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Preparation for Legal Education

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Your investment in a legal education represents a substantial amount of time, money, and effort. But even though classes and exams may have far more immediacy, they are in fact only a preparation for your future.

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While you have many allies, the future of your career rests squarely and inescapably in your own hands. To reach your career goals requires a major commitment of time, effort, and in a limited way, money, if you are to succeed. You have put a great deal into your legal education; be ready for the additional investment necessary to utilize it to your full advantage.

Identifying Marketable Skills

The sooner you have some idea of the course you would like your career to take, the sooner you can point your education and/or work experience in that direction. Some fields of law put greater emphasis on research and work experience; others stress high academic achievement.

In all cases, planning ahead is important. Be sure you have completed the exercises in Chapter 5 so that you know well the product you are selling - yourself. It may mean the difference between successfully working toward a goal or settling for what's left over.


Law school grades are a factor taken into consideration by most legal employers. Emphasis on grades may vary from slight to heavy depending on the employer. Remember that grades are not the only factor an employer considers. Each year many students sell themselves to employers who would not have hired them on the basis of their grades. Likewise, some students with outstanding grades have difficulty finding jobs for reasons which totally escape them.

The trap is to blame everything on grades. While one should not be blind to the importance of academic performance in law school, one should not use grades as an excuse any more than a student with high grades should use them as a crutch.

The best advice to students is probably to be frank in discussing grades, no matter what they are, and to avoid sounding defensive when talking to potential employers. You do not need to say, "I would have done a lot better if that S.O.B Professor X hadn't been out to get me." If you sound like you think your grades reflect some sort of innate inferiority, you will turn off even the employers who do not place total reliance on law school grades in their hiring decision.

If you can manage to be positive, and show that you have skills which the employer can use, your chances will be substantially improved. If an employer is not persuaded by what you say about yourself, you have to be able to believe that it is his loss and not yours.

While grades can represent an ability to work hard and write well, innate intelligence or analytical skill, and successful competition in a highly charged environment, your own experiences outside the classroom may demonstrate the same qualities. If your grades are not spectacular, seek to gain other experiences and let employers know that you have other positive work habits: you get along with others; you are a self-starter; you have integrity.

You will undoubtedly want to look at employers' past hiring patterns. Since none of us likes to get shot down, we all play the odds in deciding whether to "go for it." It is important to know what kind of a risk-taker you are. Or, put another way, how stringent would an employer's requirements have to be, before you simply would not apply for a job?

Students might want to think of themselves as arguing a case (their own), and having to meet a certain burden of proof (some may have more of a burden than others). What kind of argument will be persuasive? How well do you build the evidence? How can you convince someone that you are more than a number? Other factors are likely to be important in the employer's consideration: your personality, your interest in the job, your hometown or state, your interests, your maturity, or a variety of other variables.

It is, of course, easier to tell someone how to do this than to face the prospect personally. But what is the alternative? Too often, fear of rejection or failure, or anxiety caused by uncertainty about the future causes law students to procrastinate in order to avoid facing the situation. Many people wait to deal with these issues until all of their options have been foreclosed.

Summer Jobs

Many students work during the summer months to earn money for school, to gain valuable experience in law-related work, or simply to get away from school. It is becoming more common, too, for students to take a semester off and work full-time during either the fall or spring semester. The opportunities with legal employers are generally greater for students who have completed two years of law school than those who have finished only one.

Most medium-to-large-sized law firms, and many agencies and corporations conduct formal summer clerkship programs. These are usually well organized, high paying. They afford the opportunity of
a permanent job. The bulk of the recruiting for these clerkships is done in the fall through on-campus interviews and job listings.

Many small firms or agencies will hire law clerks for the summer also, even though there is no organized clerkship program. The pay is often lower, and the employer is probably more interested in work than in recruiting permanent employees, although permanent associations do result from such clerkships.

Many of these clerkships are listed on the placement bulletin board of law schools or through outside organizations like the local bar association. Students often locate the employers themselves, however, and even convince some employers who have not hired law clerks previously of the need to do so.

Some students will work at non-legal jobs to earn money. These often pay better than many legal jobs although the experiential value is diminished. The non-legal placement offices on your campus often have information on jobs in their fields. However, many jobs can be located through want ads and personal contacts.

Summer school is an alternative for many students who hope to finish law school early or to lighten a course load. Others in order to get a different viewpoint or to be near home, take courses at other law schools. Summer school abroad is one possibility more students should consider. It allows a student to travel as well as receive course credit for law work.

Students need to consider their summer plans early in the academic year. By the end of March, many summer jobs are filled and there are not enough to go around. Some jobs always come through the placement office after finals in spring, but waiting until then will leave you hanging until the last minute.

