Raising the Bar: How to Become a Lawyer

September 8, 2019

Some people feel ashamed when asked about skipping graduate school, or for taking a break from school, but taking time off from school is a lot more common than you think. Studies show that roughly 23 percent of people put their education on hold. Numbers also show that there has been a 35 percent increase in older college students in the past decade, and it is projected to increase by 11 percent. And, if you’re passionate about advocacy and want to take on social responsibilities, maybe it’s still not too late to enroll in law school. 

Raising the Bar host Jason Clark, President of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association is joined by Nicholas K. Austin, President of the Young Lawyers Division at the National Bar Association, and Dionna Maria Lewis, Esq., Founding Partner of the District Legal Group, PLLC to discuss how to become a lawyer.

Aired September 8th , 2019.


DISCLAIMER:  Please be advised that this transcription was done from an audio recording by an out of house service; therefore the accuracy of the transcript may be impacted.  If there is an issue please contact MNN info@mnn.org

Jason Clark: Hello and welcome to Raising the Bar With the MBBA. I'm Jason Clark, President of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. Sadly, my cohost, Adeola, won't be able to join us today, but she will be back with us soon, I promise. The Metropolitan Black Bar Association is the largest association of predominantly African American attorneys in New York. Our goal is to advance equality in the pursuit of justice, assist in the professional development of our members and address legal issues affecting New Yorkers.

The purpose of Raising the Bar with the MBBA is to foster a substantive conversation about justice issues in our community while also try to identify some solutions in the process. Today, we are going to be talking about what it takes to become a lawyer. Joining me today for this discussion are attorneys, Dionna Maria Lewis, and Nicholas Austin. So welcome and let's get to it.

Dionna M. Lewis: Thank you.

Nicholas Austin: Thank you.

Jason Clark: So we've been doing this show, Raising the Bar for a few months now, but it actually occurred to us that we're talking about all these legal issues, but we actually haven't talked about what it takes to become a lawyer, and I think it's great to have both of you here. Both of you are young attorneys yourselves and why don't you tell us a little bit about your background.

Dionna M. Lewis: Sure. Well, my name is Dionna Maria Lewis. I'm actually a D.C. native, born and raised, third-generation Washingtonian, which I'm very prideful about. I'm also a product of the D.C. public high school system. I went to Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. After high school, I attended the University of Virginia where I was a philosophy and history double major. After college, I went straight to law school. So I finished college at 21 and went straight to law school at Drake University Law School, which is located in Des Moines, Iowa. And after that, I went and got my LLM in Litigation from George Washington University Law School.

Jason Clark: And LLM is a second master's degree?

Dionna M. Lewis: Yes, it's a second law degree and it's called a Master's of Law.

Jason Clark: And what do you do now?

Dionna M. Lewis: Right now or currently, I am the managing attorney for the District Legal Group based in Washington D.C. We do D.C. and Maryland State Court Claims based on discrimination, employment issues, sexual harassment, contract litigation, and various other disputes that may come our way. And I'm also a recent appointee to the office of Employee Appeals Board, which is an appointment from the mayor and confirmed by the D.C. Council. And prior to that, I was a commissioner on the D.C. Board of Elections.

Jason Clark: Great. Nick, what do you got? How did you get to where you are?

Nicholas Austin: Well, I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. like Dionna. I went to Gonzaga High School and played football there and after school ended up going to Morehouse College down in Atlanta, Georgia. And then after Morehouse, I decided that I wanted to go to law school and went to Georgetown Law School. And after I graduated from Georgetown, I worked in private practice at a law firm called Foley & Lardner in D.C. for some years. Spent some time in the Midwest in-house at a company called Caterpillar, which does heavy manufacturing and heavy industry work. And currently, I'm at Wells Fargo Bank in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I do mergers and acquisitions and venture capital.

Jason Clark: Great. So for both of you, I mean, what is it that made you decide you want to go to law school? I'm sure there are a lot of folks who have thought about it at some point, but what made you decide that it's not just something to think about, but it's something that you are going to do?

