Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Honest Advice for Incoming Law Students

Incoming law students undoubtedly receive a substantial amount of advice regarding how to succeed in law school and the legal profession. Below is some honest advice based on experience and the realities of law practice.

1.    Focus on developing your analytical thinking and writing skills.

Great lawyers are extremely intelligent. They have exceptional analytical thinking and persuasive writing skills. Thus, in law school, you should focus predominantly on developing these skills.

Regarding your analytical thinking skills, learn, for example, how to quickly extract the rule of law from a case, synthesize rules from different cases, distinguish unfavorable facts and legal authority, reason by analogy, address counterarguments effectively, present a logical argument, and explain why the policy implications of a ruling in your favor lead to the fairest and most just result.

Concerning your writing skills, focus on, among other things, writing concisely and in plain language, presenting a well-structured and logical argument, crafting a compelling narrative, and avoiding common mistakes, such as unnecessary repetition, overly long paragraphs, over-the-top language, and spelling and grammatical errors.

2.    Your grades and class rank are incredibly important.

Your grades and class rank largely determine your prospects of obtaining membership on your school’s law review, being selected for a clerkship, and receiving job offers from prestigious law firms. Accordingly, from day one, focus on achieving the highest grade possible on your law school exams. In so doing, manage your time effectively, purchase the LEEWS legal essay exam writing system (www.leews.com), buy commercial outlines, such as Emanuel Law School outlines, take practice exams, use the IRAC/CRAC method in answering your exam questions, draft concise outlines, and learn the rules of law for each subject (not the facts of the cases you studied).[1] Finally, read Getting to Maybe: How to Excel in Law School Exams.[2]

Also, do not worry about performing well in class when the professor calls on you or about impressing your classmates with incisive questions or comments. This has no (or a very minimal) impact on your grade. Additionally, do not brief cases. Instead, learn the black-letter law and practice applying the law to hypothetical fact patterns. And learn how to draft an answer that flows logically, considers all relevant perspectives, and arrives at a reasonable conclusion.

Having said this, law schools provide wonderful opportunities to network, get involved in student organizations, and participate in other extracurricular activities. You should take advantage of these opportunities. But at the end of the day, grades and class ranking are what matter.

3.    Your soft skills matter too.

To be a great lawyer, it is not enough to be extremely intelligent and a gifted writer. Although these skills are critical to your success, they are not sufficient to ensure a successful legal career.

Great lawyers have humility. They have strong interpersonal skills. They have emotional intelligence. They listen. They know how to work collaboratively and accept constructive criticism. They have common sense and exercise good judgment. They know how to manage their time and work efficiently. They know how to communicate effectively, think creatively, and adapt to new circumstances. And ideally, they are nice people; they are respectful and decent, not arrogant and narcissistic.

When you begin law school, you will undoubtedly confront students who are jerks and it will not take long to spot them. Typically, they think they are better than everyone else. They have the emotional maturity of a five-year-old. They gossip. They ask you what your LSAT score was and what grade you received on your exams. These losers should be avoided at all costs. And when they become lawyers (or, worse, married), their prospects for success will diminish (and the likelihood of divorce increase) because of their personality. Do not be like these people – or associate with them.

4.    Lose your idealism and be realistic about what law practice entails.

When you begin your law school career, you will almost certainly be overwhelmed with platitudes about the law and a legal career. For example, you may hear statements to the effect of “the law is a noble calling and the vehicle by which you can achieve a more just and equal society,” or “lawyers are the agents of social change whose mission is to change the world and make a transformative difference in people’s lives.”

This sounds wonderful. But it is not the reality of what you will be doing as a lawyer. So, if your reason for going to law school is to “make a difference” and to “change the world,” you are going to be disappointed.

Most competent graduates will obtain jobs in private law firms that do litigation and transactional work. They will represent, for example, banks, corporations, developers, universities, and hospitals. They will work long hours under stressful conditions. They will spend most of their time drafting pleadings, motions, briefs, and discovery, taking depositions, dealing with difficult clients, and negotiating settlement offers. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this; lawyers provide a vital service to these clients and ensure that their legal rights are protected.

But disabuse yourself of the notion that you are going to change the world. And be honest with yourself about the realities of the world. If you think that most criminal defendants are innocent, you are delusional. If you think that the vast majority of law enforcement officers are racist and that most prosecutors spend their time convicting innocent people, you are mistaken. Not to mention, the majority of cases result in a plea bargain (or in civil cases, a settlement).

This is not to say that the practice of law is not a noble undertaking; indeed, lawyers have been responsible for protecting civil rights and liberties and achieving greater social and constitutional protections for citizens. It is to say, however, that this is not the common or everyday experience of most lawyers.

