An Interview with Transactional Attorney, Moniqua Lane

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Moniqua Lane is a private practice transactional attorney specializing in tax law for political action groups, campaign financing, and non-profit organizations. She enjoys her work for a number of reasons, including that she feels satisfaction in her ability to provide a service for groups that could not easily do this work on their own.

Ms. Lane began her career in the estate and tax-planning group of a 400-person law firm where she focused on structuring entities to take advantage of the tax laws. She found the demands of working in a pressure-based environment combined with difficulty in balancing personal and work time a challenge to cope with "It was a tough place to work and I questioned my career choice many times," she explains.

Ms. Lane has found her niche as a solo practitioner. Of course, any position has its challenges, right now, hers is staying involved with the legal community while maintaining her practice. "There's a great deal to know in the practice of law, especially tax law," Ms. Lane says. "As soon as you feel like you understand tax law, it changes."

She bought the LSAT study guide on an impulse, and went on to earn her law degree from the University of Arizona. Though her own path through law school was almost accidental, Moniqua emphasizes that studying law has many benefits. "I appreciate what I learned in law school. It fine tunes your thinking, improves your writing and generally enhances who you are as a person," she reflects. "And I'm glad I stuck with the profession because I've met some great people."

You & Your Career

How did you decide to become a lawyer?

In college, I was a history and political science major, fields which allowed me to develop a number of interests but which left me wondering, as a senior, "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" One day I was wandering through the Campus Bookstore and saw the LSAT study guide. On impulse, I bought the book and began studying for the exam. I did pretty well, so I applied to law school. Still unsure of which path I truly wanted to pursue, I also applied to graduate school for history. I was accepted into schools for both, and the determining factor ended up being a better scholarship offer from the law school.

What type of law did/do you practice and why did you choose that?

I started off in a 400-person law firm in the estate and tax-planning group. We focused on structuring entities to take advantage of tax laws. It was a tough place to work and I frequently questioned my career choice. I am still in tax law, but now I work in private practice. Making the switch from the firm to solo practice was the right decision for my professional needs. I work with political action groups, campaign financing and non-profit law, which I really love. The paperwork for non-profits can be really daunting. There are so many little questions and if you check the wrong box or answer a question incorrectly, the IRS will kick back the paperwork or just say no to the non-profit status. I know what the IRS is looking for and how to phrase things and know the tax law for non-profits. I like that I am providing a service that these people couldn't do easily without my assistance.

Is that what you enjoy most about your career?

Yes, I would say so. I'm very politically involved and interested in the politics taking place around me, and I'm also very interested in the social justice which is moved forward by certain non-profit groups. My career allows me to more directly involve myself in those things which interest me personally in such a way as to benefit myself professionally. I'm able to use my own skills to help out those groups which need assistance which allows me to contribute to the community in the way best suited to my talents and education.

Do you feel that it is important for someone to be passionate about the law in order to be successful professionally and / or personally?

Well, I think that personal and professional success can be very different things for different people. I think that it's possible to excel in certain areas of the law by having a passion for getting ahead rather than a passion for the law itself. However, I think that, for most people, the hours required to practice the law require a dedication that makes having a passion for the work a critical component of the experience.

For me, personally, success is determined by both my ability to excel in my field and my ability to maintain a balanced and happy life while doing so. I wouldn't say that I was passionate about the law as a whole when I first got started in the field. However, by tinkering around with my own position in the field and finding something which worked for me, I was able to place myself in a niche where I could develop my talents and achieve high levels of success both professionally and personally.

Education Information & Advice

Where did you go to law school and why did you choose that school?

I went to the University of Arizona, which is the school from which I received my undergraduate degree. They offered me the best scholarship, so it was an easy choice. However, it was also the right choice. The University of Arizona Law School is in the top tier of law schools which gives it prestige as well as a challenging educational environment. Additionally, there is a great amount of diversity in the school which is something I value. I really liked it there.

How did your undergraduate degree relate to your law degree?

