3L Stories: Keith Ongeri

This is the first post in a new recurring feature called 3L Stories. I will be talking with 3Ls and sharing their experiences. Why? Well, why not? We have great students, so why not talk about them!? First up, Keith Ongeri. He is our current SBA President, an Assistant Rector in Alumni Hall and an all-around great guy.

Ali Wruble: Tell me a little bit about yourself and your life before law school.

Keith Ongeri: I was born in Kenya but grew up in the suburbs of Indianapolis (Fishers). I went to undergrad at Indiana University where I studied political science and business. I studied marketing, entrepreneurship and small business management. I always knew I wanted to go to law school. I took the LSAT senior year, submitted some applications and took some tours. Once I visited Notre Dame, I knew I wanted to come here so I applied Early Decision and got in. The rest is history!

AW: You say you knew you always wanted to go to law school? How did you know?

KO: Well, as I was coming of age, Barack Obama became president. He was from Kenya, he went to law school and he seemed to be doing OK for himself. In high school, we had this thing called Law & Government Academy. Instead of going to class senior year, for half the day you went to an internship. I interned for a lawyer downtown, and I just loved it. I still talk to him to this day! He’s been a great mentor to me. That experience was really the catalyst. I did a congressional internship during college to learn more about the law and legislative process. It’s something I have always enjoyed.

AW: What was it about your visit to Notre Dame that made you know you belonged here?

KO: Everyone here is very friendly. There is obviously difference of opinion, but we really can disagree without being disagreeable. I have lots of friends who I disagree with vehemently on lots of political and sports opinions, but I think there is a real sense of community. From the time I arrived, everyone took a little extra step to get to know you more. My tour guide knew my name which was very different from other schools. Now I give tours, and we walk through the Commons, and you see people just enjoying the presence of other people. In law school, it is so easy to get caught up in all of the pressure of grades, journals and job stuff. I think what gets lost especially at other schools is that we are all still students. We are all people. And at the end of the day, there is nothing wrong with sharing a meal and a smile with somebody. It really humanizes the law school experience in a way that is very much needed.

AW: Tell me about your 1L experience.

KO: 1L year was particularly tough for me. It’s a different kind of learning, a different kind of school. I was always in large public schools my whole life so there was definitely culture shock. Obviously it was something I wanted but the adjustment takes time. Academically, law school is hard. And then I lost my grandmother during finals week of 1L fall semester. With my family in Kenya, she was one of the only ones I had a tangible connection with, so personally it was a big loss. I was worried about my mom and trying to be there for her. The law school was very accommodating and very helpful. The community was here to back me up.

AW: What did you do your 1L summer?

KO: I worked at a public interest firm in Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek. I actually got the job through Galilee. I am a Galilee success story! We visited the firm, and they’re giving their overview and this guy (Diego) mentions that they have a new venture, a small business development program. They help entrepreneurs, underrepresented minorities, low-income folks by providing legal services to get them started. I was like, “This is it!” So I got his contact information right away. I called him and applied. They’re great people. They’re doing the Lord’s work. I had the time of my life out there.

I’d rather be rejected for who I am than accepted for who I am not.

AW: Then 2L summer, you changed course a bit and worked at a private law firm back in Indianapolis. How did that come about?

KO: I applied in both LA and Indy. I went through OCI and got my job that way. I always say that I’d rather be rejected for who I am than accepted for who I am not. I was always very straightforward and forthcoming in all of my interviews. This is who I am, and this is what I want to do. The one firm that really appreciated me was Krieg DeVault. I’ll give you an example. Obviously I am from the Midwest and going to LA prompted a lot of questions from LA firms asking why LA and are you going to stay out here. My Indy interviews were similar – why did you go to LA for the summer? Are you here to stay? Krieg really accepted my first answer. I told them I have family & friends out in LA, and I got an amazing job opportunity that I was going to take. And they said, “OK, that makes sense.” But a lot of firms, I would walk into the interview, and I could see my resume in front of the interviewer, and the only thing marked was Los Angeles circled three times! No questions, comments, nothing. So you sit down and immediately they ask “Why did you go to LA for your 1L summer?” And they just keep going. The common theme between my 1L and 2L summers was that I worked for people who cared about me as a person. Just understanding, great people to be around.

AW: Did you have any idea what you wanted to do when you came to law school?

KO: No. I have no lawyers in my family and limited experiences with the law. I came in with an open mind. During my OCI interviews, I would say I don’t have lawyers in my family and for me to sit here after ten classes and tell you what I want to do for the next thirty years would just not be true. I’d be lying if I said I had that kind of knowledge at this point. I have taken about the widest variety of classes you can take. I am just trying to soak it all in.

AW: Since hindsight is 20/20, is there anything you would do differently if you were starting over?

KO: I would probably do more practice exams for finals. It’s part of the learning curve. In undergrad you get a lot of points for regurgitating information, so just demonstrating that you have knowledge versus the ability to critically apply that knowledge. Those are two very different things. So I would write paragraphs and get no points because I wasn’t really saying what I needed to. The art of exam-taking is really important because it is where you demonstrate how to think like a lawyer.

AW: You work with prospective students, undergrads and current students in your various roles. What advice do you give people about law school?

KO: It’s very important to know yourself first. I think a lot of people consider law school because the jobs pay well or the prestige that comes with a respected career or whatever it might be. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the law or their personal interests. But what do you actually want to do with your time on this earth? I think that is something that you should reckon with in a very serious manner. Because law school is an investment – financially, emotionally, mentally. It changes every aspect of your life. You know, thinking like a lawyer. My friends who didn’t go to law school, they tell me the way I talk and think and approach questions, it’s completely different. It’s different for the better, but in law school, undertaking learning how to learn again, it’s not an easy task. You really have to commit. If you don’t like what you’re doing or who you’re working with, you’re just a miserable person. You can avoid a negative outcome if you do a little soul searching.

AW: Do you have friends at other law schools? Are your stories similar to theirs?

KO: I think in a lot of ways our faculty experience is unique. It goes beyond just the basic teaching. We have so many great professors here that really care about students. They’re willing to take the time, if you are, to help you become a better lawyer, a better professional. I encourage people to get to know their professors. The people that work in this building are truly just great people. And it’s a special place. Professors will invite you to their house for dinner or to grab a beer. They’ll meet you wherever you are comfortable and I think it is unique. It goes to show that people care. There is so much more engagement beyond the basic “I teach you for 75 minutes and then move on with my life” kind of attitude.

Thanks so much to Keith for his time and insights. Hope to see you soon in the Commons, Keith!