Sunday, January 27, 2008

Law School Redux: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Without fail, when people find out that I am a law school graduate, the first thing that they ask (with the exception of a substantive question of law) is whether I can speak to their son/daughter/niece/nephew/grandchild who has expressed in interest in the legal field. Just a few days ago, I agreed to speak to a friend’s younger sister who has now decided that she wants to be a lawyer. I essentially relay the same advice over and over and make sure to add that law school is not for everyone and that they should be sure of their decision before they take on the responsibility of three years of hard labor.

In my last blog, I gave a little insight into what it means to be a lawyer in today’s oversaturated legal market. As I said, it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. I went to law school optimistic, thinking I would graduate and somehow contribute to society with all the nifty things I learned. But, when I got there, I felt like an outsider from Day 1. For some reason, everything important about law school seemed just out of my reach. It was like everything was one BIG secret that everyone was privy to – everyone except me. But, pretty soon, I learned the ropes and was able to figure some things out, which made the experience a lot more bearable.

As promised, here are some things I wish I knew before I went to law school. One day, when I have the time and energy, I will probably write a book about this. So, here is the (not-so) short version. It’s pretty detailed and opinionated. I’m sure that you will find law school grads that disagree with my perspective. You will also probably find just as many that will co-sign every word of this post. Either way, do your research and make the decision that is right for you. Here’s a little bit of info that might help make your law school life go a little more smoothly…

• Everything you do from the time you apply to law school until the day you secure an offer for permanent employment from any willing employer, should be an effort to position yourself for the ideal post-graduate job. That means that your choice of law school (more about that later), your coursework, your extracurricular activities, your internships, and accomplishments should all be helping you reach the end goal – your dream job. If, along the way, you find you are spending your time on things that will not help make you marketable to your dream employer, stop doing what you are doing and focus on something else that will get you a step closer. Nothing else really matters.

• If you know the city/state where you would like to practice post-graduation from law school, you should probably save your money and attend the best state law school in that area. Why? Because most of the local lawyers probably attended that school as well and the alumni connections in that city will really help you out in the long-run. Plus, if you can get in-state tuition, you will save yourself the burden of astronomical student loan payments in the long-run.

• If you do decide to attend a private law school and spend ridiculous amounts of money to attend school each year, make sure to attend the highest ranked school that you can manage to get into. When I got ready to go to law school my dad said “Nobody will ask where you got your degree, they will only care that you got a degree.” Maybe that works for other grad degrees, but with a law degree… not so much. The best employers recruit at the best schools. If you go to a school that is in the second or third tier (you’ll learn about tiers when you start to research schools), you might as well just save your money and get a degree in something else. Trust me… you’ll be better off 30 years down the line.

• The best grad school advice that I ever got was from a teaching assistant in one of my undergrad government classes. When he found out that I would be attending law school he said, “It will not be humanly possible for you to complete all the reading that will be assigned. Immediately upon arrival, learn to skim your reading assignments for the important bits. Just do what you can and the rest will fall into place.” It’s true. Time management is the most valuable skill a law student – or ANY grad student – can have. If you are not good with managing your time, get good at it BEFORE you go to law school.

• The most important class you will take during your first year of law school is your legal research and writing class. If you can ace that course, you have pretty much gotten all the skills you need to secure a law clerk or summer associate position. You need to secure these jobs to add weight to your resume because when recruiting begins in earnest, you need to have a killer resume to get the best jobs.

• Remember that – no matter what – 50% of the class will be ranked at the top, and 50% will be ranked at the bottom. Mathematically, this isn’t necessarily true considering that typically significantly less than 50% of the class falls in the Top 50% of the class. (Anyone who understands curves knows what I mean by this.) But, law students need to learn this early. People who go to law school are typically type-A personalities that have always been at the top of their class. But here’s a wakeup call: EVERYONE in your class has always been at the top of their class. Smart people come a dime a dozen in law school. In law school, it’s not about being smart, it’s about being disciplined. Law school is not hard. Anyone can comprehend what is being taught in law classes. But, you can be the smartest person in the world and if you don’t lack the discipline required to DO THE WORK, you will be in the bottom half of the class. Every time. Be committed to the work and the rest will come easy.

• When the notices come around regarding law review/law journal, moot court, and mock trial, try out for these activities! The write-on competition for law review is no joke, but if you are lucky enough to make law review or journal, your life will be a lot easier! Take a look at attorney bios on law firm websites. You’ll see that the few law school-related activities that are mentioned is law review/journal and/or moot court/mock trial. These activities provide you with the practical skills that legal employers are seeking in a candidate. They are important. Participate if you can.

• At some point during your law school career, consider a judicial internship. A judicial internship is basically an opportunity to work under the supervision of a judge and a judicial law clerk. Depending on the court, you could get a ton of research and writing experience. No matter the court (or the judge for the matter) you will get an opportunity to say that you have first-hand knowledge of the judicial process, which will make you more marketable to legal employers.

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