May 21, 2018
Interview with Skadden Alumn: Matthew Sunday ’15 – Cohort 5
Tell me about your path to choosing a legal career and how the Skadden Program fit in with your goals.
I began college as a chemistry major but law was always in the back of my mind. My experience with legal studies at CCNY began with participation in the mock trial team. I immersed myself in legal training and in the study of legal doctrine by studying cases in my Skadden classes and working alongside attorneys. By my junior year, as my understanding of my life’s path took shape, I knew I needed to change my major to political science.
Immediately after the start of the Skadden program, I knew it would be an excellent fit for me. During the program’s summer institute, I was able to bond with my fellow students with whom I would be sharing the journey to law school. In addition, meeting former students who were currently in law school as well as visiting several law schools around New York encouraged and informed my opinion that, at least on the face, law school was the right path.
My understanding that law school was my path continued to solidify during my instruction in the four Skadden seminars. I liked that each seminars provided a particular and unique addition to my understanding of the law and legal profession, and together provided a cohesive narrative of what lay ahead in law school and my own practice. I especially enjoyed the Skadden program’s Jurisprudence course in the second half of my junior year. The course is unlike pretty much any offered elsewhere at CCNY, and while not a perfect replication of a real law school Jurisprudence course, it served well to mimic some of what one could expect in a law school class. I liked how doctrinal and case heavy the course was, as much of law school is reading and analyzing cases. Our legal system’s underpinnings are in years of established laws, court decisions, and policies, many rendered for the better and many for worse. I felt the course was a great introduction to some of the deepest and fundamental legal and philosophical issues lawyers seek to answer, which I could then later mold into my own arguments to challenge established legal doctrine and use on my path create change for the better as a lawyer for the public interest.
After graduating from the Skadden program, I worked as an immigration paralegal at a small law firm in Harlem. The experience was invaluable in providing me a practical understanding of what it takes to be a successful lawyer. I had the rare opportunity to take charge of cases in which the stakes were high—securing an immigration client’s ability to live and work peacefully and securely in the U.S. I learned the difficulty and reward of handling many cases simultaneously, meeting deadlines, writing arguments under supervision, and seeing the fruits of my labor. This experience was the final lynch-pin that reaffirmed my instincts to pursue a legal career.
Tell me about a project that was important to you.
One of the most influential large scale projects I’ve worked on was my senior thesis project. The project, started in 2014 and completed in 2015 though still timely as ever, was a study of how young people interpret messages, how these messages affect their political socialization, and motivate, if at all, their desire to enact meaningful political or social change. My participants watched clips from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, who then had to complete a survey assessing how they interpreted and absorbed each show’s ability to project their message, and whether or not they felt any increased, decreased, or zero desire to translate their feelings on the message into an action.
Although my project fell in the category of political science and public policy, leading this large-scale project helped me hone skills necessary to being a successful and persuasive attorney. I learned intimately of how I work through assessing problems and how I make decisions to solve those problems, how to strategize and absorb information and how to develop my own leadership style. I suggest everyone in the program pursue a thesis project, even if not required, as my thesis helped me lay a ground work for the kind of discipline, leadership, and self-motivation needed to be a successful law school student and lawyer.
Looking back, what do you wish someone had told you when you started in the Skadden program? And, what is your advice for current and future Skadden students?
Looking back, something I wished that was emphasized more is both the positive and negative consequences of choosing to attend law school. If you decide to attend law school, you must be 100 percent sure—not 95 percent, not 99 percent—you want to attend. Attending law school is a very challenging, and most importantly, expensive endeavor. You don’t want to attend law school and, two years in, realize that this path suddenly isn’t for you, and then be buried under a mountain of debt that you may have a hard time paying off without a degree. Even with aid, many students are still financing law school with loans in the tens of thousands, or even upwards of $200,000—with that money, you might be able to buy a house. While you don’t need to have a specific, set-in-stone path, you should be able to articulate to yourself why earning a J.D. will place you on a path to achieve what you want in life. You must be self-determined and driven to pursue this career, and if you aren’t driven to earn a J.D., a different degree or a different path may be a better fit for you. Your time in the Skadden program isn’t just to get an introduction into the legal profession, it is also a time to think deeply about whether you are ready for law school or whether you truly want to be a lawyer.
In making the determination that I was 100 percent committed to attending law school, it was helpful for me to work for three years in the legal field before applying. I think most students would benefit from working for a few years for a few reasons. First, law schools like to see a track record of your interest in the law, and as applications to law schools continue to increase and the process becomes more competitive, a good GPA and/or LSAT score may not necessarily be enough for students with little work or significant volunteer experience on their resume, especially for those students who are attending law school immediately after earning their bachelor’s degree. And further, the average age of law school students is about 24-26, so applying to law school straight out of college may hinder your chances compared to your chances if you spend a year or two working. Second, legal experience gives you exposure to both the area of law you might like to practice in the future, and also help you develop the professional skills (working with clients, legal writing, working together on a team on a real case with stakes) that are vital to succeeding as a lawyer. Although I was always confident that I would apply to law school, working allowed me to develop my professional skills and hone in on the kinds of law that I might wish to practice later on.
If you decide that law school is the path for you, you should take advantage of all of the resources the Skadden program offers. The application process is very complex, exhausting, and competitive, and you want to make sure that your application is the strongest it is going to be. That requires making good decisions early on that will strengthen your application in the long-term. Your LSAT score may determine your acceptance at a given law school, which is why it is of the utmost importance to prepare yourself for the exam as best you can. The Skadden program offers excellent LSAT prep, and many who take it seriously do very well on the exam, even those who start out with very low scores. You don’t need to go nuts in preparing—five to six months ahead of the June exam is often sufficient prep time beginning with the basics and ending with full length practice exams. The LSAT is a very learnable test, but it can be very draining studying for it, especially on top of taking other courses. You want to give it the proper time, attention, and seriousness, but there is a point in which you can overdo it. Following the course instructor’s directions, creating study schedules and study groups, and giving yourself breaks will aid in good preparation for the exam and help you avoid burnout. Your GPA, resume, and personal statement are also very important components of your application.
In all, the Skadden program is a vehicle for students, many of whom may otherwise never have dreamed of the title “Esquire” to set out on a path to achieve their goals. The program’s students have graduated to work at large corporate firms, set up their own legal practices, or work for influential non-profit organizations. Some have changed course to run for Congress, or decided to change the world from abroad. On my own path, the Skadden program has been a beacon for me in helping guide me along my path. In the fall I’ll be attending Cornell Law School in Ithaca, NY, and in three years, I hope to be changing lives for the better through my pursuit of the law.