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Xiaoli Jin and Alice Chen are members of the Junior Deferral Program (JDP) Class of 2024 and co-authors of the pilot Alumni Conversations series. In the interview series, they chatted with nine HLS alumni whose collective careers span law, consulting, investment banking, private equity, venture capital, politics, and journalism. In this post, Xiaoli and Alice chat about their own experiences applying to JDP, navigating the deferral period, and talking with HLS alumni. Between college and HLS, Xiaoli worked at Keystone Strategy, a strategy and technology consulting firm, and Alice worked as a software engineer at Two Sigma, a financial sciences company.

Alice

Alice: How time flies! It’s unbelievable that it’s been a year since we first started working on the interview series, and three years since we were admitted to JDP. Looking back, what would you say was the most challenging part when you applied to JDP?

Xiaoli

Xiaoli: For me, the most challenging part was to decide whether to apply to law school in the first place, especially through JDP, since that was a decision we had to make before we finished junior year of college.

I studied both Computer Science and Political Science in college. I had always been interested in technology, its impact on human interactions, and how we should govern it as a society, but I didn’t see any established path to further my interest in these topics. My friends from the Computer Science Department would often mock me by asking, “Why are you so interested in these ‘metaphysical’ questions about technology? Why can’t we just code an app and have fun?” But I also felt that I was too “techy” or technical for the traditional pre-law groups.

What finally convinced me to apply for JDP was its flexibility and open-mindedness: It not only actively encourages students with STEM backgrounds like me to apply, but also makes us work for 2+ years before enrolling at law school so that we can figure out our own path and unique academic interest while tackling real-world problems. Looking back, I wouldn’t have known what I wanted to pursue at law school had it not been for JDP and the previous two years’ work experience.

Alice: I wasn’t nearly as deliberate as you when I decided to apply to JDP. I knew I wanted to go to law school, so I went ahead and applied.

But after I was done with my second LSAT, put together a resume, and requested letters of recommendation from professors who knew me well, it took me forever to start writing my personal statement. I had too many ideas and couldn’t decide on where to begin. I remember those hour-long trans-Atlantic phone calls with my Cornell pre-law advisor Greg (I was exchanging in the UK back then and that was before Zoom became a thing). At the end of one of those calls, Greg told me, “Alice, you have to start writing a first draft; continuing to brainstorm is not gonna get you anywhere.” So I sat down and picked whatever theme that seemed doable at that moment and wrote a first draft. It was terrible.

But from there, I was able to work on a second draft, a third, and so on, and used all the help I could get along the way—Greg, a housemate who was a law student from Hong Kong, a roommate from my first-year dorm, an HLS alumna, and my dad (who knew some basic English). The submitted version wasn’t perfect, but I was happy with it. Rereading it now, it’s surprising how almost everything I wrote back then still holds true after three years of new experiences and reflections: I still want to go to law school not only for the rigorous training but also for the prospect of meeting wonderful and wonderfully different people.

Xiaoli: What a journey! I am sure many prospective JDP applicants can relate to either or both of us. They probably also want to learn more about our deferral experiences. What do you think you’ll miss the most about your deferral period once you’re in law school?

Alice: The free time I had as a software engineer maybe? In college I rarely had any downtime and I think it’ll likely be the case in law school, but I look forward to staying intensely focused on one thing again. When I started working at Two Sigma, I wasn’t used to having all evenings and weekends to myself. But that free time got quickly filled up before I knew it: I picked up Chinese martial arts, continued to take voice lessons, binge-watched more shows than I probably should have, and hung out with friends both in person and virtually. I also worked on various initiatives that I cared about. What about you?

Xiaoli: I would say the people at Keystone Strategy, hands down.

Knowing that I would only be at my job for two years and then move on to law school, I found one part of me initially quite suspicious of whether I could find genuine mentors and form long-lasting friendships out of this relatively short experience. Hence, I started off focusing more on the work rather than the people aspect of the job. But my co-workers at Keystone welcomed me with the utmost warmth and patience. They taught me a ton of career and interpersonal skills that could hardly be learned at school. I still remember all the one-on-one conversations I had with my colleagues, which shaped me into a more confident and empathetic person.

