Thursday, June 29, 2017

So you want to go to law school

The obvious question is, why? You will have to answer this question and thousand and one times, so you would be well-advised to craft a solid go-to answer that is true-ish. Then you'll have the rest of your law school journey to hone and workshop your answer through admissions essays, interviews, and networking events. But you have to have something solid to work with.

Pro tip: "I like to argue" is a terrible reason. The money used to be a good reason, but with wages falling as the legal labor sector becomes more automated and dense, makes financial incentives illusory these days. The nice answer for millennials, we who are so social welfare minded, is "I want to help people", but you might find the idealism and naivete latent in that justification a smidge cringe-worthy for your taste. The best answer is always a story. One time I got stopped at the border trying to leave Kazakhstan for Turkey because I mistakenly overstayed my visa, and my brush with the migration police in a foreign country gave me a depth of gratitude to immigration attorneys that was enough of a wellspring to get me through.

That's not the real reason I went to law school, but it's a fun story for me to tell and it opens the door for me to talk about one of the more interesting periods of my life. Birds, stone.

The thing about the decision to go to law school is that if you don't already have exposure to or experience in the field, it's hard to know what's out there, to say nothing of determining whether you have both the skills and inclination to make it worth it for you. That was my biggest fear about starting law school, that I was going to be bad at it and that it was going to be boring. While the jury's still out on the former, it was to my delight in that very first civ pro class that I was going to have a grand time learning the law. 

So this is what I recommend, if you can pull up a statute on a law you've heard of, and read it, and then find a state supreme court opinion applying that statute, and you find yourself enjoying the puzzle of figuring out how the statute and the opinion fit together, then all other considerations aside, you will probably enjoy law school coursework. (A difficult but maybe compelling example might be the Ohio marriage statute, linked here, and the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, linked here.) 

You don't have to enjoy the law to feel justified in your decision to go to law school, but if you're going to suffer through to get the piece of paper, you better have 100% assurance of a job at the end. It's all just a carrot on a stick. 

There is also the financial consideration. The student debt situation is ludicrous. It's terrifying, hinging on absurd. I'm a little sanctimonious about this topic, so I'll spare you a lecture and just say that my path worked great for me and it's a path that you might want to look into for yourself. A 3.9 undergrad GPA and a 154 LSAT score got me a full ride at Michigan State, Penn State, and my alma mater. Not T2 schools, but being hard working is more important than the reputation of your school. Who's to say how the market will change, but this was a pro tip from family friends who sent most of their kids to college on a variety of full ride scholarships: don't pay for school if you can avoid it. On the other hand, if you're loaded and can pay your tuition out of pocket, definitely shoot for the stars. Harvard may be a diploma mill, but it still makes doors fly open, which is probably enough to justify the price tag if you are heart eyes for the law.

I don't have any other advice about choosing a school. But there are loads of internet forums with heaps of opinions to fill that void.

My last recommendation is to take a beat before starting law school. People who go straight to law school from undergrad may "maintain momentum", but they are also more likely to be burned out or lack workforce experience that imparts valuable perspective to the law school experience. I knew I wanted to go to law school since I was a senior in high school, but I still took some time in between to work as an ESL teacher. Working cross-culturally gave me skills and contacts that I drew from frequently in my immigration law work. I also go to check some life experiences off that I didn't have time to tackle while I was in law school. I was only out of school for a year, but I missed studying so much during that time that I was actually looking forward to going back to an academic setting by the time I matriculated. You can also use that time to get more financially stable.

(A casual suggestion that I have no personal experience with, but have seen many of my friends try: get an entry-level paralegal position after undergrad, make yourself invaluable to your firm, and then get your firm to either send you to law school or promise you an associate position when you graduate. The practice of law is apprenticeship and firms would much rather hire someone who already knows what they do than train an outsider. Find your job offer before you even start law school. This path is very common, and IMHO, very smart.) 

So you've got your motivation sorted, you've taken the LSAT, you've applied and matriculated, and now law school is foisted upon you. I have some various and sundry advice for you regarding the law school process.

