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Law Students and Lawyers

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Just as with buying a new car, word of mouth is important. You should never pass up an opportunity to talk to someone who has been there.

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If you have friends or relatives who are lawyers or law students, you are ahead of the game. If you are a member of a social fraternity or sorority, you should try to keep in touch with alumni members. If you're a nontraditional applicant and somewhat older, you have an advantage: you will be able to approach lawyers as generational equals, perhaps at your place of business, at church, or at volunteer groups that you belong to. If you have such contacts, you're in a position to create your own advisory board. You'll be able to return to the same experts whenever questions arise. Like most people, lawyers and law students will be most candid when speaking informally to people they know well.

Prelaw clubs and prelaw advisers often maintain mailing lists of recent alumni and may arrange panel discussions to bring them to campus. Three years ago, when I asked the members of Bradley's prelaw club which of their activities in the past year they found the most valuable, they overwhelmingly mentioned an evening program which brought four law students to campus to talk about their law school experiences. If you hear about such a program, you should go. Listen to the speakers and then ask questions.

Law students can speak with authority about prelaw education. Students who are alumni of your own undergraduate college can discuss which courses they found especially helpful when they got to law school, or which courses they wish they had taken-or wish they had studied harder in.

Law students can't always tell if they're receiving a good legal education, but they are well situated to know if they're getting a bad education. If classes are overcrowded, if there aren't enough books in the library, or if there is excessive pressure and competition, law students will know about it. If a law school claims expertise in some specialty but actually offers very few courses in it, law students will know, and will be angry.

Law students are also the absolute experts on living conditions at their law schools. They will know from personal experience whether it's possible to rent a reasonably priced apartment, whether the campus has a parking problem, or whether the fear of street crime keeps women students from going to the library after dark. If you encourage law students to talk about their experiences, this kind of information will emerge. But be careful: a certain amount of grumbling is normal and healthy, and a lot of the things that law students complain about are either unimportant (poor food in the cafeteria) or not really defects (great masses of homework; demanding professors with high standards).

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Don't expect law students to know much about law schools other than their own. Some law students travel and some meet students from other schools; for example, in moot court competitions. And I know of one law student who had two siblings who had attended two other law schools and for whom comparative law school one-upmanship was a staple topic of family conversations. But these are the exceptions. Most students have little contact with law schools other than their own. When asked about other schools, they tend to rely on the same rumor and hearsay that everyone else relies on.

Young lawyers can also talk with authority about their legal education. They may also be in a position to compare the quality of law schools: because they work with other lawyers who have come from many different schools, they soon learn which of them have had high-quality educations. Finally, young lawyers can talk about their experiences in legal practice. Ask them to speak about their specialties. Ask young lawyers whether they feel that their educations properly prepared them for the work they are doing.

Older lawyers are excellent sources of information about different kinds of legal practice and about the institutional and social aspects of professional life. Most belong to professional and political organizations. Many keep in touch with their legal alma maters and become involved in the old school's recruiting and promotional efforts. They may be able to tell you whom to contact in the admissions office, or they can introduce you to other lawyers who have even more information about a given school. But don't rely on older lawyers' memories to learn what it's like to study law. Law schools have changed dramatically in the past twenty years.

Because so much of this is subjective, you should avoid giving undue weight to any one informant. You ought not to apply to a law school just because you were impressed with one of its alumni; conversely, you shouldn't shun a school only because a student grumbled about his or her living conditions. The key here is to try to talk to as many people as you can. If you are in a position to gather information over a long period of time, you will find it possible to talk to many.

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When you start to collect information systematically, you will probably find that much of it comes from law school recruiters.

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