Part-time Jobs

Placement offices usually post part-time job listings for law clerk positions as well as non legal work. Many students do not wait for job notices but write or call local attorneys personally, or talk to friends who are currently working as clerks. Many jobs are passed on from clerk to clerk informally. It is common for many firms near a law school to select permanent associates exclusively from the ranks of their law clerks.

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A word of caution: experience has shown that outside work will have a detrimental effect on academic performance. The value of the outside work must be weighed against the sacrifice in terms of education.

Full-time first-year students particularly are strongly advised not to attempt to work during the first year of law school. The ABA requires that outside work for full time law students must be limited to 20 hours per week, and urges first year students not to work at all. If you avoid working during the first year, you will have made a sound decision. If you must work, talk to an academic advisor or counselor to get suggestions on how to manage your load.


Many students who did not pause after undergraduate school before starting their legal education find themselves with little or no work experience to complement their schooling. Conversely, students who have been out of school for some time complain that their years away from academia leave them out of sync with legal education and legal employers.

Even during school, students must frequently balance the costs and benefits of pursuing purely educational objectives (i.e., grades) against developing experiential skills through extracurricular activities (e.g., moot court) or work (e.g., clerking for a law firm part-time).

There are no easy answers to this question, partly because the solution may vary according to the various career paths law graduates pursue, and partly because the answer may vary from individual to individual. It is probably overly simplistic to say that one should attain the most experience possible without sacrificing academic objectives. In essence, however, it is necessary to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of choices made during law school, as much as it is to engage in career planning concerning post-graduate job choices. Although you may not be able to do anything about some parts of this equation, like how much and what kind of experience you acquired prior to law school, you do have control over decisions you make during law school.

Choices about how to balance your education and work experience inevitably must be made in light of the career planning process. In other words, what you should do now depends on where you want to go later. With the exception of some highly focused individuals, law students generally do not integrate long term goals into short term plans.

The earlier in your law school career you begin to engage in career planning, the greater opportunity you will have to apply your insights in that process to academic planning during school.

Additionally, your assessment of your skills and marketability may lead you to pursue different avenues during school than you would have otherwise.

Writing and Law Review

A final topic that deals with your credentials involves writing experience and law review. Undoubtedly, law review experience can add panache to an otherwise ordinary resume.

Many schools now have two or more journals and there may be an unwritten pecking order of prestige usually related to comparative selectivity. Since law review experience tends to enhance your marketability, you should pursue law review if you have the opportunity. Aside from the boost to your credentials, the experiences of research, writing, editing (and being edited), working as a part of a team, and managing such a publication inculcate a variety of useful skills for the practice of law.

For those who do not have the opportunity to write for a law review, it is nevertheless important to develop your skills as a writer. Unfortunately, at some law schools it is possible to graduate with no legal writing experience after the first year.

Considering the important role that legal research and writing play in virtually every type of department of law, it is unfortunate that the educational system does not require more. And considering the number of prospective employers who want to see writing samples of students they interview, it is tragic that many candidates can produce nothing but a first year moot court brief.

You can do something about this problem. Opportunities for writing are varied: "paper" seminars and courses, essay contests, advanced moot court competitions, research assistance for a professor, and part-time or summer jobs.

Push yourself to compose the best possible work product. Subject your writing to editorial review by others. Spend some time every week doing research and writing in school or in a summer job, and you will have plenty of samples to show prospective employers. When you plan to use written work from a job or judicial clerkship as a writing sample, however, be sure you obtain permission from your judge or supervising attorney before you release the document.

Debt Load

One material factor in the job search equation for many law students today is debt load. If your parents were not wealthy, if you did not get a full scholarship, if you were not supported by a working spouse, if you did not work night and day to pay tuition, then you probably have student loans to pay off.

The cost of legal education on top of college (and sometimes graduate school) can be staggering. It is not unusual for law school graduates to owe thirty, forty or fifty thousand dollars to lenders when they graduate. Such students begin practice with a cash flow problem.

Unfortunately, loan repayment must begin when school is over. Since defaulting on these student loans is not likely to make a strong impression on the bar admissions authorities, the prospect of carrying a built-in financial obligation with you into the real world can be an unwanted burden.

In practical terms, a heavy debt load often can limit the career choices available to students. Graduates looking at student loan payments may be forced to forego certain lower paying alternatives (e.g., public interest law) in favor of higher paying positions because of these obligations. The reality is that choices you make during and even before law school may have consequences for the options available to you after graduation. It may be necessary to grab the money and run by taking the highest paying job available.

