Launching a big law career through personal branding: An interview with John Foerster, NDLS 2016

Recently, I sat down with alumnus John Foerster, NDLS 2016, to talk about the new job he started at Baker McKenzie in their immigration practice group. John’s career trajectory shows that you can start a big law career two years after graduation and that if you don’t land a big law job through OCI, there are other ways to land a big law job later. John built an expertise in immigration law, completing immigration externships in law school, taking immigration classes, and starting his career with a small immigration firm. With that expertise, John was the perfect fit for a big law immigration position just a few years after graduation.

KMB: Where did you go to undergrad?

JF: Purdue. I began studying Biology but realized that it was not the best fit for me. I ended up switching to History and Political Science and added a Spanish major along the way. I did get a minor in Biology, so I got something out of my time in that program.

KMB: Why did you decide to go to Notre Dame for law school?

JF: I went to Penn State for my first year but wanted to move to a law school that had a better alumni base and career resources in the Midwest. Notre Dame was one of my first choices because I was interested in going to a Catholic law school and was very interested in Notre Dame’s Chicago program. When I was accepted, it was an easy decision to attend.

KMB: What did you do your 1L summer?

JF: I interned at Indiana Legal Services in Indianapolis. I worked with a few attorneys there on a wide variety of issues including immigration, divorce, custody, civil forfeiture, property rights, wills, and deeds. It was a great experience because I was exposed to a variety of different legal areas and was able to do a lot of interesting things including drafting court motions, client letters, and legal memoranda.

KMB: Did you participate in OCI?

JF: I did but it did not go as well as I would have liked.  I did not have a good understanding at the time of what big law firms were looking for in law students, so I did not prepare in the right way.  There was not much of a focus on OCI prep during my time at Penn State so I was not as equipped as I wish I had been.

KMB: How did 2L year go from there?

JF: It went really well.  I enjoyed my first semester on Notre Dame’s campus and then took advantage of the opportunity to do the Chicago program the second semester of my 2L year. I wanted to explore Chicago and work at NIJC because I was interested in immigration law and curious if Chicago would be the best fit for me after graduation.

KMB: How did you like the Chicago program?

JF: I loved the Chicago program. Having the opportunity to intern at an organization like NIJC for a semester gives you the ability to get deeply involved in issues for a much longer period of time than you normally get during a summer internship. Also, there are normally not as many other interns around during that time, so you get a lot more one on one time with your supervisors and get involved in much more interesting work. I also enjoyed hearing about the work everyone else was doing in the program during our weekly class discussions.

KMB: Did you do any other experiences in law school that were really valuable? 

JF: I truly enjoyed all of my coursework, but there are too many courses to name here.  However, regarding non-traditional programs, I also did the NIJC externship at Notre Dame that focused on pro bono asylum work. This exposed me to another area of immigration law and allowed me to work directly with a client.

KMB: What did you do your 2L summer?

JF: I worked at a small immigration firm in Chicago, Law Offices of Susan Fortino-Brown as a law clerk doing research, working on cases, and drafting briefs.

KMB: As you know, the small firm job search is less streamlined than the big law firm search. So how did you get connected with Susan Fortino-Brown? 

JF: When I arrived at Notre Dame I wanted to talk with some immigration attorneys in Chicago about the field and what their suggestions were as to what I should do to get into immigration law.  Lisa Koop at NIJC put me in contact with Susan, who was very gracious with her time and agreed to meet with me when I was in Chicago. After I talked with her, she said to keep in touch regarding summer plans and it ended up working out for me to work for her over my 2L summer.

KMB: What did your job search look like your 3L year?

JF: I participated in 3L OCI, and nothing came of it. I also applied for the Department of Justice’s Honors Program and was a finalist for the Executive Office of Immigration Review. Unfortunately, I was placed on the waitlist for this program, and it did not end up working out. Throughout my 3L year, I continued working at the Law Offices of Susan Fortino-Brown on Fridays during the first semester and Mondays during the second semester. It was great to keep connected with her and to get to Chicago regularly to meet up with other attorneys.

I also interviewed for a clerkship position with two state judges in Elkhart, Indiana. By the end of my 3L year, I received an offer to work for Susan and took it.

KMB: How long did you work for Susan Fortino-Brown?

JF: Full time for two-years. I started working after graduation in 2016 and stopped for a little while to study for the bar that July. I returned to working full time in August 2016 after I took the bar.

KMB: You started working in Baker McKenzie’s immigration practice group recently. How did that opportunity first come about?

JF: I had a few friends from Notre Dame Law School who worked there and they saw the immigration posting and reached out to me. They really helped me out through the process, got my resume to the right people, and gave me advice for my interviews.  The entire process took a while, but I am very glad it worked out the way it did.

KMB: What advice do you have for law students?

JF: My advice is to get a legal job as soon as you can out of law school, preferably in the field you want to work in, and to not worry if it is not a big law job right away. Work hard in your first job so you can learn and develop your expertise in that area if you like it, or develop your overall legal skills so you can move to another field. It is great to get a big law job right out of school but being able to work for a small firm can give you a lot of hands-on experience that makes you attractive for a bigger firm a few years down the line.

I would also suggest that you do what you can to get to know your peers in law school.  They are not only great people, but they are also going to be your peers throughout your career and you never know who will be able to connect you with job openings in the future.

KMB: What sparked your interest in immigration law, in particular?

JF: My grandfather was born in Greece and came to the United States through Ellis Island when he was a teenager.  I grew up hearing his story my entire life and would bring him to many classes over my years in school.  While I was at Purdue, I also got involved in two language programs. With the first program, I helped teach English at an adult education facility to Spanish speaking students. The second program was connected to a research project in which we taught Spanish to children of Spanish speaking immigrants who understood the language but did not have a solid grammatical foundation in the language.  I always knew that I wanted to help others in my profession and with my personal background and my educational background, immigration law seemed to be the best way for me to serve those around me.

If you want to get in touch with John, contact me and I will send you his email.


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