Max Dowden is a rising second-year student at Harvard Law School, where he hopes to specialise in the intersection between law and finance. He participates in several business and law-oriented student organisations like the Harvard Association for Law and Business, Harvard Business Law Review, and the Harvard Law and Entrepreneurship Project. Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, he spent his time at St Andrews studying International Relations and Modern History and spending way too much time in the library and the Vic.
What was your experience studying at St Andrews: how did you find your degree and what extracurricular societies were you involved in?
I did International Relations and Modern History because I am American and that was the thing to do. I really enjoyed St Andrews and did a little bit of everything in terms of extracurricular activities. I was with the St Andrews Economist for a while, I did Modern United Nations, and I played on the Polo team even though I had never been on a horse before I went to college. I did so many random things, I think I even did a monologue at one point.
I really liked St Andrews because it really is what you make of it. I felt like I had 20 or 30 different friends and each one was having a slightly different college experience which was very valuable to me. I did not want to end up in a place where there was a unitary type of human being and everyone had to follow a specific path.
What inspired you to convert to law and why did you decide to complete a full law degree?
Law had always been one of those things that was in the back of my mind as an option. I was the classic kid who liked to argue and read a lot so people would bring it up periodically. It really kicked off during my undergraduate degree when I got more interested in the business world and how legal governance and relationships within business shape economies and countries. I liked the idea of peeking behind the curtain to see how things were running, to understand the plumbing and what made these relationships go around. That is what brought me towards law as a discipline.
In terms of a full law degree, I think that was motivated by me wanting to come back to the United States to practice. It seemed like a much easier and more direct path to get into legal recruiting and the legal world if I did a full American law degree.
Why Harvard Law School?
I chose Harvard because it is a great programme and, even compared to other great programmes, I really liked how HLS seemed to be training lawyers. As weird and funny as that sounds, I feel like some of the top law schools focus a lot on academic law and seem to be training legal philosophers whereas at HLS, everything I do and everything we learn is so intimately tied to the question of “how do you go out and make a difference in the world with this”. It is not just abstract information which I really appreciated because going out and doing something was really important to me and my peers.
How are you finding Harvard Law School? Has your previous degree come in handy when studying law?
It is interesting how helpful it has been in a lot of ways. I think that this does not get talked about very much but the British undergraduate experience actually lends itself well to American law schools because the pace of academia is very similar. You have classes that are quite self-selected in terms of what you specialise in and most of the semester is based around this one big exam or project that you pour yourself into. I found that I did not have to do as much adjustment as some of my American friends in terms of how to psychologically handle the semester.
In terms of subject matter, the law is somewhat similar to a lot of degrees where it really is what you make of it and what you are interested in. In first year, you take really black letter modules like civil procedure or corporations. By the time you get to your third year, all the classes sound so niche, like "advanced Japanese corporate transactions for the digital era" or something like that.
I particularly found it very rewarding to be able to talk about international economic governance, cross border mergers and acquisitions, and things like that. On the other hand, I have a friend who studied biochemistry for her undergraduate degree and she is getting in the weeds about patent law and scientific research. Really wherever you come from, you can make it relevant if you want to.
What is Harvard’s extracurricular scene like? What societies have you gotten involved in?
My experience has been a little more limited because of the pandemic so I have been fully online for the whole year. But the extracurricular activities are sort of similar to St Andrews where it is very interest focused. There is no idea of “three clubs that are worth joining and nothing else matters”. There are a lot of really niche interesting clubs.
The two that I have gotten involved in are the Business Law Review which I imagine is similar to the St Andrews Law Review but we just focus on business stuff. The other one is called the Harvard Law Entrepreneurship Project which is a pro bono organisation which involves law students working underneath practicing attorneys to help local entrepreneurs with start-ups. For example, if two guys in a garage that cannot afford legal work, we work on advising them how to get their company off the ground. This has been tremendously rewarding.
What area of law are you interested in exploring after your degree?
I am quite interested in finance-adjacent law because I find the study of money to be this very interesting human behaviour. I did a lot of economic history work when I was an undergraduate student and I studied the history of monetisation and financial markets and how that moved economies. I like that money is a construction in the same way that law is a construction and I really like the interplay between those two things. I would therefore love to get involved in financial restructuring and investment firm work.
How should students approach law school applications, particularly for American law schools?
In terms of navigating the American legal application process I think that the two things I would say are:
The LSAT – the standardised test for American law schools - is so incredibly important. If you come with a British university degree it kind of hurts you and helps you as an applicant. It helps you because they do not get to plug your grade point average into this metric and make a yes/no decision based on that. But on the other side, they cannot add you to their stats and say that this person has a great first-class degree. They need some sort of statistical point to measure you so if you can do really well on your LSAT that is great but if you have trouble with it, that is something worth definitely practicing. I ended up taking it two times and I almost took it a third. It is worth nailing down because my friends who applied to American law schools as well had similar experiences. The nice thing about the LSAT that I will say is that it is very beatable. It is this horrible little test but when you actually figure out the tricks, you feel stupid that you didn’t know them before. But the only way you figure out the tricks is to keep practicing.
Being able to articulate why law and why an American law school, particularly if you are British. I think there will be a lot of questions about whether you are just doing this because it is the next thing to do. I have noticed that everyone who has had a lot of success, especially amongst my peer group had an idea of, or were able to articulate, a really good narrative about why not just law in general but why this was the logical next step for them. I think that is really important as well.
Do you have any advice more generally for students considering a conversion to law?
I think my answer will be a little cliché which I generally hate but it’s true that you need to figure out the “why” as the very first step. The worst thing in terms of applying to law schools, doing a law conversion or going into a career in law is thinking about law as this abstract, up in the air, generalist thing. Thinking “I am going to go do that, whatever that means”. I think it is worth doing more research on the front end about what kind of law would you like to do, what kind of lawyer would you like to be, what kind of change you would like to make in the world. That helps you clarify which direction to go into and also makes the process a little less stressful.
It is not a matter of “I need to get into XYZ law programme so I can get XYZ job” because that is all about these appearances. Its more “as long as I can get into this programme that will let me go down this path I’m good”.
It is a long and stressful process and worrying about it is not going to help. I can tell you that from first-hand experience. My St Andrews friends could probably go on a rant for ten minutes about how many times I was panicky in the library talking to them about things that did not matter such as indications about the process that were totally pointless.
I remember I used to describe it as I am about to run this foot race. I am looking at the guy and he is just about to shoot the gun and that little moment is just lasting six to nine months. So, I would just say breathe, it will all be ok and you will all be lawyers.