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A Pathway Into Practice for Lawyer-Immigrants

Thursday, July 25, 2019

A small-but-impactful transfer program lets a few outstanding international LLM students enter the JD track. Meet three alumni who took the journey.

By Diane Krieger

Little did German lawyer Peter Steinwachs imagine he’d one day be an American Big Law corporate attorney, let alone a go-to guy for legal advice on managing the world’s second largest university endowment.

Born in Köln, raised near Frankfurt and educated at the University of Mainz, the 43-year-old Steinwachs is today associate general counsel with Yale University’s Investments Office, the team looking after the Ivy bastion’s nearly $30 billion portfolio. Previously, he was a corporate associate with Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York and London.

How did this happen?

Simple. Steinwachs (LLM 2008, JD 2010), is a USC Gould double-alum—and the first person to go through the school’s elite LLM to JD transfer program.

Steinwachs, pictured with former Gould Dean Robert Rasmussen, was the 2008 LLM student commencement speaker.

Introduced in 2007, the pathway lets a few exceptional international students move into the JD program and finish in as little as two years. They do so by taking their 1L classes out of sequence and transferring up to 30 units of upper-division LLM coursework. Most years only one or two LLM students are admitted, though 20 or more apply, according to USC Gould Associate Dean and Chief Program Officer Deborah Call.

Steinwachs hadn’t planned to practice law outside his native Germany, but he married an American, and when his wife needed to spend a year in California to advance her career, he decided to use the professional hiatus to deepen his legal education. Once he began the LLM program at USC Gould, he was hooked.

“I absolutely loved it,” says Steinwachs, who was Class of 2008’s LLM Commencement speaker. “After a few months, I started to look for ways to extend the experience. There was so much more I wanted to learn.”

Versed in the German and Japanese legal systems, he wanted to dive into the American common law tradition. However, he discovered that foundational courses like constitutional and criminal law, contracts and torts were open only to JD students. When Steinwachs and two like-minded international students asked for more options, the Gould administration responded by rolling out the LLM to JD transfer program. A week after receiving his master of laws degree, Steinwachs applied to the JD program. In June, he was admitted as a transfer student. “When I got the decision, I was over the moon,” he recalls.

While Gould has since created foundational courses which enroll LLM students only, a truncated JD track, he says, “is great for folks like me, who feel that just one year of LLM instruction isn’t enough and have this unsatisfied hunger to learn more about American law.” And it allows students like Steinwachs to enroll alongside the JDs.

In December 2018, Jonathan Jimenez (LLM 2016, JD 2018), pictured center, celebrated passing the arduous California bar exam with his classmates.

Jonathan Jimenez (LLM 2016, JD 2018) was already a rising young lawyer in Bogotá, Colombia, when his career took an unexpected American turn. The Cartagena native first visited California in 2012 at his mother’s invitation. She had come for a job some years earlier, remarried and laid down roots in California. Jimenez liked what he saw so much that he decided to stay. He found a job in the health insurance industry, and over the next three years worked his way up from file clerk to analyst and licensed broker. But something was missing: “I thought: ‘I am a lawyer, not an insurance broker.’ I felt I had to go back to law school.”

A year of postgraduate study would be enough, Jimenez had reckoned. He’d received an excellent legal education in Colombia. But as he started to eye the California bar, Jimenez encountered “so many topics — topics I wasn’t even aware of. I still felt I had a lot to learn when I finished the LLM.” Through the LLM to JD transfer program, he could feed a budding passion for real estate law sparked by two courses with Professor George Lefcoe. “That was amazing, life-changing,” Jimenez says. “It had such a big impact on me.” He enrolled in every real estate course USC Gould offered and never missed a meeting of Gould’s Real Estate Law Society. He was also a leader in the Latino Law Student Association and a law clerk with Bet Tzedek and the Meyer Law Organization.

In December 2018, Jimenez, 33, graduated with his JD, joined the real estate and land use group of Perkins Coie in Los Angeles and celebrated passing the arduous California bar exam.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Jimenez found the JD program “extremely challenging. Legal writing was the worst. I still have nightmares about it,” he says, with a laugh.

Mingmei Zhu (LLM 2016, JD 2018) is charting a U.S.-based career in litigation.

Transfer classmate Mingmei Zhu (LLM 2016, JD 2018) also worried about her language skills, despite having won a national English competition her junior year at China’s Central South University in Changsha, Hunan Province. “It was really stressful in the beginning,” says Zhu, of her LLM-to-JD transition. “I was always afraid of making mistakes. In the JD program, they are mostly native English speakers and they spoke very fast. I have an accent, and I was afraid that they would laugh at me. However, all my classmates and professors were really nice and encouraged me to speak.”

So the 25-year-old untied her tongue. She volunteered as a law clerk with the L.A. County D.A.’s office, worked as a judicial extern for Judge Victoria Chaney and tackled teaching and research assistantships with USC Gould Professor Jonathan Barnett and Foreign & International Law Senior Librarian Paul Moorman. “I’m not worried about my accent anymore,” says Zhu. Instead, she’s charting a career as a litigator.

The 1L curriculum is a steep climb for any student, notes Call, “and international LLM students have their own unique set of challenges.” Fortunately, transfer applicants can lean on the Graduate & International Programs (G&IP) office for help. G&IP services for these students include career counseling, mock admission interviews, resumé and personal statement reviews, and guidance on which LLM courses will and won’t transfer.

Even after graduating, Zhu leans on G&IP in times of stress. In September, she became an associate with Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, focusing in product liability and insurance litigation. As winter enveloped the sleepy Hartford, Wisc., headquarters of her new employer, Zhu longed for a friend.

“I was new here, and I didn’t know anyone,” she says. “The weather was very cold, and I was struggling with all of it.” So she speed-dialed G&IP Director Sarah Hall Gruzas (JD 2010).

“I just called to talk, and Sarah was willing to listen and give me advice,” Zhu says. “They’re always there to help.”



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