Dionna M. Lewis: Well, I was actually one of those little girls that grew up for some reason when I was 10 saying I was going to be a lawyer, and I would say that a lot of that was prompted by me watching Law & Order. And I thought I was going to be in the courtroom, standing on the desk, with my fist high raising and advocating for justice of the aggrieved. It didn't quite turn out that way. But for some reason when I was a little girl, I used to see the advocates, the TV lawyer advocates, and it was very inspiring to me.

Also, I have a special needs little brother, he has Down Syndrome and growing up in a family that had limited financial resources and seeing my parents navigate an education system with a special needs child and seeing what not having legal representation and the hurdles that come with that type of a situation or those set of circumstances are. I felt like I wanted to be in a position to empower not only my parents but other people as well. Those who may not have a lot of money, those who are dealing with disabilities or special needs children, especially or individuals in general, and that was something that also inspired me. So I thought I was going to be in court standing on the desk, advocating for certain disadvantaged populations of people.

Jason Clark: Great, okay. And yourself, Nick?

Nicholas Austin: I had no idea what a lawyer was. It was funny. I grew up maybe eight blocks away from Georgetown Law School. The law school I eventually went to and I had no idea it was a law school. I grew up in the inner city in D.C. and there weren't a lot of mentors or role models in my life to tell me about the practice of law. It was really at Morehouse that I discovered that I wanted to do law. An upperclassmen had pulled me to the side and he was going to NYU and said, "Hey, have you ever considered going to law school?" I said, "Well, I always thought, well maybe I'd be a journalist or an English teacher," because I majored in English and was a editor in chief of my school newspaper, and working with him pretty much I decided that I wanted to get involved in the law.

Not necessarily for the money or not necessarily for the prestige, but more so for the platform that it gives you to effect change in society, and that's what just fascinated me. Learning about, famous lawyers and what they're able to do with the skill set and the knowledge that they have. Whether it's in corporate America, whether it's in politics, whether it's in business, whether it's in civic action, that kind of inspired me to get involved in the legal profession.

Jason Clark: So for both of you, what I've been hearing is the ability to affect change.

Dionna M. Lewis: Absolutely.

Jason Clark: I guess from different vantage points, but that's what both of you are saying as one of the reasons as to why you became a lawyer. And I think one thing, I can even mention myself is that there are different ways you could be able to effect change. In your roles at what you do now, I mean, do you feel like you're able to do that? I mean, was the idea you went to law school something you feel you've been able to do or is it something else?

Dionna M. Lewis: So I wrote my personal statement to law school about being a civil rights lawyer and I'm a civil rights lawyer. So I am currently doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. The interesting thing about it is people don't typically understand that civil rights lawyers or civil rights law, in general, is a very broad topic, right? So you can be a civil rights lawyer advocating for people in an employment context. You can be a civil rights lawyer advocating for people in a police brutality or policing context. I mean there really is a spectrum of what it means to be a civil rights attorney. I didn't actually really discover the context of an employment civil rights attorney until I was in law school when I clerked at a small boutique litigation shop in Des Moines, Iowa. And that was really my first real exposure to civil rights trial lawyers who do it within an employment context.

Nicholas Austin: Well, growing up a poor kid in Northeast D.C., all I ever thought about was money and we didn't have it. So I became fascinated with capitalism, entrepreneurship, economics, how those financial systems work in this country. And so even though I went into law, that was always my fascination and I said, "Well, Hey, if you understand the economic system in America, you can use it to your advantage to champion causes and things that you like," and that's what I try to do and my way of giving back in the practice of law. I fundraised thousands and thousands of dollars for various causes, some of it corporate money from Wells Fargo, some of it from when I was at the law firm and finding people to sponsor and champion because we have to have the revolution as people say. But what they don't say is the revolution also has to be funded.

Jason Clark: Has to be funded, right. Yeah. But one of the things we probably should get on talking about since we talked about where you are now and how you got there, but how did you get there before you got there? So when you were applying to law school, what does that look like? What did you have to do and what was it like in law school for both of you?

Dionna M. Lewis: I've applied-

Jason Clark: I heard a lot of depth in the huh. Yeah, it's coming out.

