To be a working law student

I promised a post on this even if I responded via e-mail, going back now to what is the most popular topic (young) people who find themselves in this corner of the web actually read up on.  (Just a reminder that there is an entire section devoted to the posts on the subject of law school and being in law school or trying to get to the right law school and everything else legal eagle related here.)

While I’ve edited out details that might be too revealing, I want to thank the young lady who wrote me with this query:

Let me start by saying that this is my first time to write an e-mail to a blogger. I have never done this before, but I need advise on how it is to become a working student in Ateneo Law School (ALS).   I started working last year and I have seen the importance of gaining work experience, training hours, and money, which is why it is hard for me to give up my current job. Currently, my mindset is to try to have the best of both worlds (I know this will be super difficult) by being a working student. I guess I am writing this e-mail just to ask for advise on how to successfully be a working student in ALS. Or is it even possible to be a working student enrolled in ALS?

There are many students currently walking the halls of the Ateneo School of Law who are working or have been working.  Not all of us go through our academic pursuits in a straight fashion.  Some postpone law school for much later, either due to financial or personal considerations — or simply to take a break and start earning money.  We all go and pursue our dreams at our own pace, in our own time.

I was a working student for most of my time in law school, and it was forced upon me by circumstance, and was not by choice.

Like I told my 11th reader (running joke that I have 10 and now 11 readers here!), I started working because of a literal reversal of fortunes.  It was such that I learned to commute at age 23.  Prior to this, I lived a very sheltered life, driven to and from home and school, fully subsidized by my parents.  I could sleep and study at will — I kept my own schedule. I got all my books in the original (and only law students would understand what I mean here), and got my cases photocopied from the library itself.  Alas, this dream life ended after my freshman year.

So as I entered my sophomore year, it was a hard choice to make — but I started working.  At first it was simply to supplement my spending money — and I took on a job that still gave me flexibility, and proximity to the then HV De La Costa campus of Ateneo.  (I know I’m dating myself here, what with the move to Rockwell ages ago.)  I was a newscaster for one of the radio stations in the Makati area which saw me earning minimum wage, but it was a good training ground for real life and the money helped.

But the choice of job was with law school being a priority in mind.  I wasn’t working to work — I was working because I needed it to continue to pursue my big dream.  I didn’t choose a minimum wage job in the industry I landed in because it was a career challenge.  My place of work was within walking distance from school, and the bourse worked well with my class schedule.(The newscasts were from morning to mid-afternoon, with the later ones taped after being culled from the day’s news.). But — and here’s the big BUT— even as I tried to supplement my income, it was clear to me why and what I was doing this all for.

I eventually moved on to two other jobs in the course of law school — for 18 months as part of a USAID project with the Department of Health that involved a lot of travel around the country, and then a leap of faith that saw me joining a boutique Ad agency just before the bar exams.  There was a lot of value in all those jobs — even voicing a novelty rap song as Louningning — but I would have preferred to have been a full time student.  I envied my classmates who were, and it took a  lot of gall and flexibility to make it through, but I did work through most of law school.

Yes, it IS possible to be a working student in the Ateneo School of Law or any other law school for that matter.  It might just be harder when you’re trying to be a legal blue eagle.

We have many distinguished graduates who went into law school as full time working students, and who were parents and breadwinners.  We had “moms” among us.  There were office workers who had regular 9-5 jobs then went to their classes after.  Again, note that the majority of the evening class were working, so there were enough of us to actually schedule classes around.

Law school, by itself, is a difficult hurdle to pass.  Working while studying law, and studying law at the Ateneo with its dreaded Quality Percentile Index requirement makes that burden double if not triple.  But it can be done.  How?

You have to learn to study in an abbreviated manner without sacrificing the quality of your learning.  That’s a lot of words that seem to be contradictory taken together.  Working means losing precious time to go through all the required reading.  Even as a full time student, you will always be looking for more time to read the cases and memorize the provisions.  Having done that, you usually don’t have enough time to integrate all that you just fed your brain and truly comprehend the bigger picture.  But we all have different methods for imbibing the knowledge that we read and hear — so find that which works for you.