If you face this problem, it will be necessary to incorporate your financial obligations into the analysis of your career plans. You should discuss the possibilities not only with your financial aid officer, but your placement director as well. Initiate a plan that keeps borrowing to a minimum. It may make sense to go to law school part time while working during the day, eschew law related jobs during law school for higher paying non-legal positions, actively seek scholarship or fellowship money, and investigate work-study possibilities through your school.

To deal with economic problems, it is essential that you be honest with yourself concerning your needs. Determine whether there is any degree of flexibility you might be able to show to obtain a particularly desired position. Once again, your placement office can supply valuable information about the range of compensation currently being offered to graduates of your school, and it should be those figures upon which you base your financial analysis of potential income as related to your need.

Dual-Career Families

A new limitation has arisen in recent years for married lawyers. For those with professional spouses, the question is whether there will be equal career opportunities for your spouse in a particular community. Dealing with that issue has brought many interesting and varied answers.

For law graduates with lawyer spouses, there is an additional dimension to the general problem. For many years law firms have had an unwritten, but very real, rule that they will not employ lawyers married to each other. The only answer that many couples have had was to go into practice together if they wanted to work in the same office.

There has been a gradual relaxation of the rule, but in many smaller communities you will still find that if a law firm hires one-half of a lawyer couple, the other must seek employment in a corporation or government office. No other law firm in the community will consider this spouse for employment because of the potential conflict of interest. Employers themselves may understand that this danger can be avoided (as pointed out in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.8j) but they are fearful of the reaction of their clients. These attitudes are changing, to be sure, but very slowly.

Other Limiting Factors

Oddly, the very breadth of choices offered by the legal profession can be a limitation because it is a physical impossibility for you to explore fully all the potential career options. But you can examine the vast array of possibilities, picking and choosing those that appear most likely to provide career satisfaction as a basis for further examination. The range of options open to you does provide room for personal choice.

One area of limitation is your own law school. This is far from an absolute limitation, merely a relative one. It arises from the employment market served by an individual school. That market is defined both by geography and by the type of office the school's graduates most frequently enter.

For example, it is not surprising that graduates of law schools in the Washington, D.C., area tend to be heavily concentrated in the federal government. Or graduates of the Indiana University School of Law often find work with the firms in that state. If you are in doubt as to the type of market your law school serves, ask your placement office for its reports on the first positions held by graduates of your school during the last five years.

The limitation of the marketplace is not purely arbitrary. Consider the role of the employer in determining that market. The preference of alumni for hiring graduates of their own law school has long been noted. There are some very sound reasons for this preference. First, having attended a particular law school, a prospective employer is fully aware of the standards the school maintains, the caliber of its academic program, and the suitability of that training for the client market to be served.

Second, the employer may personally know many of the professors of the law school and will therefore feel comfortable in calling and talking to them concerning an applicant's educational qualifications. The employer may even ask for a gut reaction regarding the applicant's ability to fit comfortably into the employing organization. Favorable comments from professors can be of immeasurable help in a job search, particularly if the graduate is not one of the top-ranking students but has demonstrated qualities of personality and character that may not be highlighted in a formal resume. Additionally, the employer may have had an opportunity to get to know you personally, having met you through law school alumni activities and functions.

On the other hand, what if your career goals lie outside the particular area served most frequently by your school? Here your imagination and aggressiveness in developing position resources will be your best ally. Arm yourself with literature that will demonstrate the quality of your school, and be ready to provide references to professors with whom the prospective employer may talk freely. Lists of alumni now located outside the school's market may also be obtained through the placement office or the alumni office as an aid to direct contact.

Still another way in which your law school will exercise a certain restriction is the matter of grades. It may be a painful subject, but it is one on which you and your law school stand united. Both of you recognize that there are factors other than grades that will determine your success in the practice of law.

Employers recognize that situation as well. Their difficulty lies in trying to establish some standards of measurement that will permit them to make value judgments concerning one candidate in relationship to another. Employers rely heavily on grades as basis for what they hope is a reasonably rational judgment about your potential. Equal opportunity employment laws have underscored the importance of this issue by making it necessary to make objective, rather than subjective, evaluations regarding individuals being considered for employment. When all is said and done, however, importance of the grades is minimized as you acquire a work record that can be evaluated.

Another possible limitation will be your undergraduate or non-legal experience. For instance, in the field of patent law if you do not have undergraduate training in a scientific or technological field, you will find it extremely difficult to find a job.

In most situations, however, undergraduate training and non-legal experience serve more as an advantage in the job search. Undergraduate work or an advanced degree in accounting, or experience in tax work will definitely receive priority consideration by prospective employers in the field. It behooves anyone with special training or experience to analyze the job market for potential employers who may fully utilize these skills in addition to your legal training.

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