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Q & A: How to Make the Most of Your Years in Law School

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We asked real law graduates and current law students about a topic that is relevant to both prospective and current law students: How can you make the most of your years in law school? Anyone reading this and wondering the answer to that question will want to keep reading, as we received some very interesting insights on this, that every prospective and current law student can benefit from. Feel free to add to these by sharing in the comments below the article:

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I am licensed to practice law in the State of Florida, but I now run my own Fashion PR and Marketing firm with offices in New York and Miami. I have these tips for current law students for making the most of their experience:
  • Do not rely on your career placement office. Sadly, these offices to a poor job of placing the students who are not at the top of the class. I was squarely in the middle of the pack and obtained my clerkship which turned into a job offer my last semester of law school through a family friend. It wasn't my dream job but it gave me a start.
  • Perform self-analysis throughout law school. I knew throughout law school, I did not have a passion for the law and if I would have performed more self-analysis during each course term while taking classes in various areas of the law, I would have realized this was not the career for me and could have started shaping my current career earlier. Ask yourself if you are enjoying any of your classes and if not, think about what you do enjoy. Do not drop out of law school. Instead realize how much it prepares you for other careers and begin to explore those avenues. Instead of taking an internship at a law firm, try interning in a field you think you might enjoy. Perhaps at a film studio in Hollywood or a magazine. I wish I would have applied for internship opportunities outside of the law and interned at a magazine or PR firm. I was so stuck in the idea that my education would be a waste if I did not pursue the law, but that has not been the case. My law degree has been invaluable in my current career and I have seen many more adventurous students land high paying jobs outside of the law by gaining valuable experience in the field during law school.

Study Abroad and Take an Internship. If at all possible spend a semester abroad and find an internship (unpaid will be easier because otherwise you will need a work visa). It will make you more competitive and appear to be more fit for the global climate when applying for jobs. I studied in Spain and took business Spanish classes (I speak Spanish) while studying. I wish I would have done an internship as I had many prospective employers asking me if I had while interviewing for jobs and seeing that I studied abroad.

Take your jobs search into your own hands and BE BOLD. I would commit to spending at least 5-10 hours per week on your internship/clerkship/job search. Much of this time will be spent researching law firms, government agencies, etc. that hire law grads and then figuring out who to contact to enquire about positions. The bold and the brave get the opportunities first, so if you find a law firm you like, call their controller or HR department and tell them you are a law student and would like to know about how you might clerk with them. Take a free position first if you have to in order to get your foot in the door.

Lori Riviere
2006 graduate of the University of Miami School of Law

From the time I entered law school, I knew that I did not want to work for a large law firm after I graduated. I valued my family too much, and the idea of working 60-80 hours per week for years on end did not appeal to me.

This made my four years of law school very lonely and somewhat anxiety-inducing at times, because law school only has one track-- Big Law. When I told career counselors that I wanted something different, they would congratulate me and wish me luck, but had no help to offer; so I was on my own.

I worked full-time during law school, I donated my time to several non-profits that matched my personal passions, and my wife and I had one child each year. Our oldest (now 8) was born 2 weeks before law school. For graduation, my wife made little T-shirts for each of them, "1L," "2L," "3L," and "4L," denoting the year during which they were born. Next month we will welcome our sixth into the world.

The best career advice I've ever received is, "what do you think about when you have nothing to think about?" Find a way to do that for a living. I thought about Privacy. So during law school I ignored all of the things you're "supposed" to do, like Law Review, in favor of skills and subject classes that matched my interests.

I worked for a small firm for about a year before landing a job at a privacy software company, as in-house counsel, and other responsibilities.

Anonymous Law School Graduate

I think the best thing for law students to remember is that they're laying the foundation in law school for their future career. There's a lot more to be successful than grades. Unless you want a top clerkship or a job at a super prestigious law firm, you don't have to be in the top 10 in your class. For a lot of other people, you just need to pass your classes - that's why I didn't check my grades in law school. Work hard in your classes but also explore the areas of law that interest and get as much practical experience as possible with internships and skills classes.

