Talking Shop with Harvard Law Student Katie Stevenson

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Growing up in northern Virginia was the best.

Not only was DC my next-door neighbor (elementary school field trips to the famous museums were the norm), but I felt close to so many important events and places. I loved being inspired by the culture of the capital and the busyness of the east coast. My beginnings in Virginia also had me rubbing shoulders with amazing people, like Katie.

I met Katie through church growing up, and knowing her has been a true pleasure. She is kind and smart, beautiful and talented. Watching her journey and adventures over time has been such an inspiration to me.

Recently, I read an incredible article she wrote about being a woman of faith at Harvard Law School. I knew I had to pick her brain about her experiences and insight into pursuing a law degree. On today’s Talking Shop, she shares what makes her passionate about law, why the path to our dreams isn’t always linear, and why fear keeps women from their goals (and she totally makes me cry while doing it).

Everyone, meet Katie!

 Tell us a little about yourself. 

Well, to start, I’m the oldest of 7 kids (this is one of my favorite things about myself so I still introduce myself this way!). I grew up in the Washington D.C. area and then went to school at BYU where I studied English. I took a break from school to serve a mission for my church in Nevada—so little towns in rural Nevada are now forever engrained on my heart.

Last year I married the amazing Alex Poulsen and six days later started law school at Harvard. My husband is getting a PhD in Economics at Boston College so we’re both pretty busy with grad school. That being said, both of us are really into NOT being workaholics so we make time to go on lots of adventures, eat good food, read meaningful books, and watch SNL.  

What first drew you to the field of law? What makes you passionate about it?

I grew up with amazing parents who took in two newspapers a day and listened to NPR in the car. So I guess I just grew up being pretty exposed to the challenges that many people face and the many things in this world that are quite unfair. I knew that I wanted to be part of solving these problems and doing the best I could to help others.

After thinking about teaching and social work I made up at my mind at the age of probably 13 that I was going to be a lawyer. I read a book from the library about a public defender in the Bronx and was just mesmerized by the work! Experiences on my mission working with populations that were in and out of prison as well as books like “Just Mercy” and documentaries like “13th” have made me even more passionate about problems with our criminal justice system.

I’m motivated by the idea of having a country where the criminal justice system isn’t something that rips families and communities apart. I often think about the kind of lawyer I would want advocating for my younger siblings if they ever got in trouble with the law and that is yet another thought that keeps me very passionate about all of this. 

What was your experience like applying for and entering HLS?

 My experience was a rocky miracle! I used to tell everyone my freshman year of college that I was going to apply to HLS. I got good grades and have a confident personality, so this was always a vocal dream. But the LSAT was really, really difficult for me. I had to take it twice and never got the score that I wanted and so I eventually I just sort of shut up about Harvard, thinking there was no way.

Luckily, I had an amazing aunt and cousin who convinced me that I should still apply to HLS even though I did not think I had the LSAT score to get in. They reminded me that while men are likely to apply for opportunities they are 60 percent qualified for, women often don’t apply to things unless they are 100 percent qualified. So I did! My aunt also had a conference in Boston the fall I applied to HLS so she let me come with her to Boston and we toured HLS together which was such a special experience. That trip is also where I reconnected with Alex (which is a long, fun story for another day).

However, it was not until SIX MONTHS after I applied that I finally got waitlisted and then, even after that, I was on the waitlist for a few months until I finally got accepted about a month before school started. The first semester was very difficult—I never want to obscure that. I struggled with my grades, I got insomnia, learning how to be married was more difficult than I imagined.

In fact, I vividly remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking it was CRAZY to stay in school when it was so hard and so expensive and I was so miserable but I thought of how hard I had worked and I thought of everything I wanted that was just on the other side of law school and I had to stay. In that process of staying, I learned a lot about grit and grace.

What have been your experiences as a woman in law, and especially a woman of faith?

My experience as a woman has been great. The legal profession is full of really talented, strong women. Women make up more than half the student body at HLS. I’ve loved what I’ve learned during my three semesters (even when they were hard, my classes have always been interesting). I also spent the summer working two fascinating internships in Accra, Ghana and Fresno, California.

My experiences as a woman of faith have been less consistently great. I’m really passionate about the need for more LDS female attorneys—right now it’s still not that common and that makes it sort of a lonely road. That being said, I’m lucky to be surrounded by a wonderful faith community here in Boston complete with many amazing women, several of whom are also in graduate school. So I’m trying to pay forward all the help and support I received from LDS female attorneys throughout the years and create a more commonly trodden path—if that makes sense. 

