Steven C. Bennett

"Career Development: Make Law School Relevant"
New York Law Journal
September 6, 2002,
Vol. 228.

Law school can be a very isolated world. The focus of most law schools (casebooks and lectures) may offer little insight into the practical work that goes on in law firms. Law students with no first-hand experience in a law firm, moreover, may have little direct knowledge of what will be expected of them after graduation, upon their entry into a law firm. Indeed, it may be tempting for a law student essentially to ignore the practice of law that is to come. Although law students may spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about how to get a job, and reviewing the characteristics of law firms to determine what seems to be the "best" job, they may spend much less time really preparing to do the job after graduation. Because, for many students, it does not seem possible to prepare for the full-time practice of law, some law students may simply drift through law school, marking time until graduation and entry into the "real world" of law.

But is there another way? Can law school actually help prepare you for life in a law firm? This article suggests some strategies that can help make law school more relevant to your future career in a law firm. Begin with a candid self-assessment. Compare your skills and your experiences with the skills and experiences of a practicing lawyer. If you got a Psychology degree (as I did) and worked as a janitor summers in college (as I did) you may have to go a long way to develop necessary skills and experiences for the practice of law. Law school can help.

Viewed from the perspective of your future career in a law firm, you will need to take courses in the fundamentals of business (Accounting for Lawyers, Commercial Law, Corporation Law and anything to do with finance). In your spare time (summers, for example) pick up a primer on the basics of business operations. If your law school permits it, consider taking an introductory business course at the undergraduate or graduate level. Identify, in broad terms, your interests. Are you most likely headed for litigation? There are highly relevant law school courses: Alternative Dispute Resolution, Appellate Practice, Conflicts of Law, Evidence, Federal Courts, State Civil Procedure (New York Practice), and Trial Advocacy.

If you are more likely to become a business practice lawyer, consider: Bankruptcy, Mergers and Acquisitions, Securities Regulation and Uniform Commercial Code. There are also some "in-betweener" courses that will likely help no matter which direction you go: Administrative Law and Taxation, for example. Study of competition law (Antitrust, Copyright, Patents and Trademarks) may similarly help you no matter what your eventual area of practice. There are, moreover, many specific courses that can be highly relevant to work in specific areas of law after graduation (Criminal Procedure, Entertainment and Sports Law, Family Law, Health Law, Immigration Law, Insurance Law, Labor and Employment Law, Maritime Law, Product Liability, Trusts and Estates, to name just a few).

Look for practical training in school. Many law schools now include clinical programs, internships and other opportunities to learn practical skills. These programs can provide the best of both worlds, offering practical experience with the assistance of teachers who are focused on student education, rather than simply completing the practical tasks. Emphasize writing. It is not possible to over-emphasize the importance of solid writing skills for success in a law firm. No matter what your ultimate pursuit, the ability to write well will benefit you throughout your career. Get journal (or moot court) experience if you can. If not, take at least one course with a paper requirement, where you can benefit from the experience of having your writing carefully critiqued, and learn the discipline of self-editing. If your school offers an upper-level advanced legal writing course, consider taking that course (or consider becoming a teaching assistant for the first year legal writing course). Recognize that law school is not an aptitude test.

It is quite possible that a law school course (or professor) may awaken an interest in a subject for you, and lead you to explore additional training, experience and job placement that will expand upon that interest. The reverse, however, is not necessarily the case. A poorly taught course, or one in which you do not immediately excel hardly means that you are prohibited from pursuing the same subject matter in work after graduation. If you have a strong interest in a practice area, do not let a single negative law school experience prevent you from pursuing your goal.

Look for practical experience outside school. In addition to summer associate experiences, it may be possible to fit part-time legal work into your schedule during law school (especially during your third year). Your school may have relationships with specific firms, for internship purposes, or you may find such part-time experience through your own inquiry. When interviewing for a summer associate position, for example, you may also want to inquire about a firm's part-time employment opportunities. Many schools, moreover, have connections to pro bono programs that can provide both practical experience and tremendous personal rewards. Look for experiences that may relate to your future endeavors, but be open to the possibility that even unrelated experiences can provide you with valuable insight into the fundamentals of legal practice: fact-gathering, legal research, legal analysis, drafting, negotiation and oral communication.

Strive, wherever possible, to supplement your "book learning" with some form of real-world experience. Seek out faculty with practical experience. Many schools employ adjunct faculty who are engaged in the full-time practice of law, and many full-time law professors consult with law firms, or maintain a smaller practice of law, in addition to their academic endeavors. Often, merely talking to professors who have worked (or who are currently working) in your preferred area may give you valuable insight. Ask them what they like (and dislike) about their practice, what they thought was valuable (or not so valuable) preparation for that practice, and where they might advise a law student to consider working to gain the appropriate experience. Better yet, it may be possible to work directly with such professors (helping write an article or book chapter, or perhaps even working on a practical project). Seek out alumni with practical experience. Many law schools have programs to place law students with alumni mentors.

Take advantage of such a program, if your school offers it. Even if no formal program exists, consider reaching out to graduates (especially those with whom you are acquainted) to ask questions about their experiences, and seek guidance on the best way to prepare for the practice of law. Your school's development and placement offices will likely have lists of graduates, and some information on their current areas of practice. In addition, your school may host alumni receptions and education programs that attract alumni. Consider attending those programs, and making connections with alumni, who are often eager to help students at their alma mater begin successful careers. Limit pure academic study. While individual courses may be interesting and insightful, an entire law school career of legal history, jurisprudence or review of social problems is generally not good preparation for a law firm. Use your time wisely. Take such courses to broaden your horizons and stimulate your mind, not as a substitute for the "grind" practical courses that you know you should be taking. Be a skeptical consumer.

Law school, like most things, generally costs too much. Worse than paying too much, however, is the prospect of getting too little out of school. In choosing courses, and in deciding whether to stay in a course, apply a simple cost-benefit test: is this course a waste of my time and money? If it is, find something better. Prepare for the transition. The end of law school comes all too quickly. If you allow it to happen, you may find yourself near the end without a clear concept of what you really want to do with your career, and where you should best start after law school. To avoid that syndrome, begin thinking, early in law school, where you might want your career to go. Spend lots of time at your school's placement center. Get to know the counselors, and make sure they get to know you. Identify alternative career paths, and the kinds of skills required to follow each one. Eliminate clearly inappropriate alternatives.

Place emphasis on finding what is stimulating and rewarding for you, rather than seeking to maintain generalist credentials forever. Consider transition career steps. Judicial clerkships, government service and public service positions, for example, can provide practical experience between law school and practice in a law firm. Some post-graduate fellowships and study abroad, moreover, offer additional time to consider alternatives before leaping into full-time practice. Some students, moreover, work for a few years and then return to law school to pursue post-graduate training in a specific area of law. Finally, recognize the unique opportunity that law school represents. For most lawyers, the full-time practice of law requires a dedication of time that rarely permits leisurely study of broad areas of law. As a law student, you have the gift of time (to identify your interests, to gather the building-block knowledge essential to your chosen area, and to fill in the gaps in your education). Use that gift wisely.