Networking is more important that people realize in law school. In this professional world, it's not about what you know, or even who you know, but who knows you. Form relationships with professors and other professionals. And remember you want to form real relationships with people, not just connections. Do your follow up and keep in touch. You never know when a connection will lead to something awesome. And networking can come through your personal life (and yes every law student needs one) or professional opportunities.

Ruth Carter, Esq.
Owner/Attorney - Carter Law Firm, PLLC

I went to law school late, my mid 30's. I thought consideration for life accomplishments, business success, contacts and rainmaking talent would be appreciated by the large firms. WRONG Put your nose to the grind stone work 80-90 hour weeks for what amounted to the equivalent of two 40 hour a week jobs as a manager at Radio Shack and 7-8 years later we'll tell you if you can be a partner and be jointly and severally liable for our debts and support of retired partners or kick you out the door. Because law professors rely on the big firms for job opportunities, alumni donations, sponsorships for various programs and research as a law student you are guided that success in law school is landing one of those entry level jobs at a top 10 firm. Any other outcome is failure, probably not true but not highly circulated. I could never make more as an attorney than as a real estate broker so I never switched over. I went to law school probably because I watched too much Perry Mason as a child and though fairness and justice had something to do with the profession of law. Wrong again.

What I did learn is if you are not number 1, or in the top 5 in the class forget about a job at the large firm, get ready to say, "Psst hey felon come here, chase accidents, or deal in the sewer of bankruptcy or divorce" No wonder so many attorneys have such low job satisfaction.

Bruce Ailion
RE/MAX Greater Atlanta

Study with the fear of God in you, especially for your first year. Part of the first year is all about laying a solid foundation, so getting the basics down is important.

Remember that another part of the first year is breaking you down, so that you can be built up later. You'll be stressed, everyone is, but you'll get through it.

Make your own outline. Use others too if you think it will help, but making your own is key to building up that mental map you'll need to navigate the final.

If they're available, use the practice questions that you professor has posted or distributed. This is a great way to figure out what you know and what you don't. If the question comes with a time allotment, all the better.

Make some time for yourself. The first year can be a grinder, and while that's important, if you don't bend some you might break. Go see a movie once in a while, make time with friends/family outside class, whatever it is you need to do for a breather. It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.

Get to know at least some of your professors outside of class. For summer and post-graduation positions, you'll need letters of recommendation. The more a professor knows you as a person, the better your letter will be. They're also great sources of career opportunities as well, and likely are interesting people that are worth knowing.

Don't be one of those people who hides books, sabotages their peers with false information about assignments or tutoring sessions, or anything else. This may give you a temporary edge, but your classmates WILL find out, and we WILL hold it against you long after the class has ended.

Get to know your classmates. It's easy to cloister yourself off in the library or coffee shop or wherever, but be sure to make some friends even if you don't study with them. Seriously. No one else will have a better idea of what you're going through than your classmates, and the shared sense of suffering really brings people together!

Frank Ginsbach
3L at Creighton University School of Law

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I graduated from Georgetown Law in 2009. Law students ask me constantly about what to do to make the most of their time in law school, particularly those that go to schools that are newer or not ranked extremely high. Here is what I tell them:
  1. Take classes that matter. Don't take classes like "Classical Literature and the Law" or any other class that ends in "and the law." Take substantive classes where you will read cases and the fundamentals of every area of law. No matter what type of law you want to practice (if you are lucky enough to have a choice) the law is closely related and all fundamental law school classes will benefit you in the future. You will be surprised at what you remember from different classes and where they apply.
  2. Take classes that are useful in a bad economy, such as bankruptcy and secured transactions. No matter what you do, the law centers around these themes in a sluggish economy.
  3. Don't take extremely hard classes. Don't exhaust yourself taking the hardest professors or the hardest classes. If a teacher known for high grades and a teacher known for a tough curve both teach Tax, take the former. All that will matter in the end is your GPA, not which teacher you took. Take classes that matter, but take the easiest ones you can. If two people with equal abilities are before an employer, the higher GPA will win--particularly for entry-level jobs. GPA is just a number that doesn't mean much, so use it to your advantage.
  4. Stay busy. Don't use law school as a three-year extension of college. Have fun, but stay busy. Get involved in law review, clinics that provide real experience, and moot court. These activities not only look good on your resume, they give you early skills that employers (and clients) will notice.
  5. Don't study for class. Most students are so intimidated by the Socratic Method that they study the facts of cases in detail so they aren't embarrassed when they are cold-called on in class. However, most schools don't give participation grades, and exams are graded anonymously. Moreover, exams rarely test the facts of the case, they test the law. Spend your time learning the law and staying busy in other activities, then rock the exams and get great grades. Get over being embarrassed in class and out-perform your classmates.
  6. Intern. Intern as much as you can. Split your summers, find part-time opportunities during the semester, and foster as many relationships as you can. Internships are more impressive on a resume than anything to an employer, they provide real skills training (you'll be surprised at what you pick up) and, most importantly, they create a network of accomplished lawyers that you can call on when you need to. That is what lands jobs.

