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Getting the Most from Your Undergraduate Education Outside the Classroom

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Large businesses and MBA programs look for team players; when they screen an applicant's resume, they look for a record that includes fraternity or sorority membership, team sports, and lots of extracurricular activities. But law schools are different. They're trying to identify applicants who can work alone and who have drive, initiative, and self-discipline. For law schools, grades, which indicate individual achievement, are much better predictors of your ability to do the required work than anything you've done outside the classroom.

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Some law schools ignore the extracurricular activities of traditional applicants, judging them entirely on their grades and LSAT scores. But most law schools say that they want applicants to be "well rounded" and to have a "diverse background." They like to see a record that includes extracurricular activities in addition to good numbers because organizational and employment activities indicate energy (there's not much that's attractive about a couch potato), gregariousness, and self-discipline. Moreover, some extracurricular activities provide useful experience and teach law-related skills.

So extracurricular activities "count." For students on the margin between acceptance and rejection, they can count a great deal. If your extracurricular record is strong, and especially if your activities demonstrate leadership performance or the possession of law-related skills, you should apply to law schools that promise in their catalogs to "go behind the numbers" and "judge the whole person," and you should be sure that all your activities are fully described on your applications.

But for traditional students, good grades remain the chief requirement for law school admission. Don't expect your participation in clubs or fraternities to compensate for a poor GPA. Whenever you have to choose between making good grades and spending time on a club or sport, you should work on your grades.

What Activities Are Best?

For application purposes, it really doesn't matter what you do. Each of the traditional undergraduate activities-Greek-letter organizations, debate teams, affinity clubs, student government, even athletics-has something to recommend it. In fact, law as a profession is so diverse that it would be hard to find an activity that would not be useful to some lawyers or law students somewhere. If you're a good tennis player, for example, you probably don't think of your skill as being particularly useful to your legal career. But the late United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black was a tennis fanatic and played regularly well into old age. Like all Supreme Court Justices, Black hired one or two law clerks each year from among the many honors graduates of top law schools who eagerly sought those prestigious positions. He could choose whomever he wanted, and he made sure that he always had a suitable tennis opponent close at hand.

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The moral of this story is that you never can tell what skill or experience will come in handy. If you're trying to decide what activities to participate in, consider continuing whatever you enjoyed doing in high school. Or join an organization your friends join. Or go to the organizational meetings that clubs hold at the beginning of each semester and talk to the members. Look for congenial people, and don't try to guess which things will appeal the most to law school admissions committees.

Once you've found activities you enjoy, stick with them. It's marginally better to have a record of continuous participation in a few things than a record that lists numerous activities but with only one or two semesters in each. Students who are continually dashing from group to group leave themselves open to the criticism that they aren't really interested in the activities but are merely fattening their resumes.

It is extremely valuable to find a job in a law firm or in some business or profession closely related to law. At one time, such jobs were rare, and they were usually obtained through an old-boy network. Favored students would find part-time or summer employment in law firms run by their parents, relatives, or family friends.

The old-boy network is still there, and it remains the only way to get a part-time job in some firms. But many other firms have made a conscious effort to broaden the base from which they draw their part-timers. They ask professors for recommendations, participate in cooperative programs, and, most importantly, they make affirmative action efforts. Some even advertise in local newspapers. So if you're trying to get a part-time job and you aren't able to obtain family favoritism, your first stop should be your prelaw or academic adviser.

You should also check the bulletin boards in the placement center and the office on your campus that arranges part-time employment. (Look for openings in the legal departments of large corporations and office jobs in regulated industries, as well as in law firms.)

You should persevere. Getting a job in any small business-and most law firms are small businesses, by corporate standards-is always largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. In 1991-92, three of my advisees obtained jobs in Peoria-area business law firms simply by knocking on doors and filing unsolicited job applications. One young woman drew up a resume with the assistance of one of Bradley's job placement counselors and sent copies to every sizable law firm in the county.

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If nothing else, working in a law firm for a few semesters will allow you to say that your ideas about what a lawyer does each day were not formed solely by watching "L. A. Law." Even though your time will largely be spent doing office busywork, you should also learn something about legal language and procedure. Perhaps more important, you'll begin making the acquaintance of lawyers. Networking is something that will occupy a large part of your professional life.

Law firm work may marginally improve your chances of getting into law school in two ways. First, you may have the chance to do something responsible, and then you can write on your applications that you did research for appellate briefs, or helped lawyers conduct interviews, or-as one of my students did a few years ago-improved the computer program used for account management. You will be able to write an interesting application essay about such an accomplishment and it will demonstrate that you possess skills useful in law school.

Second, if you are a conscientious and impressive employee, one or more of your firm's lawyers will write useful letters of recommendation for you.

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