Dionna M. Lewis: Yeah. And it's about to explain to you why. I applied to 42 law schools. I got into seven and I knew I really wanted to go to law school, and when I was applying to law, we were literally in the midst of the financial crisis. So I was applying to law school in 2007. I didn't know what the landscape for lawyers was going to look like, but I had heard what it was at that point in time. I didn't know how long this housing crash and the impact on the financial market and all the other markets was going to last. But one of the things that was important to me in my decision of choosing a law school, once I finally had a pool to choose from, was who gave me the most money. I didn't come from money, and so it was important to me that the school that I selected was going to invest in me to attend there. And so that's a part of the reason why I went to Drake University.

Law School is hard. I was going to try and think of a more easier way to say, but it's hard. It's almost like hell on Earth, and it's rigorous. It's unlike anything I think that you will ever do. A lot of law schools still use what's called the Socratic method where literally you're sitting there minding your business and the professor in the front of the room is like, "Mr. Austin. So please tell me what you thought about the case decision in Nicholas Austin versus Nicholas Austin, which is on page-

Jason Clark: What is the rule of perpetuity?

Dionna M. Lewis: What is the rule of perpetuity on page-

Jason Clark: I still don't know perpetuity.

Dionna M. Lewis: Right, which is on page 300 in your case book and you only read to 150 that night? So it's an emotional experience. It's a grind. You really have to, I think mentally prepare yourself to treat law school as a job. And because I went to law school so young and I started without having real substantive work experience. I'd worked retail for several years, but nothing that really showed me what it's like to get up every morning, go to school or excuse me, go to work, have my lunch hour and do it again for several hours after that.

I came into the law school with the kind of a more social college attitude, whereas the working professional who's may be gone and stopped working and then gone to law school say two or three years or longer in the workforce. I think they come in and approach law school differently because they've already had that exposure to what it's like to work and be in a work environment, so for me, it was very hard. It was a significant adjustment. It's a lot of reading, literally 150 pages of reading a night, in some instance or some class. And you have maybe four or five classes that you have to prepare for.

Nicholas Austin: For me, my road was more predicated with mentoring and that's where in college I learned the importance of mentoring because, as I said before, I was a poor kid from Northeast D.C. I didn't know much about law school, but it was the mentors at Morehouse College that really helped sharpen me and get me prepared, "This is what you need to do to apply," "Well, I can't afford to apply." "Well, there're fee waivers that you can apply for." "Well, I didn't know about the fee waivers." "What type of prep course should I take? Should I just try to study for the LSAC on my own? For the LSATs on my own?" And "Oh, well, no, you should take Princeton Review," or "Oh, you should take PowerScore, TestMasters." And so I had mentors at every step of the way working me through the process, and that helped even in preparation for law school.

There's a program in Washington called the Charles Hamilton Houston Bar Preparatory Institute. And one of my mentors reached out and said, "Hey, before you go to classes at Georgetown, why don't you get a leg up on your competition or your classmates and at least you'll be coming in knowing a little something, because so many people have parents that are judges, mothers that are partners in law firms or prosecutors, et cetera. And you can level the playing field of you got this information." So I signed up for this CHH Program and it was great. It really was kind of a law school summer camp for kids like me that hadn't had that training before and that made law school a lot easier for me.

Jason Clark: I mean I guess and I'm inferring from what you're saying and more both of you are saying is having some of these prep programs in the beginning kind of helps you get a feel for what those things look like. Because then when you can start to analyze things from a different vantage point, then it's almost like it all opens up and you kind of understand what's going on.

Nicholas Austin: It's critical.

Dionna M. Lewis: Yeah, you're absolutely right about that and I think that's part of one of the things I see as a litigator is you have pro se individuals and that means people without a lawyer who try and enter the, whether it's the criminal justice system or the civil justice system and they get swamped right by it because it's almost like they're standing there. The lawyer on the other side is having a conversation with the judge and it's like you're talking past the pro se litigant. And I mean that's one of the reasons I find that clients who come to me when they've either tried to do something on their own, they feel like they're in despair because they don't understand that the language, the lingo, they don't understand all these technical terms or even like you said, SOP procedure, the processes that actually apply to the terms.

Jason Clark: Right, so both of you. Okay, so now let's fast forward. So you apply to law school, you take the LSAT, you had mentors would have you, you get into law school. The beginning is tough, you learn how the law, but you graduate, you make it, and now you're at your first job. First, how did you decide what, not just what you want it to be, but how did you decide where you going to work in the beginning and what were those first couple of years like?

