UCULR: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your thoughts and experiences with us! These questions aim to provide an accurate and informative depiction of life before, during, and after law school. We’ll first focus on 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?
James Luebchow: I majored in Accounting at Northern Illinois University. I had not planned on going to law school until I took a couple of business law courses towards the end of my career at NIU, which I found much more interesting than accounting. That led me to think about law school, which I obviously followed through on. I now work as a transactional lawyer involved in structuring tax-exempt bond issues for not-for-profit corporations - primarily healthcare institutions, with an occasional college or university thrown in. The accounting I learned at NIU has been useful in helping me be able to read, understand and explain the financial statements of my corporate borrowers, and understanding some of the underlying bases for how transactions are reflected on those financial statements.
In general, law schools don't really care what an applicant's undergraduate major is these days, as long as the applicant appears to have been challenged in his/her course of study and did well in his/her courses. For myself, I wish that I had taken a "liberal arts" major, which would have required me to think and reason more than I had to in my accounting courses. NIU has an excellent accounting program, but its accounting major (at least when I was there) was "comprehensive", which meant that I took an inordinate number of accounting and business courses, and not many outside of the business school. I would look for a broader undergraduate curriculum.
UCULR: Why did you apply to law school, and how did you decide which school to attend?
JL: My interest in law developed late in my undergraduate career, in part because I found business law courses interesting and wasn't at all sure I wanted to be an accountant for a living. I applied to law schools with the intention of seeing whether I liked the study of law in my first year - my theory was that if I did not, I would drop out and return to public accounting. I had a standing offer from Arthur Andersen & Co., which was probably the most prestigious of the "big eight" accounting firms at that time. May that offer rest in peace.
My reasons for selecting which law schools to apply to were pretty superficial: I mainly wanted to go out of the Midwest (at the time, I'd lived in Illinois for my entire life) and I wanted to go where the climate was warmer than Illinois (as I recall, the University of Illinois was the only school I applied to north of the Mason-Dixon line, and then only as a kind of "safety-valve.") I was of course interested in well-regarded schools, and also wanted one that weren't particularly large.
Determining which law schools to apply to can be influenced by a variety of factors, many of them quite individual in nature - things like the potential for financial aid (if needed), proximity to home (which can be both good and bad), and realistic expectations of acceptance. Visits to campus can be helpful, though it's probably more practical to visit once you’ve been accepted. My broad generalization about choosing a law school, all other things being equal (which of course they won't be), is to go to the highest-rated school you get into. These days in particular, the first job out of law school is not a given, but the higher the school's ranking, the better your chances.
UCULR: Tell us about your experience as a law student. How (if at all) was it different from what you had expected?
JL: I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. (Not that there weren't some very "un-enjoyable" times: our first-year finals, for example, were at the very end of the school year and covered each course’s entire curriculum.) I enjoyed the high caliber of the student body and the faculty, and the give-and-take between students and professors in the classroom. At Duke, there was a considerable degree of collegiality among the students rather than cutthroat competition. I had no lawyers in my family and didn't know many lawyers generally, so I had no particular expectation of what law school would be like. So I can't say it was different from what I expected!
The weather was also much nicer than in Chicago.
UCULR: What career path have you pursued since graduation? How has your legal background helped you? How have your goals evolved over time?
JL: I knew when I graduated from Duke that I wanted to practice financial law, in part to make use of my business background from college. While I toyed with the idea of taking a job in another part of the country, at the end of the day I felt most comfortable back in the Midwest, with friends and family relatively close by. I started my legal career at Chapman and Cutler in 1973, and am still there - a very boring resume in some respects! Being a lawyer has provided me with a very comfortable living (though it has most certainly not made me rich) and has given me a knowledge and status that has helped me give back to my community in different ways, such as serving on various boards and committees, and assisting parent-teacher organizations with obtaining 501(c)(3) status (to ensure that donations to those PTOs were properly deductible to the donors). My practice area involves almost exclusively non-profit organizations, which (while we certainly get paid for our work) also gives me some "psychological" pleasure in doing some good for charitable entities that are themselves doing some good.
I can't say that my "goals" have "evolved" much over time. I wanted my career to provide me interesting, challenging work; I wanted to become an equity partner in a good-sized law firm in a major financial market; I wanted to raise a family; I wanted to help my community in some ways; and I wanted to make a comfortable living. Nothing too exciting, but by and large I've achieved those goals. I suppose the one change in my practice, which I suppose means a change in my goals, is that law has become much more a business than a true profession, and so I've had to change my focus from just doing a good job to doing that plus obtaining or keeping business (and fighting off "poachers" of that business). My specific practice is as a "bond lawyer" who works on tax-exempt bond issues for not-for-profit organizations, as bond counsel, underwriters' counsel or special corporate counsel.
In hiring these days, much more so than when I was starting out, law firms look for personable, well-rounded, "likable" candidates who will mix well with clients. Attracting new clients and keeping existing clients happy is the name of the game these days, not so much just doing good work. We assume that the people we're recruiting (who have good academic records and are from good law schools) can do good work; but how will they interact personally with different types of clients; can they "market" themselves and the firm successfully?
UCULR: Is there anything that you would like to have done differently?
JL: I might have chosen a different undergraduate school and major. I would like to have done more pro bono work over the years - my practice took up a lot of time, so with trying to balance that with raising a family, it always seemed like there weren't enough hours in the day, but I do think that I could have done more to find them.
UCULR: Do you have any advice for college students interested in law?
JL: I would take a more liberal arts curriculum - one where I'd be challenged to reason, take positions and defend them on a variety of issues. If the college has a law school, I'd see if I could take a couple of courses at the law school, or at least pay attention to the myriad of activities being held at law schools these days and see if I could attend some of them as a non-law-student. Most importantly, I would stay engaged with my professors and fellow students as much as possible - for intellectual stimulation and social interactions.
Anastasia Golovashkina is a first-year Economics major at the University of Chicago.