There are no specific undergraduate degrees required to get in to law school. So you might have a liberal arts degree or you might have a science degree, and if you excelled in your field and id well on the LSAT, then you can get into a good law school. However, a number of people with political science degrees do go into law. When I got to the point where I needed to decide what I was going to do with my undergraduate degree, I had a few options in the field but none of them really stood out as something that I wanted to do. So, like I said, I applied to both grad school and law school and ended up in law school.

The political science degree laid a good foundation for me in terms of giving me some background in the law as well as some background in the type of analysis used in law school. I think that the amount of reading and writing required for a political science degree helped me get adjusted to the work load of law school. I also think that my studies in history helped me because so much of the law is based on the history of the United States. Having a thorough understanding of that history before going in helped to put me a step ahead of the game. But I don't think that a particular undergraduate degree is necessary for doing well in law school.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a law school?

As I said, for me the financial aspect was important. Law school is an expensive undertaking and money is going to be an issue for a lot of students, so looking in to scholarships is likely to be one factor in choosing your school. But there are also a number of other things that you should look at, starting with what exactly you hope to accomplish by going to law school and where you would like to go after school is over. The reason that I say that is that there are some areas of the law, as well as some geographic areas, where the competition is tough and so it will be important to come out of a good Tier One law school with a high GPA. In other areas of the law, networking with people in the community and interning at the places where you want to work may be more important factors.

So, basically, when choosing a law school, I think it's really important that you take the time to ask yourself why you're going to law school. Of course, I'm saying this in retrospect, because I didn't analyze all of this at the time that I went to school. I happened to be lucky in my choice, because I went to a school which has a good reputation but which is also located within the heart of the community that I call home. I was able to get the combined experience of having a good education and a diverse setting with the experience of being locally-based in the community where I wanted to practice law.

So what are the most prestigious schools for law?

Law schools are ranked in a system using tiers. The most prestigious law schools are the Tier One law schools which include Yale, Harvard, Stanford, NYU, and Berkeley. There are also schools which may not be Tier One schools but which are known for their specialties in certain kinds of law. For example, one of the top ranked schools for tax law is U of Florida at Levin.

Is it better to do average at a prestigious school or well at a less prestigious school?

It's better to do well at a prestigious school. But really, it depends again on what you are trying to achieve. If what is important to you is to get in right away with a Fortune 500 company, then you are going to want to look at going to a prestigious school and doing well there. If what you are most concerned with is a particular specialty of law, then you'll want to go to a school which specializes in that area, and it might matter less what the ranking of the school is. Grades do matter when you come out of law school. If you want to practice in a particular geographic area, you might find that you have to outrank your peers. For example, the Bay Area has numerous different law schools including Berkeley and Stanford, so if you're coming out of one of the less prestigious schools in the Bay Area and are looking to stay local, you're going to find that the competition is tough. For me, going to a good Arizona school and networking within the local community in the field that interested me allowed me to get to where I wanted to be.

What can students applying to law school do to increase the chances of getting accepted?

The numbers matter a lot for law school. You need to have a strong GPA and a high LSAT score to get in to a good school. Preparing early by doing well in your undergraduate studies and studying for the LSAT is a good start. If your grades are only mediocre, you can supplement your chances for acceptance by enhancing the social appeal of your application. Your law school application will include letters of reference, information about your employment and activities and of course your personal letter. If you know that your grades are not in the top of the applicant grades, then you're going to want to do everything you can to boost this other part of the application. Network with people, especially any professors you have whose names are known in the local legal community, and use those people for your references. Volunteer or intern at places related to the field of law or try to get work as a paralegal so that you can demonstrate experience in the field. And make sure that you spend time crafting your personal essay so that it grabs the attention of the person who makes that final decision of whether or not your application deserves more time and attention.

What do you feel is right and wrong with legal education in America today?

Law school teaches you to overvalue the argument and theory of law rather than to focus on how to get things done. Attorneys can argue and theorize for days, but it takes paralegals to really move things along. Paralegals know as much as attorneys about how to work the law, but they also know how to get the job done. They haven't been trained to look at every angle of the theory behind the law so they rely more on common sense judgment which can be more practical in many situations.

