Lydia Mackey graduated from the St Andrews & William and Mary Joint Degree Programme in 2021 with an International Honours Bachelor of Arts in History. She is currently a JD candidate at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York, and has recently worked as a judicial intern for the New Jersey Supreme Court and United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.
What was your experience at St Andrews in the context of the William and Mary Joint Degree Program?
I loved it, it was a wonderful experience. The Joint Degree Programme let me spend my first and fourth years at William and Mary in Virginia, and my second and third years at St Andrews. It was helpful starting out at William and Mary because I knew more of what to expect from American university before transitioning to St Andrews for my second year. Figuring out the British university system was a little difficult, but I think that will be helpful with law school as it taught me to be flexible with different situations and adapt to expectations quickly.
I truly enjoyed my time at St Andrews, and one of the most enjoyable aspects was all of the amazing people. I was also fortunate to be briefly a part of the Law Society at St Andrews, where I had the chance to attend a couple of information sessions, including one with Cornell Law’s Dean of Admissions, Dean Ingram. She was there in-person, and when I got my acceptance call from her, she remembered me and talked about her time in St Andrews. That was really special, and I’m grateful that the St Andrews Law Society organised it. I think that did give me a boost in the application process.
What sort of work experience did you gain that supported your professional and personal development?
Much of what I did in undergrad was figuring out exactly what sort of career I wanted and trying different things. Before I went to university, I was interested in becoming a lawyer, but I wanted to explore some other career pathways too. I studied history, so the summer between my first and second year I worked at a local museum in New Jersey, called Fort Mott State Park, which is an early twentieth-century era fort. I enjoyed working there, but I realised that working in museums did not meet what I wanted in a future career. I then did a summer working with a William and Mary program for history students. It was several weeks long, and was a combination of summer camps and university-level courses.
Over the winter break of my third year, I had the opportunity to shadow a few family friends in their law firms and had a great experience. Considering my personality, I think it fit what I was looking for in a job and that’s what pushed me towards law. I enjoyed the intellectual rigour, fast paced nature, and application of academic skills to directly help those in need.
Did you find that your history background and the skills you picked up helped your applications for law school?
I would absolutely say so. I think the biggest skill development I gained was in my writing. Just comparing my essays from first year to now, I can see a significant improvement. Many professors from St Andrews focus on the writing process itself and constantly ask me: “what is your question?” “What are you analysing?” I believe this approach to teaching historical analysis changed the way I write and think for the better.
I also think the way they teach you to think in history is helpful, especially with the reading- you just get used to a heavier course load and learn how to efficiently analyse and focus on the key points.
What inspired you to convert to law? I know you mentioned having family friends in the field, but what inspired you to take that step? And how did you decide where to study and practice?
There were many things that I enjoyed about history, particularly the writing and analysis. I enjoyed the fast-paced nature of law, and the way lawyers work and think, and I was able to witness two different sides of the field. I shadowed at a small firm in my town which specialises in elder law and at a commercial law firm in Philadelphia. I am not entirely sure what area of law I am going to specialise in yet, but they were both really intriguing to me so I can see myself doing both at some point.
I think the main reason I chose Cornell had a lot to do with the information session at St Andrews. Meeting with Dean Ingram was a wonderful experience, and she described the law school as a strong community, which I knew would be a good fit for me. I live on the East Coast of the US and I wanted to stay in that region, but Cornell also has a strong international reach too, which I liked, so those two factors drew me to it. And then I got in! Another part was the small town feel- I’m from a small town, so I’m looking forward to exploring Ithaca.
Cornell is also very strong academically. I went to a couple of admitted student day events and at one they held a mock class. The professor was great, and he emphasised Cornell’s focus on employing strong educators. US law schools have a reputation for being a bit intense because they use the Socratic Method (also known as cold-calling), which is where the professor will randomly call on a student to answer the question. I appreciated that this professor was kind about the cold-calling and helped walk everyone through the discussion.
What are you looking forward to with getting started on a law degree? I imagine it would be quite different from what you have done so far.
I'm looking forward to getting into the basics! I know a little bit about the Constitution and the legal system here from some of my government and history classes in high school and university, but I’m looking forward to studying it more. One of my classes in my fourth year focused on the foundation of America, and we talked in-depth about the creation of the Constitution, so I anticipate some of what we will talk about in my Constitutional Law class will be familiar.
You said you're not really decided on what you want to do after the law degree. Do you have ideas about particular routes which are appealing to you?
One of the firms I shadowed at specialised in elder law. I'm very close to my grandparents and grew up with a church with a significant elderly population, so I've always loved interacting with older people. I was involved with this new society at William and Mary where I was a pen pal with someone who lives in a retirement home and that was a really wonderful experience. It helped me realise I might have a calling in that area. It all depends how law school goes but I think that's an avenue I am considering at the moment. Some advice that I have received from other attorneys and law students is that many people go to law school with one career in mind, but end up doing something different, so I am trying to keep an open mind about it.
Do you have any advice for students exploring law and navigating the American law school application process?
I think from the American side, you don’t have to apply straight to law school like I did, you can certainly take a gap year- or several gap years. I've had many friends who have worked as legal assistants or as paralegals at law firms before applying to law school. Either working at a firm or shadowing lawyers would be helpful to give you a better sense of what the day-to-day life of being a lawyer would be. However, you can also do something completely different and then go to law school, so there’s a lot of flexibility in the different types of paths people can take.
For the law school application process- start early is the biggest piece of advice I would give. I started practising for my LSATs (the law school admission exam) in February of 2020, took it in July of that year, and had submitted most of my applications by the end of October, barring a few last minute ones at the end of January. I would say to get everything out as soon as possible after the application cycle opens in early September. Everything is based on rolling applications and so whoever can get their application in the earliest will typically have a higher admissions chance.
I think having a narrative to tie your application together is also important. In my application, I talked about how my experiences in the Joint Degree Program and all the academic research I did pushed me towards law and made me realise that's what I wanted to do. I would say being able to answer “why law?” and what will help you succeed in law school can be good to have in your main application essay.