Nicholas Austin: For me, I was lucky in the fact that my school had this program called Early Interview Week and so corporate firms from around the country and some public interests firms as well with government entities, like the Department of Justice, or the Securities and Exchange Commission would come to campus and they'd have a big career fair and you kind of take your resume around almost like shopping at a grocery store and you say, "Hey, what about me? Hey, what about me here?" And do mock interviews and sometimes real interviews on the spot right there at the law center. And so that's how I found my job. I found Foley & Lardner and I did a summer internship there and I liked it and then ended up working there after law school. So that's kind of the route that I chose in finding my job.

Jason Clark: Right, and the tricky thing I said even mentioned as you're saying that what's interesting about law school is a lot of times where you work after your first-year of law school is where you're going to work once you graduate, because people don't always realize that you have your first-year of law school and then you have your second year. But after that, after you finish your third year, you got to study for the bar. So you can't use that whole time, kind of essentially interviewing by summer interning somewhere before. So you really have to find a place that year earlier.

Nicholas Austin: And what I'll add to that, Jason, is one thing that I didn't realize, again, because I didn't come from that kind of background was you really learn how to become a practitioner in your specific area of law on your first job. So in law school, they teach you the theory of law, the principles behind the legal system. It's actually the practice of law that you learn on that first job. How to file a brief. How to properly draft a memo. How to draft up an easement.

Jason Clark: This main thing is like philosophical beforehand. Now you actually have some someone to plan it.

Nicholas Austin: You have to do it.

Jason Clark: And someone is paying for your time whether you know it or not.

Nicholas Austin: Exactly.

Jason Clark: That pressure, that first-year to do well, because you know when you start interviewing for that job for your second-year, it's usually in those first couple of months of your second year of law school. So by then, all you've had to really be able to show to present to a potential employer is your first-year grades. Your first-year grades and maybe what you did during that summer. But that's kind of your universe of information. So that's why it can be pretty pressure filled.

Nicholas Austin: Very much so.

Dionna M. Lewis: So what Nick actually described is more of the traditional approach to hiring, and I took a non-traditional approach, which I think if you're not in the top 10, 15% of your class, you kind of have to. So I did not go through OCA hiring at any point during law school. So that experience you describe, I've heard people talking about it, but I wasn't interested in it. And when I was in law school, I knew I wanted to do civil rights work. So I was not planning to apply for a big large law firm or any corporate entity to work at all because in my mind I was either going government or I was going to go to, some small firm or something to really do the type of work that I wanted to do. So my first-year, 1L summer, I actually went to abroad and I studied abroad.

I went to the University of [Nott's 00:17:43] Law School and I studied European legal systems because I think study abroad is important and that's what wanted to do at the time. I also, after I studied abroad, worked for TSAs, Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and I was a legal intern there. So I split my summer, which people encourage you not to do, but because of where I was in my life and the experiences I wanted to have to shape it, I decided I was going to split my summer and then I was going to go be a legal intern. My second summer, I actually clerked at a small boutique criminal defense firm. So I used law school and my experiences and my summers to kind of expose myself to different aspects of the law, to different aspects of practice. So that meant when I got in my third year of law school, I didn't have a job lined up.

And then at the very last minute, I decided I was going to move back home to D.C. and apply for the Maryland Bar Exam. And so I'm studying for the bar. I don't have a job. I hadn't really started actively applying for jobs because like you said, you're focused on studying for the bar. I wouldn't say I'm chilling, but I wasn't like, I just felt life is going to unfold the way it should and my path was not straight and narrow. It was a little bit more windy, but I kind of stayed true to myself in the process and I think that's important.

Jason Clark: So what's also interesting about the two of you is that you're a corporate attorney and you start off at a large law firm and you went the different route and you started and now you're the principal of your own firm. So what would you tell someone, I guess in the few minutes that we have left about what you would do or what you need to do to start your own firm and what would you tell someone who's interested in following a career path similar to yours?

