through them, I began to obtain a wealth of knowledge about the law – about what it means to be an attorney; about what it entails.
However, I was also mostly working on domestic violence cases. I saw good people at their worst – people disputing with their spouses; people having issues with their children. So I asked myself: Do I want to continue doing this for the rest of my life? The answer was no. I did apply for a full-time position with the State Attorney’s Office, but chose to withdraw my application before a formal decision could be made.
So, I decided to go into education. I’ve taught at several schools, and have now spent almost six years teaching comprehensive law studies, courses in government and law, coaching debate and mock trial, and things like that. I’m currently also working on a side practice and am about to get my LL.M. degree this spring. Three to four years down the road, I’d like to become a law professor. You could say that’s my ultimate goal.
Lots of my friends did a similar thing – going into law for a while, and eventually transferring to private practice or leaving the legal profession altogether.
UCULR: Is there anything that you might like to have done differently?
DJ: I spent a lot of time focusing on my degree, and wasn’t as social as I now realize I could have been. There is, of course, a danger in becoming too lax in law school, since most law school courses will base your grade on a single final test. If you perform poorly on that test, you will fail that entire class. So, if you’re not prepared or aren’t doing your reading, you aren’t going to do well. I actually had a professor at Miami School of Law (I won’t mention his name) who lived and breathed the Socratic method. He used it to embarrass people who weren’t up to date on their reading or the class material.
UCULR: Do you have any advice for college students interested in law?
DJ: Don’t give up if things aren’t going your way. Law school is tough – and anyone who decides to go into law needs to know that they need to be committed, and to not give up. Not everyone makes it through – my 1L class had approximately 400 students, but only 280 or 290 graduated. Same with the Bar Exam – it’s tough. It can take several years to pass. But never give up.
Anastasia Golovashkina is a first-year Economics major at the College.