Q&A with Peg Cheng, the Prelaw Guru

ChengPeg Cheng has worked in prelaw advising for more than twelve years, six and a half with the University of Washington (UW) and another six as the founder of her law school admissions consulting company, Prelaw Guru, which helps aspiring law students prepare their applications. Before that she worked in career counseling as well, bringing her grand total in higher education student services to 18 years.

And she says:

“I’m done.”

Peg is moving into full-time work as a writer. She is in the process of wrapping up Prelaw Guru as of July 2016. Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to Peg for sharing some of her insights from her years of experience working with aspiring law students.

What has your work in prelaw advising taught you about listening?

What really is an advisor? The advisor has two jobs: One, listen. Two, tell the truth. That’s it.

All the work I’ve done with college students has taught me to be a better listener and a better writer. I couldn’t have done it without the students. Some people think advising is about talking. But if you don’t listen first, your advice is not effective.

How have you used listening with the students you advised and your clients in prelaw consulting?

Clients always tell me they appreciate the opportunity to think about their own stories. That’s what I’ve done: listen to their stories in person, on the phone or Skype, and in their prewriting on the writing prompts I’ve given them.

I was spending so much time with the interviewing and listening that I developed an exercise called “49 Stories.” They are writing prompts to help law-school applicants brainstorm what they might talk about in their personal statements. The process is for the student to set a timer for 3-5 minutes and write as fast as they can. What I’ve noticed is that the internal editor starts to turn off.

The 49 Stories are organized to begin with “softballs”—that is, easier prompts. As the student progresses, deeper prompts are sprinkled in. Completing the exercises allows the person to first sit back and appreciate the ideas they’ve come up with—and also to start to see themes from their life.

So this was a way of saving my own time spent on all those interviews. But the writing itself helps. The more they write, the less they fear the whole process of writing a personal statement. Dyslexic students are an exception. They’re allowed to write less and then tell me more over the phone or Skype.

I read their stuff and tell them what stories I heard. They are in the middle of it and couldn’t see the stories that are valuable to tell. They would spill their guts and then didn’t know what to do after that. So, I would give them permission to write about their lives. They would say “Oh, I can write about that? I never thought of that.”  I help them see how the story is a good representation of them. 99 percent of the time, they say “You’re right, I’ve got to tell that story.” And then they crank it out.

Law school admissions officers are always telling applicants that personal statements need to be personal and about you, even if inspired by another person. Generally there’s going to be one with stronger and more personal elements. It’s almost always the most personal story. Not necessarily the most tragic, but the most personal. It’s about finding the personal in your past and ascribing meaning to it.

Some professors have said personal statements are so trite and formulaic. But I push back against that. If you’re tired of reading something formulaic, that means you’re tired of reading stories. Stories are formulaic! The subject matter changes, but the formula is the same.

The best story to tell almost always has to do with making a change. Stories are about change. And stories are really about human survival.

Law school applicants have the opportunity to meet with admissions officers at law school fairs and forums.  What’s your advice to applicants for managing those conversations?

Students go in thinking, “I’m going to apply these particular schools.” And they are listening to anything that backs up their plan. If they hear something that doesn’t back it up, they’ll stop listening.

When you are really listening, it sparks more questions. Some students are thinking so much about how they present themselves that they ask questions but don’t really listen. And honestly when I was 20 or 21, I was like that too. So let’s clarify some of the reasons this happens: Nerves get in the way. Ego gets in the way.

Students think they will impress the admissions officers by speaking—by what they say. But listening can help them create a better impression. Someone once shared with me some advice I’ll never forget:

Instead of trying to be interesting, try to be interested in.

Whenever I follow this advice, the people I’m talking with and listening to develop a higher opinion of me than if I had tried to impress by talking and being interesting.

Asking questions is a great opportunity to listen and learn. What are some of your favorite questions for law school applicants to ask?

I tell students to ask questions that most people don’t ask. For example, how frequently does the Dean meet with students? How easy is it for students to meet with the Dean? Some admissions people know this right off the bat. Others give vague answers with nothing set up institutionally. Be suspicious of that. The Dean sets the culture and attitude of the law school. Having a regular time to meet with students shows a level of care for the students.

I also ask about faculty culture. I watch how the admission person acts when answering the question. They may not have a great relationship with the faculty. Do they smile instantly? Do they look away and hesitate? For me, how they answer is as important as what they say.

What do you see in prelaw students today?

For me, prelaw students seem to fall into two major camps. They are all achievers—because the people I’ve worked with at Prelaw Guru are by definition achievers in some way—but they generally fall into two groups.

