Out to Africa
California Lawyer
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Out to Africa

February 2014

Hilary Briscoe

In the fall of 2010 I was in my first year at UC Hastings College of the Law when I started to panic. It was not the soul-crushing workload or the hypercompetitive environment that fuelled my anxiety but the weekly articles being published by national newspapers questioning the value of a legal education. Every aspect of law school was put under the microscope: Was three years too long? Were courses really preparing students to practice law? Was the cost of law school a sound investment, or a money pit? Though some students found motivation in this uncertainty, others decided to cut their losses and drop out. I looked for a happy medium, and began to craft an approach that would somehow allow me to leave law school early to save money but still fulfill my goal of getting a JD.

I began scouring the academic regulations and discovered that, with the right strategic moves, I could petition to take part in an independently organized one-year LLM program that would be credited toward JD completion. Also, I learned that during the time I was earning my master of laws degree, I would not be required to pay UC Hastings tuition - a $50,000 savings! So, at the start of my second year at Hastings, I began applying to programs in emerging markets, which would extend the scope of my past international experience in developed markets such as the United States and Western Europe.

While I waited for responses to my application, I went into overdrive to complete all of my UC Hastings graduation requirements by the end of the academic year, taking seven courses a semester. Then I could graduate with a combined JD/LLM in three years, instead of the usual four or five.

In the spring semester of my second year, I learned that I was accepted to my first-choice school: the University of Cape Town. South Africa straddles the line between developed and emerging markets and has a mixed legal culture that applies not just the principles of English common law but also African customary law and Islamic law. I felt that developing an appreciation for mixed approaches to the law was essential to my career ambitions. Additionally, UCT is the number-one university on the entire African continent - not just sub-Saharan - and the only African university included in the Times Higher Education top 200 worldwide list.

I was over the moon that my escape plan was taking form and immediately sought approval from UC Hastings. I emailed professors for letters of support, drafted a persuasive proposal outlining the diverse courses I could access, and lobbied the global programs and academic deans. No one at UC Hastings had previously completed an LLM program in Africa, but one month before the semester ended, I received permission to go. Within the next five weeks I moved out of my San Francisco apartment and landed in Cape Town.

Cape Town is remarkably similar to San Francisco: It sits on a bay, has easy access to world-class vineyards, is serious about its coffee, and emphasizes healthy living. Also, the University of Cape Town is akin to UC Berkeley - my undergraduate alma mater - with its grand main library and emphasis on encouraging cutting-edge research. I made sure to take courses that gave me specific African-market knowledge (such as law and regional integration in Africa, and Chinese law and investments in Africa), with students from all over the continent who were passionate about how the rule of law could shape their societies.

Although I missed cap-and-gown fittings in San Francisco, job offers, and graduation parties, I was still immensely satisfied with the experiences I had created for myself: learning about the African legal regime, swimming with wild penguins at the tip of Africa, and meeting legal professionals from India to Scandinavia. Along the way, I also found my legal niche - corporate-compliance management, particularly laws against bribery and corruption. Most important, I realized that the media soothsayers had been wrong: Law school indeed had value, as I learned to be an advocate for myself, as well as jump-start my legal career.

Hilary Briscoe is studying for the New York bar exam.

Reader Comments

Wortham - February 3, 2014
Great job, Hilary.
Denise - February 6, 2014
So proud of you!

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