  • Skip journal. Whoa, whoa, whoa, what??? Let me get the exceptions out of the way: people who are destined for editor in chief of the law review, people who want to clerk for federal judges after law school, and people who legitimately enjoy legal writing. Those people should join a journal, preferable law review, but a journal in your concentration is also acceptable. (If you are not interested and will never be interested in the subject matter of your journal, skip it.) Journal is difficult, boring, time-consuming, and stressful. Employers are not as impressed with journal participation as they used to me. Journals are high cost, low reward.

  • Get a legal job ASAP. This is two-pronged advice. First, all legal experience is going to do you a solid, therefore, the more of it you have, they better prepared you are to be good at your craft. Law is apprenticeship. Get in the trenches early. Second, there are only two summers. 2L summer associates are critical for people looking to go the big law route. That leaves you with only four semesters and one summer to diversify your experience and figure out what options you have for after law school. The sooner you can get started on that process, the better. And it is totally possible to balance 1L coursework with part-time employment. Just work hard. It's what you'll be doing as a lawyer anyway.

  • Find two attorney mentors. Mine ended up being my supervising attorneys for my two student practitioner gigs during 3L. I wouldn't recommend waiting that long, it caused me a lot of stress, but both individuals have become valued friends in my life, so take comfort that things can work out. Practical steps to get an attorney to adopt you: go to professor office hours, take a research position, and ask about opportunities and current events in their specialty. Pick people who have margin in their lives--the faculty "rock stars" of your school, though definitely well-connected, will probably already have a full plate between research, writing, advising, teaching, and school politics, and while they might take an interest in you, they probably also won't have the time to meet with you regularly. In contrast, adjuncts, new attorneys, or people on the "fringe" of the faculty or the firm you're working at will have more space to give you attention and will be flattered that you're seeking their advice and support. My school did not have an alumni mentorship program, but if yours does, jump on that. 

  • Do moot court. If you must participate in some extracurricular school activities, skip the clubs (but get on their mailing lists--job opportunities in your inbox and advance notice of where free food will be) and student government, and compete in legal simulations. It's the next best thing to employment experience.

  • Talk in class. If you think this advice will be easy for you, ignore it and do the opposite. (Everyone hates those people who waste class time asking useless and obscure hypos.) But if you are not naturally inclined to speak up in class, push yourself to. You will sound dumb and people will think you're dumb, but you'll learn the material well and you'll remember the material. If you're academically gifted enough to be considering law school, you already know how you best learn. Leverage class time to maximize your content retention. Another perk, talking also makes boring classes go by faster.

  • Talk to your classmates. My biggest regret from law school is not making more friends. Law school is that much easier when you have people to share notes, collaborate on outlines, laugh with, commiserate with, and all around related to. I avoided people at law school because I didn't want to catch their anxiety or lose perspective. In the process I missed out laying the groundwork for my professional network and I was a little bit lonely and miserable. There are plenty of loners at law school, and the law school social scene is definitely a minefield of judgment, but do your best to rest in the balance.

  • You don't have to outline. I outlined only one class in my entire time at law school and I did fine. Make of that what you will. See, I know how I learn and it's not via outlines. You know how you learn. Don't force yourself to make flashcards or study groups if it's not going to help you just because everyone else is doing it and they're judging you. 

  • Start studying for the bar early. Don't take froufy classes, take the subjects that will definitely be on the bar, since many schools make some of these courses optional. (I made it through law school without taking commercial paper or wills & estates. Studying those topics for the bar had me stressed out of my mind.) Learn the doctrinal law well the first time around, and start doing MBE question practice sets during 2L. Set aside two hours every Saturday of 3L to review bar resources. Bar prep is literally memorizing three 900-page paperback outline books, which is literally impossible to do in the two months between graduation and the bar. Chip away at it earlier so that you can have a little fun with your summer.

Above all, remember that if you are discerning, diligent, and dedicated, you will find the path that works for you. I truly feel like my path to and through law school was the path that was best for me, and I offer my experiences as a template for those seeking some guidance to get them started on a sensible path. However, I was struck at graduation by just how many of my classmates had taken paths that I had previously considered ill-advised but were nevertheless stepping out of law school into viable careers or receiving valuable accolades for their contributions to the legal community. That was a humbling and encouraging realization. My way is one way, but it's not the only way. My way was best for me, but it's not best for everyone. And it's not productive to stress about incongruence between your choices and the choices of others--don't be reckless, but don't be despondent. 

And best of luck. :)

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