At the same time, I think that legal education affords students the opportunity to learn a diverse range of skills and to establish a strong base of knowledge which isn't afforded by other types of education. Law school challenges you to analyze situations in ways that you may not at first be used to, and it also teaches you how to communicate that analysis to people with varying levels of understanding about the law. So the legal education may not always be practical for creating good attorneys but it lays a great foundation for individual development which can then be used in application to the field.

Job Information & Advice

What are the best ways to get a job in the field of law?

It depends a lot on what you want to do, but in the end it comes down to grades. Law is a highly competitive field. You need the A's if you want to work in a large law firm. For work with government or non-profits, you can "get away with" B's. However, if you want to get a good job upon leaving law school, you'll want to get that GPA up. At the same time, there are other things which you can do to improve your appeal to businesses upon exiting law school. I recommend learning about the law in the areas you are interested; possibly intern in that field. Interning is one of the best ways to get experience in your desired field and it looks great on your resume!

How available are those internships?

Internships are considered an important part of the legal education, so they're out there for students. How easy they are to get, especially if you are looking in a particular segment of the law, depends a lot on your willingness to put yourself out there. If you take the time to really network with people in the community and to make yourself stand out as an individual, you'll have a much easier time obtaining a quality internship or clerkship than the person who simply sends out some resumes and hopes to get something from them. The legal field is a big field but in many ways, it's a small community, and you need to spend some time getting yourself involved in it. It'll help you on down the line anyway since you'll be working with these same people once you have your law degree.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

The challenges for me have been different as a solo practitioner from when I first began work with a firm. Balancing personal time against work time was really tough in the big firm. There was enormous pressure and I found that I had to devote too much of myself to get the job done which allowed me little time for anything but work.

Now, as a solo practitioner, the challenge for balance is still there but it's a different one. The main difficulty is getting out there, staying involved with other attorneys and the legal community, and yet still maintaining my practice. There is a lot to know in the practice of law, especially in tax law. Other areas of law are more static. But as soon as you feel like you understand tax law, it changes, so it's necessary for me to stay on top of the field, network within the legal community and still take care of all of the day-to-day details of maintaining my own practice and meeting the needs of my clients.

What are your top pet peeves with the legal field?

I'm very happy in private practice, so I don't have too many. But I have noticed that, as a transactional attorney, because I don't do litigation or work in a courtroom, some people (including lawyers) tend to devalue what I do. It's not glamorous, but it's an area of law that helps a lot of people.

Attorneys are often on the sidelines of deals. Their job is to help out and advise, but some attorneys suck the life out of deals and "muck" things around just to make themselves look important and to run up higher bills for the clients. They might not be doing anything to really forward the deal. I also get upset when I see attorney's selling weird and unnecessary structures to people to save them on taxes. Some attorneys tend to oversell their own importance.

Any survival tips for students fresh out of law school?

First off, it's going to be as bad as you think (or have heard) that it will be. Law school doesn't prepare you for the practice of law. Schools are either behind or ahead of what people are actually doing. When you feel like you don't know anything, you're right. But, take heart! Usually, you will know more than the clients (except maybe the real estate investors). The seasoned attorneys in your firm know how you feel and will help you out. And rest assured that eventually, you will become more knowledgeable and confident.

In Closing

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the field of law that would be interesting or helpful to students?

Studying law has many benefits beyond just being able to get a job in the legal field. I appreciate what I learned in law school. It fine tunes your thinking, improves your writing and generally enhances who you are as a person. I'm glad I stuck with the profession because I've met some great people, but I'm also appreciative of the education itself for the skills it gave me as an individual.

Also, remember that there are many different things which you can do with a law degree. If you are in a position where you are unsure that law was the best career choice, I suggest that you wait it out and give it a chance. You can try a different area of law or explore other options within the legal field. Law can be personally and professionally rewarding; sometimes it just takes a while to find your niche.

Editor's Note: If you would like to follow-up with Moniqua Lane about this interview, click here.

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