What Law School Is Really Like‏

What Law School Is Really Like‏

I was given a mentor opportunity for a college student that is thinking about law school.  I try to be as brutally honest with people in my life, often to my detriment.  But this was no occasion to shy away from the truth.  The world doesn’t need any more disgruntled attorneys.  So with the caveat that I started law school in 1994 when my allegedly cutting edge school was still making us do research with books instead of with computers, here are 6 things about law school I think every potential student should know.

  1. It’s hard, but not that hard.  If you ever go to the Daley Center you will see a lot of idiots who are practicing lawyers.  These guys made it through law school AND passed the bar.  I know plenty of people that quit law school because it wasn’t for them, but very few that flunked out.  If you treat it like a job you’ll be fine and will certainly pass.
  2. Law school can be a ton of fun.  If you are so inclined there are a lot of mixers, house parties and other social events.  By the time you are in your third year most people are so relaxed and just looking to get out and on with their life.  But . . .
  3. In the first year, many students seem to get psyched out about how hard law school could be.  Most first year classes are a mix of recent college grads and those who are looking for a new career after years doing something else.  There is a creepy competition type factor among first year students about who is reading the most, outlining cases, answering questions, etc.  For me it was a big turnoff and it was probably the most stressful part of school.
  4. Although this may have changed with the bad job market, if you go to a top school like Northwestern, Harvard, Stanford, etc., you are set.  Even if you don’t do great in school, you will have lots of opportunities once you graduate.  If you go to a school like DePaul, Chicago-Kent, Loyola, you can get an amazing job if you kick ass in school, but otherwise you’ll have to make some magic happen on your own to get that first job.  Being in the top 20% at an average school isn’t much different than being in the top 50% at an average school.  Big firms that pay big bucks look at you as average.
  5. The best thing I did in law school is travel abroad to Madrid to take some classes in the summer.  I got six easy credits and had the time of my life.  Would I be a better lawyer today had I stayed at home and taken classes here?  Hell no.  It was an amazing experience and it also allowed me to take only 8 credit hours my final semester.  These opportunities exist in every country and the cost is the same as taking normal classes.  My only regret is that I didn’t do it twice.
  6. My best school class was participating in the legal clinic which is a program that allows students, under the supervision of licensed attorneys, to work on actual cases.  I didn’t do this until my 3rd year which was a mistake.  I have some friends that were able to prosecute traffic cases while still in school.  Others worked on big labor law issues.  I became a licensed mediator and handled a bunch of cases at the Daley Center, Illinois Department of Human Rights and Center For Conflict Resolution.  I still use those skills today.

Law school isn’t for everyone and shouldn’t be.  If you’ve gone to law school and have anything to add please let me know. 

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  • Great post and sound advice. I agree with all but 5, as I never studied abroad, which is my biggest regret.

    And I completely agree with #1. I was stressed out about taking the bar and my boss at the time told me to look around at the people at the Daley Center. "If those idiots can pass the bar, so can you," were his words of advice.

    I'll add two things:

    1. Get a job your second or third year as a clerk (similar to your #6). I've been in practice for 12 years and I still draw on my experiences as a clerk, especially at the Daley Center. I worked at a personal injury firm my third year and my boss sent me over to court regularly to appear before judges on more routine matters-- the rule was to appropriately identify myself as a clerk, rather than an attorney. Plus, I learned logistically how things worked, so I am still able to explain to my newer clerks how to do things. My first day as a 2nd year clerk I was told by the outgoing clerk, Rule #1: if you don't know something, ask. That still rings true.

    2. Read Scott Turow's 1L the summer before beginning school. It recounts his experience in 1975, but I reread it a couple years ago and although I did not go to Harvard Law, it still brought back intense memories of first year.

  • I especially agree with number 3 as it pertains to how much everyone is studying, outlining, reading, etc. I thought I was doing it all wrong at first. Don't listen to what everyone else is doing, or says they are doing. I was totally psyched out by this my first year, and decided to stay away from all that discussion and do it my way. I finished ahead of all those others I used to listen to.

  • In reply to lawyerette:

    For me getting over #3 was the biggest thing in law school. It's interesting though that most of the worst offenders in talking about what they were doing weren't the law review types (at least not my class). Fortunately by the end of the first semester this seems to go away. It did prevent me from ever joining even one "study group" in school and although my practice now is based on networking I've done with attorneys, it ironically prevented me from seeking out a ton of friendships when I first started school. There are a couple of lawyers that were in my class who I gladly refer cases to that I never got to know way back when.

  • Great post.

    For a profession that prizes logical reasoning skills, you will see some of the most irrational human behavior display in 1L students.

    I am a 2L at Loyola, if anyone has any questions outside of what Michael touched on, feel free to contact me.

  • I also wanted to highlight Mike's advice about treating 1L like a job. In my opinion this is the best way to treat your 1L year. Not only will it likely lead to better grades, but you will learn very quickly if you want to do this for the rest of your life. I know a couple very smart people who did very well and had every incentive to stay in law school, but who decided after a year of the grind that they just did not enjoy the work they were doing and didn't want to kid themselves in to liking it only to spend another $80k, find a job and then leave the profession down the line. Everyone is different and you can't really know if you want to do something for the rest of your life until you jump into it.

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