Dionna M. Lewis: First, I would say prepare. I think that there are some people who certainly are successful right out of law school. They jump into it and they're solo practitioners and they're thriving. That was not my path. I actually worked at three different law firms, a small firm, mid-sized firm and a large plaintiff's firm before I started my own law firm. So I got the exposure, I saw the various business practices, some I liked, some I didn't like. And that helped prepare me for how I thought about how I wanted to open and run my own law firm. So preparation I think is very important. So is research. You need to think about administrative details. You need to think about, I mean, literally administrative aspects of running a law firm is probably one of the bigger aspects because as a lawyer you're going to know the law for the most part, and if you've done it before, you're going to know how to interact with clients.

But really setting up your business model and understand cash flow, understanding budgeting, getting a good legal assistant or paralegal is also very important. So these are things that you want to think about in your preparation for opening it and then you got to do it. But on top of that, you need to network. You need to tell people you're opening an law firm, you need to ask people if they have referral sources or if they can be a referral source for you. Because you also have to think about once you've opened the law firm, how am I going to sustain the law firm?

Jason Clark: Okay, Nick?

Dionna M. Lewis: If you want to go to big law, there're only three places you need to be on the law school campus, the classroom, the library and the Career Services Office. I say that to say so much of big law is predicated on your first grades, as we talked about previously for that first quarter or semester. And, unfortunately, the law firms have rubrics and they'll hold the rubric up to your grades and see if they mesh out. But it's also important to be in the career services office because they will work with you there. Also for diverse individuals and for women and minorities, there are programs that feed people into the big law firms because they're looking to have a more diverse atmosphere because they're servicing diverse clients. And so if you're not joined at the hip with your Career Services Office while also in the library and then the classrooms getting the grades you need to, you're really setting yourself up for a big disadvantage and pursuing a big law career.

Jason Clark: Okay, and then for the next two questions, I'm going to divvy them up. So Nick, what are the top three reasons what you should do if you're interested in going to law school. And Dionna, the top three things you should do once you graduated from law school. So Nick first.

Nicholas Austin: Well, first thing is mentoring. You have to find mentors, you have to find people that are willing to pour into you and help you on your journey. The second thing is networking. You've got to take initiative to seek out resources like your bar association, seek out resources like back in our hometown of D.C., The Washington Bar Association or the American Bar Association and pull and tug mentors and people to help get you where you need to be. And the third is you just got to believe in yourself. Any path in life, whether you want to be an athlete, whether you want to be a lawyer, whether you want to be a politician, it's going to take work and you just have to be willing to put in the work and never forget that you can do anything you put your mind to.

Jason Clark: Okay, great.

Dionna M. Lewis: So post-law school, I think mentoring is very important. So with that said, you need to network. After law school, you need to network, you need to make sure that you pull on the network you've created or you need to create a new one yourself or combine the two. I think also, in addition to networking, you need to figure out something that you enjoy or that you're passionate about and you need to do it and you need to do it consistently. Because being a lawyer is very stressful. You need to have an outlet, you need to be able to step away, remove yourself kind of from the grind of being a lawyer. And I think the third thing would be, as Nick said, get involved in a bar association, whether it's a local bar association-

Jason Clark: Like the [crosstalk 00:23:15] Bar Association.

Dionna M. Lewis: ... or the Washington Bar Association, if you're in the District of Columbia or the greater Washington Area Chapter, the Women Lawyers Division where you have two affiliates in the districts, I had to shout them out, and the National Bar Association locally or the American Bar Association, which also national. So I think those are the three things you need to do.

Jason Clark: Okay. So another thing that people obviously think about and a deterrent for a lot of folks is that it's expensive. Can you briefly tell me a little bit about either how expensive it is or how you overcome it being so expensive to go to law school?

Dionna M. Lewis: So you can overcome it by getting a scholarship, and that really is kind of predicated on either finances, your financial, if you have a financial hardship or your financial circumstances while you're in college and/or a scholarship academically. So that those are kind of I think the ways that you approach it. Right? So you can also apply for scholarships too that will hopefully apply to your law school career. But I don't know that you can overcome it. It's really expensive. I own a house in D.C, and I have more law school debt than I do debt in my house. So I owe less on my house than I do on my law school student loans.

Jason Clark: So I guess we're still figuring it out.