And then as a woman at faith at HLS it has not always been easy either. Religion is not a lens through which professors or other students commend you for looking but my faith and spiritually are what bring EVERYTHING to my life. So that is something I’m still working on navigating.  

What advice would you give to other women looking to pursue a law degree?

Pick your dream and don’t give up. Recognize that the process might not be as linear as you want but keep going. Find someone who believes in you in a big way (for me, that’s my dad) and talk to them when you’re feeling like things are impossible. Invest a lot in studying for the LSAT.  Date people who love your dreams. 

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned about yourself on this journey?

I’ve learned that failure isn’t permanent and that just because you don’t get something right the first time or just because you’re not the fastest learner doesn’t mean you’re defined that way forever. I’ve learned that I can do excruciatingly hard things. I’m very proud of that. I’ve learned that I have a lot to offer. I’ve also learned to be comfortable not being the smartest one in the room and in being careful not to pin value on others just in terms of educational/intellectual pursuits. 

What role does spirituality play in your educational pursuits?

Spirituality is the current running throughout this entire experience. I’m at law school because I’ve felt the motivation and love of Heavenly Parents who believe in me. They sustain me and support me and so every spiritual habit I engage in during this busy time is a huge blessing because it helps me feel more connected to their love. 

Several years ago I read this article called “You Are Not Messing Up God’s Plan for You.” In this article, the author writes about an experience she had while praying about her career. In her mind, she heard God say: “Ariel, I don’t care what you do to pay the bills. Have fun! Explore. Do what you want to do. Just keep writing, and we will do great things together.” 

I have honestly never read anything more refreshing or empowering. I love the idea of God watching me do what I love, watching me explore, and doing great things with me—no matter what I chose to do. It is something I think about often and it gives me great peace. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you see for women as they pursue higher education?

Fear. I know I personally have doubted if I was smart enough, if I was worth this large of an investment of time and money. I think women also get really caught up in planning and trying to figure out how we’ll have time to do everything we want and how we’ll balance everything. But I love the idea of just pushing forward with your goals and dreams until something forces you to stop! 

Why should women of faith consider a degree at HLS?

Because we need more of you! We need smart, eloquent, strong, savvy, women of faith. It’s easy to stereotype what it means to be a women of faith but we’re not all the same. The more of us there are at HLS, the more good we can accomplish. Plus, you’ll meet so many people that will push/expand/challenge your faith and cause it to grow in a really unique way. 

How do you stay motivated and avoid burnout? 

I don’t always! But when I feel myself feel burned out, I try to remember big picture things—gratitude for being at such an amazing school, visions of how I will be able to use this education to bless my community, relief that this will help my voice to be heard. I also journal A TON. And then I re-read my journals a ton just to be re-reminded of miracles that have happened in my life and it gives me great hope.

I also (as of this year) have just really cut back on doing things that I don’t want to do even if they would look good on my resume. So I dropped out of the journal I was on and decided not to do this really time-consuming writing contest and instead spent that time exploring New England with my husband which was so lovely. Additionally, I quite passionate about keeping the Sabbath Day holy. For me, that has meant taking a total break from school and work on Sunday which has just given me the chance to reset and refresh and actually have a break in what could be an endless stream of work.  I know that prevents a lot of serious burnout.

Finally, anytime I’m out and about in the real world and remembering all the challenges that brought me to law school in the first place, I get re-energized big time. 

The Fun Qs:

Favorite spot(s) in Cambridge?

Oooo. Hmm. There’s so many spots! I love Otto pizza, any of the bridges that go over the Charles River, Brookline Booksmith, the Boston Library courtyard and White Mountain Creamery. My husband and I also love driving around all the gorgeous neighborhoods in Boston and zillowing them! 

The best book you’ve read recently?

Jayber Crow by Wendell Barry and I’m about to start Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee. My constitutional law professor said it was the most beautiful book he’s ever read so I’m pretty excited to spend Christmas break curled up with it! 

A song that’s currently stuck in your head?

Lonely City by the Midnight and Concerto in C Major for Flautino and Strings by Vivaldi (an interesting mash-up). 

If you could dine with anyone (living or dead) who would it be?

My mom’s mom who we affectionately called Grandee and Abraham Lincoln. Grandee (who was stylish and talented) died when I was 12 and I’m suddenly really longing for her love and advice and Lincoln is a reminder of good in the face of darkness. I would just love to sit and learn from both of them at once. 

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