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Recent Junior Deferral Program (JDP) admit John Casey reflects on his time at the University of Pennsylvania, as a member of the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), and shares why embracing setbacks has been vital to developing his vision for a legal career. 

In August of 2020 I opened an email from the Harvard Law School admissions office. After reading and re-reading the text, it finally sank in; I had just been accepted to Harvard Law School. The email was the culmination of a lot of hard work: attending classes, studying late at night, grinding on LSAT practice exams, and asking for letters of recommendation. Further, because I was accepted through Harvard’s Junior Deferral Program (JDP), a wave of relief rushed through me. I would have a law school admission in my back pocket while I pursued another career track in the interim.

The Junior Deferral Program was a perfect fit for me. Currently I am a senior at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business studying economics with concentrations in finance and public policy. As a member of Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), I will commission into the US Army at the same time I graduate from Wharton. My military service is how I will spend my deferral time. In the Army, I will be a Field Artillery officer, specializing in rockets, missiles, and other indirect weapon systems. However, I have always known I wanted to be a lawyer, and I am excited to study law at Harvard. Although my legal career is a long way away, I hope to combine my interest in finance, law, and public service as a federal prosecutor focused specifically on white collar crime.

While my acceptance to HLS was the culmination of a lot of successes and hard work in my life, I want to talk about something different – failure. For every success I achieved that made my HLS acceptance possible, I experienced a failure that made HLS appear as merely a lofty goal. However, I think failure sometimes gets a bad rap. The failures in my life were hugely impactful, forcing me to clearly distill what I actually wanted to do and how I actually wanted to achieve my goals. To those reading this looking for application advice, I would encourage you to think about the failures in your life and how you responded to them. I truly believe that the way we respond to failure gives us a much better indication of our goals, our intentions, and our mentality than success ever could. These are important insights to have while completing a law school application.

When I arrived on Penn’s campus as a freshman, I had high hopes for finding success and making an impact. It was always my dream to be a lawyer, and I thought I had what it took to get to law school. However, it wasn’t long before I started experiencing frustrating, heartbreaking failure. Two examples stand out in my mind. Like any self-respecting prelaw student, I auditioned for both Penn’s Mock Trial and Debate clubs; I was rejected from both without even getting a second-round call-back. Further, I had been involved in student government in high school and loved it, so I ran to be one of eight freshman representatives for Penn’s Undergraduate Assembly. I finished a distant eleventh. At a place filled with intelligent, ambitious people, I felt like an imposter at my own school. Despite my own goals and high expectations, it felt as though my ambitions would stall out as an undergrad.

It is easier to derive meaning from failures looking backwards. If I had spent my evenings and weekends at Mock Trial or Debate tournaments, I might never have had the chance to be a finance Teaching Assistant, a role that contributed to my interest in the intersection of law and finance. As a TA, I teach complex financial concepts to students during recitations and office hours, allowing me to hone the same communication skills I hope to use while prosecuting a complex financial criminal case. Losing that student government election and reflecting on how disappointing it was made me realize just how much I enjoy student advocacy. Wanting to get involved despite my election night loss, I applied to be an unelected member of the Undergraduate Assembly. From that position I was able to advance and effectively advocate for students’ needs on campus. A year later, I was elected as a full member to the Assembly. As a senior, I can honestly say serving on student government and being a Teaching Assistant are two of the things I am most proud of during my time at Penn.

My involvement as a Teaching Assistant and student government representative were crucial components of my law school application, but my involvement in these activities were preceded by failure. After those initial setbacks, I found it helpful to reflect on my goals and determine what was important to me. Did I actually want to be on Mock Trial? Or did I just want to work on my communication skills? I believed it was the latter, so I found other opportunities to practice communication as a Teaching Assistant. Did I want to be on student government so I could make a difference or because I wanted clout? I concluded that I was motivated by the former, so I decided to stick with the Undergraduate Assembly as an unelected member and do as much good from that position as I could. From this reflection, I came to uncover larger truths about myself. I obtained a better sense of what drives me and I learned to find ways to bounce back from failure.

So how can this help when it comes to applying to law school? My advice is before you even draft a personal statement or application essay, ask yourself what motivates you. Why are you interested in law school? Why did you pursue the activities in college that you did? What do you hope to do with a law degree? I believe the best way to answer these questions is to look back on your failures and analyze how you bounced back from them. Find connections between these unconscious motivators, your interests, and your future goals. From my own failures, I came to realize that making an impact, helping others, and communicating with people were big components of my identity. From there, I drew a line between those themes, my decision to join the Army, and my desire to work as a prosecutor with complex financial cases. Being articulate about what motivates you and how you want to pursue your goals will enable you to stand out in an applicant pool and craft a better sense of what will make you happy. My advice for applying to law school: think about your failures first!