I got up early this morning to do some lawyering. Off to Starbucks I go and while waiting for my fancy coffee I browse the papers. It’s Sunday, and there it is on the cover of the New York Times. It has got to be important if it makes the cover, right? What is the story all about? Not war, poverty, or the many other big issues of our time. It’s about lawyering. “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering,” by David Segal, basically says law schools, you suck because you fail to teach the practice of being a lawyer.
Segal filled the story with wonderful reminders such as the fact that the legal services markets continue to fall, that clients don’t want to pay a bunch of money for associate work and that students are ending up with $150,000 of debt before they are 30. The article informs the regular Times readers something everyone in the lawyer business already knows, which is that most students graduate without any practical experience.
The point of the article is that law schools don’t teach lawyering and that they are not going to. Segal discusses the reasons why, but the reasons aren’t important to new lawyers or law students struggling to make it. Segal points out also that firms won’t teach you either. Firms historically have invested substantial time and money to train their chosen associates but now firms have to change the way they train new lawyers, if they provide training at all.
In this job market, firms can demand that their associates be practical lawyers and have bankable business before joining a firm. In this job market, knowing how to write a contract is just as important as knowing the theories behind why a contract needs consideration.
Lots of articles, including Segal’s, discuss all the problems facing law students but don’t have solutions for the subjects of their articles. Sure some real discussions need to be had and changes to law schools need to come, but that won’t solve the problem for current law students and new lawyers.
One of the many theoretical classes I took in law school was Comparative Legal Systems. This class looked of course at the set up of legal systems around the world but it also gave students an idea of what it takes to be a lawyer in other countries. Almost all those countries, similar to the medical practice, require apprenticeships or practical training before a person can sit for the equivalent of the bar exam or become an official real lawyer. For me, that was a turning point. I realized I needed to do everything I could to get some real training. So I did. I did multiple externships, did a semester at one of my law school’s clinics, and worked part time for a solo attorney. All that extra work helped me to get my first post-law school job. It is the advice I give to anyone in law school or looking to go to law school.
Law school don’t teach you lawyering, so you’ve got to do it yourself. If you are a student consider getting a job as a paralegal or legal assistant while working through law school. If you have the summer, do whatever you can to find a place to do practical training. If you are lucky to have a law school with a clinic or externship class, take it. If you are a new lawyer who is searching for a job, take some time to do pro-bono work or read through the pro se materials at a law library. For students and new lawyers, get to CLEs because most CLE providers allow law students and new lawyers to take their CLEs free or at a substantial discount and many CLES include actual practical training.
New lawyers do get skills from law school, don’t forget that either. You’ve learned how to cram to get your work done. You’ve learned why some wrongs get compensation and some don’t. You’ve learned when you read a contract what doesn’t look right (although according to Segal you may not be able to write one). You’ve learned theories, and those theories are still important to teaching you why certain things are in a Complaint. You’ve learned to say “I’m an attorney” and even in this economy that still means a lot.