My law school experience, I believe, was typical of thousands of current and former law students. I studied hard, read and briefed countless cases, took whatever practical skills courses were available at my school and for the most part learned black letter law. It wasn’t until I began working after 1L year, and truly began working after the bar that I realized the stark contrast between legal education and the practice of law. I knew the law, I just didn’t know the business or the practice. I’ve compiled a list of the things that I think law students should seek out after their 1L year. These are the 10 things law school didn’t teach me.
- Networking is more important than grades.
My law school did a great job of emphasizing networking. Networking is how I found my job, it is how I will likely find clients or be referred cases from other attorneys. Getting out and meeting people, sending emails and cold calling, getting to know people personally is more important than if you ranked 15th in your class or 55th in my personal opinion. People like people they know and can trust. That said, grades are important and will open doors, but never stop networking.
- Law school classes did not prepare me to give legal advice to actual clients.
People will come to you hoping that you can solve their very real, very life changing problems. You will be looked upon to defend or zealously represent them, whether they be a large corporation or an individual who was injured. You need to be able to give them actual advice. They won’t understand legalese. Giving real advice to real clients was not something that was taught to me in law school.
- How do I actually get clients in the door?
There’s a large sales aspect to being an attorney. This goes hand and hand with networking. Clients don’t just show up out of the blue with multi-million dollar injuries, you have to find them. Especially if you’re going to work for a small firm or working with a solo practitioner. I work at a mid-size firm that has a great client base, but how would I build my own book of business? This is a skill I will need, that I did not learn in the halls of the law school.
- How do I bill my clients and what do I bill them for?
Some, if not most, firms bill clients in 1/10 of a hour increments. My firm is one of them. But what do I bill them for? “Is this billable” is an essential question to ask any partner giving you work. Also, be very aware that Westlaw or Lexis research costs a lot of money to both your firm and the clients you bill you research to. I wish law school had taught me to keep time, what was typically billable and how to bill clients. This was a skill I had to learn on the job.
- There’s a whole new language in practice that was never uttered in law school.
213’s, Deps, Rogs, 2F Witnesses, 3F Witnesses, Routines, the list goes on and on. This may be by virtue of having gone to school in Missouri and moved to Chicago, but everyone speaks in this “practice language,” much like they spoke a different sort of language in law school than undergrad, practice language dominates. It takes time to adjust to “practice language” versus “law school language.”
- You likely won’t be practicing in Federal Court as much as you’d think, so Federal Civil Procedure and Federal Evidence are far less important than the State Rules.
There are obvious exceptions to this, but I can guarantee you that whichever state you choose to practice in, that state’s civil procedure will be on the bar exam, it will dominate your bar essays and it will dominate your day to day practice. The majority of attorneys I’ve met with, interviewed with or worked for or with, practice in state courts on a daily basis and use state civil procedure on a daily basis.
- I have a complaint, now what?
I learned to write complaints as a 1L and 2L, both at work (I clerked at a small firm in Columbia, MO) and through my Pre-Trial Litigation class (which should be a required class at any law school). The problem wasn’t writing the complaint, which is relatively easy, it was the “now what” that came after I finished editing my complaint (or answer). I have the client, I wrote the complaint, now how do I file it? Do I want a jury or a bench trial? How much will it cost to file? Who do I send copies to? While I was subjected to hours of “fee-simple absolute” nonsense, I received almost no training on the practical aspects of actually filing a law suit. How motion practice actually works is an essential skill.
- How do I pick my jury?
My law school’s voir dire class was offered over two weekends during the summer, it was always full and nearly impossible to get into. I did not get the opportunity to take it. As a result, I did not learn what to look for in a jury, why certain jurors would be better than others for certain cases. There is quite a bit of research on the psychological aspects of picking a jury and an argument to be made that voir dire can be where a case is won or lost, unfortunately I did not learn this skill until I began working.
- Trial is fun, but how do I settle a case?
I learned the finer points of trial practice; I even learned a little pre-trial motion practice and how to write like a lawyer in law school. I did not learn how to plea bargain a criminal case or how to settle a case to avoid litigation. I’ve been told constantly that the majority of cases don’t go to trial, I’ve seen it and I believe it. Learning to negotiate a settlement and finally to actually settle a case should be as important as learning the “black letter law. Knowing that the majority of cases don’t go to trial ever should be ingrained into law students well before 1L year.
- The most important people in the court house are the clerks.
It’s great to get to know fellow attorneys or judges. I truly think that the most important and helpful people are the clerks of the court. I learned the vast majority of how a case is actually filed, how to complete essential pre-trial tasks, and to get something done when a deadline is minutes away. These people are the best people to be kind to, to befriend and to learn the ins and outs of the court from.
The learning never stops. I guess that’s why they call it the “practice” of law.