Dionna M. Lewis: Still figuring it out and I don't know if anybody knows, please come find me and let me know.

Jason Clark: Okay, and Nick?

Nicholas Austin: For me, it goes back to the mentoring and shouts out to Jason Smith. He's a lawyer actually in New York and went to NYU and he was the one that explained it to me. He said, "The higher your LSAT score paired with great grades from undergrad, you'll be showered with money to go to school." And I said, "Okay, well what score do I need to get?" And he gave me the rubric of, "These are the scores and this is probably how much money correlates at this tier school with the scores," it's very systematic, right? Because lawyers designed the system. So I literally followed the rubric and got a full tuition scholarship to Georgetown law. And so I'll say that anyone that has a enterprising mindset is that you can do really well on the LSAT and get the best grades you can in undergrad and it will increase the chances of you not having to pay for law school.

Jason Clark: Okay. Yeah. And Dionna, you had mentioned earlier that you, one of the things that made you think to go to law school is watching Law & Order. And I think when people think Law & Order they think of a certain personality that someone has that goes out there. Do you have to have I guess an aggressive or a certain type of personality to do well in law school and become a lawyer?

Dionna M. Lewis: No, I don't think that you need to have any personality type. When I was in law school, there were people like me who were typically very vocal and kind of social. But then there are also people who are engineers, right? And they had a second, they had a first career as an engineer and then they became a lawyer or they went to law school to become a lawyer and a lot of those folks ended up being patent lawyers, which is very interesting. So no, I don't think you need to have a specific personality type, but I think you need to have a specific discipline while you're in law school and even outside of law school and after law school because that's how you thrive. You really have to have a certain kind of frame of mind to really thrive as a lawyer.

Jason Clark: Okay. And Nick, I'll give you the last question. So for some folks, there's this idea that in order to go to law school or to do well and become a successful lawyer, that you have to go to X school and then you have to get X grades and you have to work at X firm or what have you when you get started. I mean, has that been your experience or are there different ways, are there are different paths for people when it comes to becoming a lawyer?

Nicholas Austin: In typical lawyer fashion that's true, and it's not true. You carve the path that you want in life and there are things that can make that path easier. Sure, graduating top of your class from Harvard, like Obama will make your path a little easier. But Johnny Cochran didn't go to Obama's school, he didn't go to Harvard. Johnny Cochran went to Loyola Law School, and he's arguably one of the most famous lawyers ever in history. So yes and no. It helps make things easier for you in your path and that people may be more willing to take your phone calls or your resumes may get pushed to the top of the pile. But if you're enterprising and you believe in yourself and you work hard, even if you don't go to a top 50 school or clerk for that federal circuit judge or work at that big law firm, it doesn't mean that your star is diminished in any way.

Dionna M. Lewis: I agree, but I also slightly disagree in true lawyer fashion. And part of that is because in the profession I think we all would probably accept this point to be true. Pedigree is still pushed as though it actually matters. I think these days us more millennial, young and younger lawyers, we know we're kind of looking at that differently and our perspective is different. But you still have a lot of senior seasoned practitioners who still think and tout pedigree. And so while I certainly don't think it should matter in some circles, it does. Like, for example, if you're trying to get into the Department of Justice, as I understand it, sometimes depending on which part of the department you're trying to go into pedigree matters. If you're trying to get into an AM 100 law firm, pedigree certainly matters. I mean specifically as Nick talked about with this metric system that they use just for their recruitment of students, but I agree to the point that you're light should not be dimmed regardless of where you go or where you fall on the totem pole of law school.

I think that everyone's path is different and you have to chart it accordingly. My path was not targeted towards being the top 10 of my law school. My perspective and path were a little different, but I'm thriving right now and I'm doing very well. And my book, it's still not written or concluded, so I just wanted to add that point.

Jason Clark: Great, no, thank you. That's all the time we have for today. I want to thank our guests, Dionna and Nick for being here and speaking with us. Thank you for watching, Raising the Bar with the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Goodbye.

About the Program

Raising the Bar with the MBBA

Co-hosts Jason Clark, President of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association (MBBA), Attorney Adeola Adejobi, and their guests discuss legal issues facing the African American community.

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