Ask an Expert: Ron Han, Assistant Director, Career Services Office, University of Southern California Law School
September 11, 2012 1 Comment
Everyone in graduate school needs a friend like Ron Han. A West Coast transplant, my neighbor Ron was awake until 3AM nearly every night watching L.A. Clippers games or whatever bad movie was on television. As an insomniac who loves basketball and terrible movies, Ron and I were destined to be friends. We spent countless hours distracting ourselves from school, watching games, talking smack, and playing mini-hoop basketball.
In college, there is always somebody around – the roommate glued to the television playing video games; the maintenance worker who arrives for his morning shift as you are headed to the gym; somebody. But grad school is a different animal. As much as you’re still a student, you’re also very much a part of the real world, which can sometimes be a lonely place. Talking through career anxiety, or family issues, or just nonsense with Ron made law school just a little bit more bearable.
After helping me survive grad school, I’m not shocked that Ron is now guiding other students through the most stressful part of law school – the job search. After a stint in private practice, Ron is back home in L.A. as the Assistant Director of the Career Services office at the University of Southern California Law School. I caught up with Ron a few weeks ago to get his perspective on finding a career path, now that he is actually getting paid for his advice.
What’s below: Why to attend or not attend graduate school; Ron’s experience transitioning from a private law firm; Advice for people still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up; and Perspectives on non-traditional careers in law.
Q: I meet a lot of young people who want to pursue a career in law. But now, it seems like every lawyer is saying, only half-joking, “don’t go to law school!” What do you think?
Ron: I think we’re at a point where people have started to question whether it makes financial sense to pursue advanced degrees. The financial cost of those degrees was once an after-thought. The Great Recession caused people to reconsider the costs and I think that’s a good thing. I think people should stop and consider whether a juris doctor (law degree) or any advanced degree is a good value for what they want for their careers. When people ask me whether they should go to law school, I always ask them what their motivations are. Graduate school isn’t an extension of college. It’s not a place to figure out your life. Go to law school if you have a passion for the law and/or policy, and you genuinely want to practice law.
USA Today: Grad School 101 - To Go or Not to Go?
Q: USC is a great school and I’m sure many students know exactly what they want to do after graduation. What do you to say to the students who are less sure about their future goals?
Ron: I encourage them to genuinely try to figure it out. Sometimes students can just default onto a certain career track and not put a lot of thought into what they really want. They just follow along what everyone else does and might find themselves with a job they never really wanted. Or they choose to ignore the issue and just focus completely on their studies. But you can’t put off deciding on a career forever. It’s nice being a student because most people will take the time to talk with you and let you pick their brains. I think all students, whether they know what they want to do or not, should take advantage of that. Talk to people about what they do, how they got there and why they made the choices that they made, think about what you want in a career, try to learn about career paths that you don’t know too much about, and be intentional about your choices. It’s harder to do any of that once you’re out of school.
Q: Both of us started our legal careers at private law firms. How did you come to realize you wanted to do something different?
Ron: The simple answer is just that I knew the practice of law wasn’t for me. I probably knew law school wasn’t for me either, which is why I spent many late nights in law school complaining to you. I didn’t have a passion for the law or the day-to-day work. Working for my last firm convinced me that I needed a change because I worked with attorneys who had a genuine enthusiasm and excitement for their work. I realized that I lacked what I saw in them. I needed to go find something that brought out that excitement in me.
As for how I made it happen, I started with some genuine self-reflection and a lot of talking to people (including you). I talked to anyone I could – friends, old co-workers, friends of friends, my old career services counselor, old supervisors, etc. I tried to get as many thoughts and opinions as possible.
For me, talking it out helped me work it out in my head. I distilled it down to (1) the things I really enjoyed doing and found fulfilling-for me that was advising people and partnering with them to start their careers. It’s intimidating to start a career after being a student your whole life and I felt I could help in that area; (2) the skills and experience I possessed that might be valuable-I wanted to continue to use my law degree and my professional experience. I thought being an attorney gave me some insight into professional development and I could use those tools to help prepare the students; and (3) the careers I knew of that had interested me-I was hugely blessed by my own career services office advisor in law school and wanted to have that kind of positive impact on someone else some day.
Q: Figuring out what you want to do is half the battle, but how did you actually make the transition happen?
Ron: There are countless jobs you hear about and think “that sounds awesome … I wonder how they got THAT job.” But most people leave it at that. They rarely pursue what it actually takes to get a great job. I considered a variety of things but ultimately I knew this was the best fit because it fit all three of my criteria.
From there I went on informational interviews to make contacts, gathered information, and aggressively pursued any job opportunities. Networking and aggressiveness go a long way in the job search. I’m not a great networker but I can’t stress its importance enough. You can’t just sit around waiting for job postings, or just send your resume out. Plus, most people are genuinely nice and willing to take a few minutes of their time to help someone else out. One last point – it was also the right time in my life to make that change and I had the right support. I was just about to get married and my wife was completely supportive. Without her encouragement I’m not sure I would have had the initiative to go for it.
Q: I know when I left private practice, my lifestyle took a step down and I had to start budgeting. How did you deal with that, especially as a new dad?
Ron: It’s certainly been an adjustment. I look back and I definitely wasn’t as wise with my finances as I should have been. Sometimes it’s hard to care when you’re working those long hours. You think you deserve to spend money on nice things. But I was able to avoid the “Golden Handcuffs” and didn’t over-extend myself during my years as an attorney, so I wasn’t carrying too much debt. I’m also very blessed that my parents helped me so much with financing my education. My wife is a couponing queen so that has helped a lot too.
Ultimately, I just realized that I could live with a lot less and it was worth it to make the change. I do miss my Clippers season tickets though! My #1 piece of advice is to avoid the temptation of an expensive lifestyle for at least the first few years. That will give you the freedom to change course if you decide you want to do that. If you get yourself into debt or just get used to an expensive life, you’ll find yourself unable to get out until it’s too late.
Q: Many people think of law as a boring or traditional career choice. What’s the most unusual legal job you’ve come across?
Ron: My idol in college was current Charlotte Bobcats GM Rich Cho. He graduated from law school, interned with the Seattle Supersonics and worked his way up to being GM of the Portland Trailblazers and now the Bobcats. He never played a day of pro basketball in his life and his law degree got him that internship. He was also nice enough to take the time to speak with me several times when I was a college student.
Having said that, this question makes me a little anxious because I think too many people go to law school to work in a different industry. For example, they see law as a way to get into entertainment or sports. Is that possible? Sure. Many agents and executives have law degrees. But those opportunities are few and far between.
If you think the law is boring, then the law might not be the right career choice for you. It’s the same with any other graduate school program. If your singular goal is to get into a different industry, I think the smarter move is to find a way to get your foot in that door through an entry-level position or an internship and work your way up. I don’t think you should try to use the law school or grad school as a way to bypass the ground floor.