Do not rely on others notes or digests and lose out on the details.  If you only study with digests, you are relying on how another student actually sifted through the facts and picked which ones they thought would help you survive a round of recitation on the case.  You miss out on the actual lesson which is explained in depth in the ponencia.  And there will always be cases that you will have to read in the original.  As a working student, you will not have that luxury anymore.  You will have to learn to read on the bus or in the jeepney, or during lunch breaks at work (which might not even be an option), and then cram through during the breaks between the ringing of the bells.

I remember being chided by students from the Business school for the law students eating lunch or dinner with their bookholders in front of them as we multitasked in the  cafeteria.

Weekends are for study catch up.  With weekday studies curtailed by work, I used to think twice about going out to watch a movie or hanging out at parties during the weekends.  Not that I stopped doing it altogether, but I was often too tired anyway, so I became very selective.  I hung out with my classmates more, but working shaped my weekends as catch up time.  You have to find the discipline to focus on how you apportion your free time when you find some — and weekends were usually the only time that afforded you that.

You have to be brave enough to swallow a “5” during recitation because you didn’t know the answer.  I may have recounted this story in an earlier blogpost of a professor who must’ve seen the gray matter between my ears who called me to recite on “x vs. y”, and I meekly stood up and told him, “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t read the case.”  Other professors would’ve quickly written me off with a “5”, but he proceeded to give me a chance with three other cases — and the long and short of it was, I didn’t get to the reading list AT ALL.  I repeated my answer for each one, then I sat down.

That was a very humbling moment, but he didn’t shoot me down or look down upon me.  While the 5 would’ve been easier, he wanted to give me a chance.

Be judicious about choosing when to be absent — at work or in school.  There will be days when you will have to choose one over the other, and you have to be careful in choosing.  There are only so many days you can cut a class, and so many vacation days to give up at work.  Choose well.

Know your priorities.  I always say that there is no hard and fast rule about life except that which pertains to doing what’s right.  We all know good from bad, but when it comes to deciding about our personal choices, it varies from person to person.  What might be a priority for me might not be as important a matter for you.

I cannot argue with the wealth of experience that working brings.  Who wouldn’t want to say no to earning your own money after being dependent on your parents for every expense from the time you were born?  But the study of law and the pursuit of that dream entails a different kind of focus and dedication that does not allow for half hearted effort.  So if the question is whether you can make it as a working student in law school — the answer is yes, but not without sacrifices or losing out on the chance to fully prepare yourself for what will be your lkfe’s vocation.

You should combine the two only if necessary.  If there is a choice between being a full time law student or working, and you still choose to do both, then your studies will definitely suffer for lack of your full attention.  Again, it can be done.  You are in Ateneo for a reason.  It wasn’t an accident you saw your name as one of the fortunate chosen– you obviously have the mental aptitude to keep up with the academic standards.  But if you don’t really need to work, ask yourself if the time that working takes away from your studies is worth risking what is one of the most important foundations of your future.

The question shouldn’t even be whether or not this will affect your chances of topping the Bar (although as one of my esteemed and dearest friends, Atty.  Jonathan Sarte told me before I took the bar exams, libre namang mangarap.. ). The question should simply be “Do I really need the distraction from what is supposed to be one of the most important pursuits of my life?”

You will get the chance to earn money — and more of it — later.  But you will only pass through the august halls of law school but once (hopefully) until you find yourself taking the Bar exams.  If the choice is difficult for you to see — absent a real and pressing financial need — then perhaps the dream of being a lawyer one day is not that firmly planted “deep in the deepest of your hearts”, as one esteemed lady professor would say in Obligations and Contracts.

If you can afford to focus all your energy and time in the pursuit of a legal education and the dream burns strong in your heart, it shouldn’t be that difficult a choice.  On the other hand, if (like me,) life deals you the hand that makes it imperative you support yourself whether partially  or in full through school, you will find it is that dream as well which will make you find the way to make it work.

Good luck!

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