What They Don’t (and Can’t) Teach You In Law School

Hearing about how something is done and then actually seeing how something is done are often two very different experiences. Learning in law school and actually doing legal work is no exception.

This past January I began a clerkship with a law firm that specializes in representing professional athletes.  Over the course of these past months I’ve to come to realize that no matter what kind of firm you work in there are some universal truths about working in a law firm.  Here are a few things that are front and center:

Communication. We often think of litigators as the great communicators in the legal field because after all, litigators are the lawyers we see doing the most talking. Lawyers of all types, not just litigators,  must be able to speak with anyone, any time, any place, about anything.

One of the things I enjoy about my position is the variety of people I interact with on a daily basis. Some days may consist of meeting with other attorneys in contract negotiations while other days may be spent speaking with doctors and business advisers. Still other days may be spent speaking with ordinary citizens who have come in for personal injury cases. You never know exactly what you’re going to get.

In my opinion (and for what it’s worth), the most important skill a lawyer can possess is the ability to communicate with people regardless of whether they’re a Johns Hopkins trained neurosurgeon or a high school dropout who has driven trucks all of his life. In order to be a zealous advocate for your client you have to first understand what it is exactly that your client wants. Sometimes that’s not always easy to know or understand. While this all sounds self explanatory it’s not something that’s taught in a classroom. Developing good communications skills with people (if you don’t have them already) will go a long way in preparing you for anyone that walks through the door and it is a must-have asset for attorneys in any area of law.

Billing and Work Procedures. If you have a law office working on the billable hour billing model,  one of the most difficult nuances of getting used to working in a firm is getting used to billing procedures. Everything you do must be tracked, logged, and kept up with. You can guarantee there is going to be some quirky computer system to help you keep up with it. However, anyone that’s ever worked with billing will tell you that it takes a bit to master and it’s not always easy to keep track of who you had phone conversations with at what time and for how long especially when you’ve got a ton of emails and phone messages to return. It can be very easy to lose track of or to forget to log your hours. You have to stay on top of it vigilantly.

Juggling your workload is something that no amount of in class experience can prepare you for, especially in a fast paced firm with scores of clients calling every day for one reason or another. There are many different ways to manage your workload in a proficient manner. What I find works best for me is making sure I have a schedule laid out for me before I begin my work so I can make sure to carve out enough time to return emails and phone calls and then allot myself enough time to finish up any assignments facing a deadline.

Professional Responsibility.

As law school students we spend our days learning the law from casebooks and how that law applies in hypothetical situations in the form of multiple choice questions and essays on our final exams. If we get it wrong the worst that happens is that we get a poor grade in the class. Working in a firm makes you realize the importance of taking the time to “get it right”.

Once again while all of this seems obvious, no amount of course work can prepare you for the moment when you realize that what you are working on could be the difference in thousands or maybe even millions of dollars for your client and it all depends on how well you do your job.

One of the things young clerks and entering associates struggle most with is what to do when we make a mistake. The joke here is “well, don’t mess up” – but just know it happens to the best of us sometimes. When we do mess up our first inclination may be to try to hide it or ignore it in hopes that no one notices it.

A mentor of mine and managing partner at a large firm told me the most frustrating thing he encounters with his young associates is a lack of professionalism and accountability.

When you do make a mistake (and you will) have the courtesy to let someone know so they can correct it (if you can’t) before it becomes a much bigger issue. The difference may be a scolding versus a pink slip later.

Law school may teach us how to “think” like a lawyer, but law school students need real world experience in internships and clerkships in order to teach them how to “work” like a lawyer. A hands-on experience can be invaluable when first starting out in your legal career.

If you haven’t clerked or interned during your law school career then I would strongly encourage you to consider doing so. There are only so many things a professor can teach us out of a casebook before we have to go and actually experience the law for ourselves in order to actually learn it.

What experiences have you had working during law school?  Do you agree/disagree with my assessments?

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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2 comments on “What They Don’t (and Can’t) Teach You In Law School

  • I think it’s true that there are things you just can’t learn in law school about actual practice. I’d broaden your suggestion about useful places to work to gain valuable experience. You’ll get even more hands-on experience in a county attorney’s, district attorney’s, or attorney general’s office. Consider “clerking” with a small firm or solo practitioner. And don’t forget about government agencies. State departments of agriculture and education both do a lot of legal work. If you’re not heading toward a big firm environment after graduation, you might be better suited to find a less traditional place to clerk where you can do actual substantial work and really get your feet wet.

    • I’m always puzzled at the “big firms don’t give clerks a chance to do real, substantive work” myth. I’m a 3L who’s clerked with four different firms over two summers One would certainly be considered “big” by most standards, two employed between 25-40 attorneys, the other was a smaller firm with about 12 attorneys. Without a doubt, the MOST substantive work I was given came at the largest of the firms, where I drafted multiple substantive motions that I know for a fact were reviewed, lightly edited, and then filed in the case.

      I don’t doubt that some large firms may operate differently, but I think the issue requires more of a firm-by-firm analysis as opposed to the generalized notion that small firms, and government offices are the only places law students can get good experience. One other advantage of summering at a larger firm, if afforded the opportunity, is that you are likely to be exposed to a broader array of practice areas.

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