Fortunately, some of my colleagues are still in Boston and I am planning to go visit our Boston office once I settle in Cambridge. If I were to give one piece of advice to fellow JDP admits, I would suggest not underestimating the relationships you can forge during your gap years. Don’t come into your job with the mentality that it is just a temporary gig on your way to law school, or you will never fully realize the potential of these two years.

Alice: Ah I totally agree. I dearly miss folks at Two Sigma and am forever grateful for what they’ve taught me, too. During our first one-on-one, my manager told me, “Take each opportunity to interact with your colleagues as a starting point of a meaningful relationship; don’t get things done at the expense of leaving a trail of dead bodies behind.”

Xiaoli: That’s a humorous way to put it! Do you think your deferral experience would help you down the road?

Alice: Definitely. My two years at Two Sigma taught me how to be an effective and engaging team player in a professional setting, what are the various facets of an enterprise, and how to build meaningful relationships with people. I learned more about myself: what I value in a job, what I’m good at, and what I need to work on. And I became much more comfortable with mistakes and uncertainty.

I used to stress about mistakes to an unhealthy degree, but now I ask myself, “Is it going to matter in five years?” The answer is likely no. Either way, breathe in, breathe out, and move on. When it comes to my plans after HLS, I still have no clue. But I’m excited about that, rather than nervous. Our careers can span 40 years or longer, and few of us could predict what will be relevant at various stages of our lives. What’s more, what we do at work usually doesn’t have much to do with what we learned in school—we need to be ready to continuously learn on the job. I suppose your experience at Keystone will actually apply directly to what you want to do in the long run, though?

Xiaoli: Yes. At Keystone, we help lawyers and business leaders to understand nascent technologies, seeking opportunities arising out of the latest technological landscape while minimizing regulatory risks. With the recent influx of legal disputes pertaining to technology companies, legal professionals often find themselves both eager to learn more about new technologies and struggling to understand technical jargon, as well as their societal implications. Working at Keystone gave me first-hand exposure to the types of technical questions discussed in courts and made me a better translator between the tech world and the legal world.

Alice: Switching gears, what’s something you learned from chatting with our alumni?

Xiaoli: Coming from a STEM background, I have always felt that I belong to an “in-between” group that does not strictly fit into the “mold” of law school. I love reading, writing, and talking about legal issues, but I am also an engineer who craves for more hands-on experiences in technology. Through talking to alumni in various walks of life and seeing how their paths all started from HLS but ended at completely different places, I realized that there is no such thing as fitting into the law school “mold,” because everyone is “in-between” in their own way, but HLS has been doing everything possible to encourage that diversity.

In the past few years, HLS has seen an increasing number of students from non-traditional backgrounds who witness how our society has been disrupted in so many new aspects and want to address these societal changes from a macro level. Through this interview series, I hope to encourage my fellow students to pursue their unique paths and really make the HLS experience our own.

Alice: I completely agree. I want to add two things I learned from working with you.

First, be bold. You had an idea, you bounced it off me, we sought guidance from Lucas (who runs this blog), we then reached out to alumni, and voila, we created this series. It’s been an amazing ride and it wouldn’t have been possible had we not been (shamelessly) bold.

Second, do your homework. I thought I was already good at researching alumni’s backgrounds through LinkedIn and official bios, but after seeing you effortlessly cite talks or posts from our interviewees at natural spots of our conversations, I realized I didn’t do enough homework.

Xiaoli: Haha thanks! I really enjoyed browsing our interviewees’ works, whether it was articles, blogs, or even YouTube videos. During the pandemic, it could be challenging to start a Zoom conversation with alumni we’ve never met in person. Mentioning their works can be a natural way to warm up the conversation and show our respect. Meanwhile, I also learned a ton from you. You are so good at following up with alumni regarding interview editing, article correction, and publication update. Working together, we were able to complement each other’s strengths, not only conducting nine interviews, but also closing the full cycle from outreach to publication.

If this alumni interview series were to continue, what would you suggest for the next “season”?

Alice: I’d be eager to read interviews with alumni with even more diverse backgrounds doing even more unconventional things.

Xiaoli: Totally! And it would be awesome if we can have some in-person interviews.