Russ Ferguson
2009 Georgetown Law graduate

I think the best piece of advice, is to be sure to keep a life outside of law school. Grades are important, but your sanity is just as important if not more important. You don't want to get burned out. A healthy balance is a necessity.

Sammi Massie

My advice to an entering first year law student would be to begin his or her first semester of law school with some deep self-introspection. The key to extracting the most from law school is learn why you seek to subject yourself to an experience that will bring guaranteed stress and no guaranteed rewards. The first year of law school is usually the most challenging. The law school experience will bombard the prospective lawyer with an array of egotistical personalities from the pompous professor to the bombastically enthused fellow student. In order to maximize your probability of success, one must be oriented properly at the beginning of their journey and also have long term plans for after graduation. In order to make the most out of the law school experience, a person should have the clarity of purpose that comes with insight into their motives to attend in the first instance.

David Reischer, COO,

I graduated many, many moons ago, but I can share with you my practical advice. Try and find time to work or intern while attending law school. Making contacts while in school is priceless. Your experience can often lead to a job with the agency/firm you've been working for. Getting experience "in the field" will also build your confidence and give you a leg up on other students interviewing for the same job. Secondly, try and join moot court. After one of my moot court arguments, I was offered a job by one of the judges.

Tina Nelson
Professional Games, Inc.

"Know what you want, and recognize that you're going to have to hustle to get it." The days of employers lining up to hand out dream jobs to new law grads are over (if they ever existed). It's critically important to know what your end goal is from the first day of law school. Too many people drift into law school with vague ideas about doing good for the world, or just postponing the "What am I going to do with my life?" question for another three years, but that's not the way it works. You'll be expected to make career choices with long-term implications in the first few months of law school, and you're at a serious disadvantage if you have no idea what you want to do when you graduate.

Alison Monahan
The Girl's Guide to Law School

Your three years in law school are sure to be met with late nights, countless outlines, and learning the first names of everyone who works at the library. Your experiences will certainly be different than college, and given the challenging job market, there are some hurdles to achieving your professional goals. Despite these challenges, however, through hard work and a dedicated approach, you can succeed in law school. Here are four tips to get the most out of law school.

Tip 1: Master how to brief a case

No single skill you learn in the first weeks of law school, and maybe in the first year, is as important as learning how to brief a case. Being able to go through a case and highlight the significant components of it is essential to success in class and on exams. Set aside time each night to write up and review each case you are assigned. Then, after the class where that case is discussed, review what the professor said and compare it to your brief. Be sure to check if the professor covered anything that you did not include, or if you highlighted a point that the professor brushed aside. By doing so, you can effectively develop your ability to parse out the important elements of each case.

Tip 2: Become familiar with online (legal) research tools

Part of working through any law school assignment is finding the relevant case law, regulations, statutes, and other legal sources that may be relevant to the assignment. Understanding where to find the important materials can be just as important as knowing what to look for. If your school has seminars or training sessions in Westlaw, LexisNexis, or Bloomberg, be sure to attend. If not, spend time exploring the different resources available with your subscription. It can be useful for research assignments, both in an academic and professional setting.