5.    Be mindful of incurring too much debt.

As has been well-documented, many law students incur crushing, six-figure, non-dischargeable debt and, upon graduation, struggle to find a job to justify that debt. Do not be one of those people.

Now, this does not mean that incurring debt is always a bad thing. If, for example, you are accepted to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, or Chicago, and intent on being a litigator at a large law firm, the debt you incur will likely represent a small fraction of your career earnings. But if you are accepted at a fourth-tier law school where only some graduates obtain full-time jobs in law firms and make modest salaries – and you are not offered a substantial scholarship – you should probably not attend.

Ultimately, make sure to review a law school’s American Bar Association 509 report to assess, among other things, the employment outcomes of its graduates, the types of jobs that graduates obtain, and their average starting salary.

6.    Take care of your physical and mental health.

It is no secret that many lawyers are unhappy and that the practice of law is stressful. This should not be surprising; how would you feel if you had to spend hours, days, and years reviewing documents, answering interrogatories, responding to nonsensical motions, and dealing with difficult clients (and unpleasant colleagues who somehow managed to find their way into the legal profession).

To be sure, one survey found that 45% of lawyers suffer from depression, and 36% struggle with substance abuse issues.[3] And approximately 28% of lawyers get divorced, a number that is likely higher for those who work in large law firms.[4]

Given these facts, when entering law school and the legal profession, be sure to prioritize your physical and mental health. Develop healthy coping skills to deal with stress and adversity. Ask for help when you need it. If you are depressed or struggling with anxiety, for example, seek professional help and try cognitive behavioral therapy. Experiment with meditation. Exercise. Focus on getting optimal nutrition, take supplements if needed (e.g., multivitamins, fish oil), and get sufficient sleep. Have a personal life and pursue interests and activities that are unrelated to the law. If you allow law practice to control your life, you will find yourself burned out, unhappy, and unfulfilled.

Perhaps most importantly, avoid the common pitfalls. Do not abuse alcohol or drugs to manage stress. And do not be a victim. Do not blame others – or circumstances – for your problems. Take ownership of your life – and your choices.

7.    Be honest with yourself about what you want – and whether a legal career will make you happy.

As you proceed in your law school career, be honest with yourself. Are you passionate about becoming a lawyer? Do you understand fully the demands of law practice? Can you manage the stress, the long hours, and the difficult clients? Are you comfortable with drafting countless motions and briefs, and engaging in prolonged discovery? Are you willing to accept less time with family, friends, and partners? Can you accept the fact that, as a lawyer, you are probably not going to change the world and be the lead counsel in a landmark case before the United States Supreme Court?

If the answer is no, do not be afraid to make a change. At the end of the day, your happiness matters more than anything, and if you are not passionate about, and willing to make personal sacrifices for, a legal career, it may not be worth pursuing. Having the courage to make a change now will benefit you for a lifetime. Simply put, do what is right for you, not what others expect of you, or what you think you should do.

Life is short, and there is much more to life than law. Your family, your relationships, and your friends are far more important than winning a summary judgment motion or an appeal. So put yourself – and your happiness – first.

 

[1] See, e.g., www.leews.com Order Audio (CD) Program (incl. Primer [10th edition]) or Primer Alone (leews.com); Emanuel Law Outlines: Constitutional Law, Thirty-First Edition (Emanual Law Outlines): Steven L. Emanuel: 9781454824817: Amazon.com: Books

[2] Richard Fischl & Jeremy Paul, Getting to Maybe: How to Excel in Law School Exams (Brown Co., 1st ed. 1999), available at: Buy Getting to Maybe: How to Excel in Law School Exams Book Online at Low Prices in India | Getting to Maybe: How to Excel in Law School Exams Reviews & Ratings - Amazon.in.

[3] See Priscilla Henson, Addiction and Substance Abuse in Lawyers: Statistics to Know (July 5, 2022), available at: Addiction & Substance Abuse in Lawyers: Statistics to Know (americanaddictioncenters.org)

[4] See Leslie Satterlee, A Fool For a Client: Why Lawyers Should Not Represent Themselves in Divorce, available at: A Fool for a Client: Why Lawyers Should Not Represent Themselves in Divorce – woodnicklaw.com; Harrison Barnes, Why Big Law Firms Attorneys Are So Likely to Get Divorced: Stressed, Tired, Mad and With Nothing More to Give, available at: Why Big Law Firms Attorneys Are So Likely to Get Divorced: Stressed, Tired, Mad and With Nothing More to Give | BCGSearch.com

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