There’s a small group who are good listeners and also very humble and very skilled. They often have something like a 3.9 GPA and a good LSAT score. They aren’t perfect. They are very neurotic and worried about their future. But there’s a relationship between their humbleness, their skill, and their dedication. This is a very small group and they always amaze me. I’m always heartened to find that the most achieving students are also the most humble and the most worried.

The other group is much larger. They’ve struggled too, but I don’t know if they realized how hard law school is going to be. They’re not as worried. They tend to think they will continue doing what they’ve been doing. They may not have been challenged enough in college. They’re not arrogant, but they haven’t experienced enough to know how hard it’s really going to be. They may not have ever failed.

You mentioned a certain profile of some law students as humble but also worried. How do you think law students can cultivate their mental health throughout this process?

One of the biggest problems I see with prelaw students is they depend too much on external markers of success. They get depressed when they don’t receive those external markers, like the grade they wanted to get in a certain class. The focus on external markers leads to anxiety, drinking, and depression.

Those who are more mature realize it’s about internal markers of success. Even if they don’t get the grade they wanted, they can focus on what they learned from the class and the professor. I worked with one law student who was 10 years older than the typical law student. He grew up in a low-income area with a single mom. He said he had been lawyering ever since he was 12 years old, standing on the street corner listening to people, giving them advice, and helping them advocate for themselves. And this is the advice he gave me to pass on:

You have to rage against the machine.

The machine wants you to believe if you get high grades, you’ll be a good lawyer. If you get a big law job, you’ll be a good lawyer.

But you have to realize the machine is not you. You have to find your own version of success.

This student knew he wanted to be a public defender. He would constantly ask for help and get to know everyone both in and out of the law school who could help him toward that goal. And by his third year, he had his job offer in the public defender’s office before graduation and was ready to go.

In terms of listening, how can prelaw students get ready to be better listeners in law school and as practicing attorneys?  

Any type of work experience or internship or volunteer work where they have to listen will help them later. It doesn’t have to be legally oriented. One of my clients did customer service for a pharmaceutical company that helped her develop great listening skills. Many students I’ve met have done  intake work as an intern or volunteer where they have to interview people and then write up those interviews in a report. They benefit from understanding what it means to be of service by listening rather than by speaking. Journalism is also great.

I’m not a fan of lectures where students take a lot of notes then take a test. Sadly, many classes are taught this way. It may be necessary to impart content and a certain way of thinking to students, but I think schools with more hands-on learning in classes will have more successful students.

Students should think about how they learn best. Some can read and absorb what they’ve read. Others need to read and then reiterate out loud what they’ve read. Others learn best by hearing the material spoken out loud. There are lots of different ways of learning and the students who do the best have found ways to support or supplement their learning style.

How have you worked on your own listening skills?

The more I listen and take risks at telling the truth about what I’m hearing, the better results I get. I did a lot of own experimentation with advising during my years at the UW. Also I had several years of personal and business coach training prior to working at the UW that helped me a lot. As I kept experimenting with my students, I realized that’s what people are really looking for—for someone to listen to them and tell them the truth—even if they don’t seem to know that’s what they want initially.

What I have learned is to listen to clients and ask questions that help the client come up with their own solutions. And I tell the truth about what I heard. I try to ask questions that lead the person to the truth, for them. It’s important to understand as well that what’s the truth means different things for different people.

You are working on a career transition yourself.

I’ve always been writing on the side. Last year I wrote a middle-grade novel. I’m working on an adult suspense novel now and I’m also writing a personal finance book for college students.

This month, I’m wrapping up my consulting business and my online personal statement class. My last clients for this admission cycle have all got back to me and let me know their plans, so I feel good about that. It’s been great to help so many people, but I’m one of those people who likes more variety. And I think you should get out of something when you still like what you’re doing. So I will be a full-time writer this whole year, and then see where I’m at next January.

What’s funny is that being a full-time writer has really helped me relate more to my clients and the fears they had about writing their personal statements. They would tell me, “I don’t know if I can do it. But I keep telling myself, this is so important. This is going to decide my future.” I can totally relate to that! This is my year for writing; it’s not a year about procrastinating about writing. That means every single day, I go through the fear and the self-doubt, and just do it.

2 thoughts on “Q&A with Peg Cheng, the Prelaw Guru

  1. You’re adorable. I’m going to miss your awesome advice. Good luck in your new job. They are lucky to have you! -Jessica (Springfield, IL)

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