Tip 3: Get to know your fellow classmates

There is no sugarcoating it: your first year of law school is going to be hard. It is probably going to be more reading and more studying than you have ever done before. The natural inclination is to become a study-hermit, and spend all of your time reading cases and hornbooks. This, however, deprives you of a valuable part of the law school experience. Aside from the very real benefit of starting your professional network (which becomes very helpful when looking for career opportunities as an attorney), discussing different items with your classmates is a good way to break the monotony of briefing cases and answering questions in class. Remember, everyone is going through the same thing you are. Take some time and join study groups, participate in extracurricular clubs, and go to social events. It goes a long way.

Tip 4: Keep an open mind on your legal specialty

When you tell people that you are in law school, a natural response is, "Oh, what kind of law do you want to practice?" Keep an open mind on what kind of law you would like to go into. For many attorneys, law school is their last experience in a full-time, academic setting. After your first year of classes, explore the different legal fields and take a class in a subject that you would not have previously considered. If you want to be a corporate lawyer, take trial advocacy, and if you want to be a litigator, take corporations. The experience can be useful, expose you to different ideas, and refine your professional focus.

Stephen Gomez
2011 Boston University School of Law graduate
Managing Editor of The Expert Institute
  1. Take advantage of free memberships -- While LexisNexis and Westlaw may seem like curse words to the average law student, they are actually very useful (and expensive) tools that are available to law students for free. Take advantage of these free memberships while the getting is still good (I graduated in May and have already been cut off). Try researching topics you are interested in just for fun (I know that sounds insane, but that is how you'll learn to use these tools the best). Additionally, state bar associations and other networking groups often offer free or discounted membership rates to students. Find the groups that offer the best networking opportunities for you based on your location and areas of interest, join as a student, and actively participate.
  2. Standout from the crowd with one-on-one networking -- People will tell you over and over again to network. Rather than trying to merely introduce yourself at an event at your school (where you will no doubt be surrounded by many other students who, just like you, are looking for jobs/internships), try attending organizational events off-campus where you will be one of only a few students. While there, offer to volunteer with the organization. This will ensure that you get more face time with legal executives who can be allies later on.
  3. Get business cards printed -- Many of the professionals I met while in law school were impressed by the fact that I had business cards as a student. This makes you stand out among other law students who will be networking with you. See if your school's printing center offers business cards with the school's logo at a discounted rate.

  4. Collect business cards -- When you get business cards from a legal professional, be sure to keep them and write a note on the back of the card to remind you who that person is. The note could include items like where you met them, the date, and a characteristic about that person that makes them standout. You never know when you will need to call on them again during your law school career or after graduation.
  5. Diversify your internships -- While you may go in to law school set on a particular area of the law, your interests may change. Additionally, there is no telling what areas of law will be seeking new attorneys at the time of your graduation. For that reason, you should seek to work in as many different types of internships as possible in varying practice areas. If you're dead set on working in-house, try doing something in the public sector. If you aspire to intern only at a big firm, consider interning with a boutique practice. If you had a prior career, try your hand at something completely different. This way, when you are ready to take on a full-time legal gig, you will at least know the lingo in several different areas of the law.
  6. As a 1L, get to know the 2Ls and 3Ls at your school -- 1Ls can use 2Ls and 3Ls as a resource on things like which professors or courses to take, how to get the most out of university departments and what extracurricular activities to participate in. Additionally, today's 2Ls and 3Ls will be tomorrow's attorneys. Who better to give you job leads than a former school colleague?
  7. Do law school your way -- When it comes to preparing for class or being successful in law school, there is no shortage of opinions on how to best perform. Some people must fully outline every class for themselves, while others can simply review an outline written by someone else. Some people book brief, others use case brief books to help them prepare for class. Some people rely heavily on commercial outlines, some don't use supplemental materials at all. When it comes to your preparation, do what works best for you and what will make you comfortable. If what you did last semester didn't yield the results you wanted academically, reassess why it didn't work. Furthermore, law review or mock trial or appellate advocacy isn't for everyone. Do what works for you.
  8. Plan your upcoming semester carefully -- Pick courses that will help you academically as well as personally. Ask students for advice on the best course and professors to take. Take courses taught by professors who work in industries you're most interested in. Plan your schedule in a way that will allow you to do internships during the work day. And above all else, be mindful of how your upcoming semester's schedule may impact your GPA.

Stephanie J. Brinkley, J.D.

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University of Miami School of Law


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