Saturday, January 14, 2023
What Law Students Should Know About Law Practice
One of the criticisms of law schools is that they do not adequately prepare students for law practice.
In law school, students learn legal doctrines, acquire critical thinking, argumentation, and persuasive writing skills, master IRAC/CRAC, and participate in clinics – all of which help students to obtain the knowledge and skills needed to successfully practice law. But for many years, lawyers and judges have criticized law schools for not producing practice-ready graduates, citing, among other things, graduates’ substandard persuasive writing skills, inexperience in drafting real-world legal documents, and lack of ‘soft’ skills. This criticism, as underscored by graduates at many schools, has some merit, although law schools certainly do their very best, within a limited time of three years, to provide students with the skills to practice law competently upon graduation.
Below are a few tips for students regarding what to expect – and the skills needed – when practicing law.
1. Learning to work with other people – including those you don’t like – is critical to your success.
In the legal profession – and in life – you are going to encounter people that you despise. Such individuals are not hard to identify and there are many of them in all facets of the legal profession. They typically display inflated egos, treat others disrespectfully, lack trustworthiness, have narcissistic tendencies, and are so self-absorbed that they cannot possibly appreciate an opposing argument or perspective. Nobody likes these people. Invariably, however, you will almost certainly have to work with them – or for them – in your legal career.
And when you do, the worst thing that you could do is become combative, disrespectful, or dismissive. Doing so will only hurt you – and empower them. Instead, focus on what you can control, such as your work product, your responses to their behavior, and your demeanor. If you do that and, as such, learn to work with difficult people, you will increase your value and reputation. So don’t focus on how others behave or be consumed with external circumstances over which you have no control. Focus on how you behave and conduct yourself.
2. Confidence and humility are critical to developing strong relationships with your colleagues.
Confidence matters in the legal profession.
But humility matters too.
Regardless of whether you graduate at the top of your class at Harvard, serve as your law review’s editor-in-chief, or publish in the Yale Law Journal, you will face a steep learning curve when you begin practicing law. Recognizing that – and being willing to learn from and listen to your more experienced colleagues – is essential to developing strong relationships with them and mastering the skills necessary to practice law at the highest levels. Thus, being courteous, respectful, and professional is vitally important if you want to cultivate a reputation as a good lawyer – and a good person.
In other words, personality matters. If you are a jerk who gossips about or criticizes your colleagues, boasts about your class ranking or LSAT score, or treats assistants like they are second-class citizens, you will not get very far. If you think that you are ‘right’ all the time or are overly opinionated, most people will despise you. Simply put, don’t be a jerk – the world is already saturated with them, and nobody wants to associate with those types of people. Rather, be authentic, humble, and respectful.
3. Your reputation and credibility – particularly with your colleagues and judges – are vital to your success.
Reputation and credibility are everything in the legal profession. If you lose your credibility, you lose your ability to garner the trust of your client, your colleagues, or judges. When your reputation or credibility is compromised, your career is likely irreparably damaged.
Accordingly, make sure, for example, that you work diligently to produce an outstanding work product. Always be honest, particularly when you make a mistake. Treat your clients, your adversaries, and judges with respect and civility. Be ethical and professional. And most importantly, be a nice, authentic, and decent person. As stated above, nobody likes jerks.
4. Excellent persuasive writing skills are essential.
If you cannot write persuasively, you cannot practice law effectively. Thus, at the beginning of and throughout your legal career (and life), focus on continually developing your persuasive writing skills. In so doing, read outstanding legal briefs and legal writing textbooks. Take the time to thoroughly rewrite and edit your work. Read great fiction books and apply literary techniques to your briefs where appropriate. Ask for feedback from more experienced colleagues about your writing. After all, two or three semesters in legal writing classes, while helpful, is not nearly enough to develop outstanding persuasive writing skills. Learning to write persuasively is a lifelong lesson and one that you should embrace if you want to be a great lawyer.
5. Outstanding communication skills are critically important.
Interpersonal communication, whether with a client, an adversary, or a court, is integral to your success as a lawyer. If you cannot, for example, clearly articulate arguments and explain complex legal concepts in an understandable way, you aren’t going to be successful.
Thus, you must know, among other things, how to present an argument concisely, clearly, and persuasively. You must understand that how you say something is just as important as what you say. You must actively listen to and respect others’ opinions. You have to show empathy and compassion for your client. You need to be skillful in negotiating with your adversary, present your argument in a way that convinces others to adopt your position, and have the judgment to know when compromise is appropriate.
6. Law practice is stressful and can be all-consuming.
The legal profession is often quite stressful. Indeed, at times, the pressure can be all-consuming, such as when preparing for a trial, writing motions and briefs, reviewing voluminous discovery documents, or preparing to argue before an appellate or supreme court. Indeed, practicing law is far from glamorous, as many days and hours are spent reviewing documents and filing motions. Put simply, there’s a reason why many lawyers struggle with alcohol or drug abuse, or mental health issues. The legal profession is difficult and there is no way around that fact. If you are working in a large or medium-sized firm, your billable hours matter. Whether you can attract clients matters. Whether you win matters.
But that doesn’t mean that you have to become the legal profession’s next alcoholic or drug addict. It does mean, however, that you have to prepare yourself for this reality. In so doing, learn how to cope with stress and adversity. Organize your day and prioritize your tasks. Take care of your physical and mental health, such as by exercising every day, eating healthy, and reserving some time – even if only for an hour – to do something that you enjoy. Spend time with family and friends. And realize that you’re probably not going to change the world, that justice is truly subjective, and that life is going to present far more adversity than you expected. But if you can help your clients to achieve positive results, live a meaningful life, and find happiness, then the law is a profession that can have a noble purpose.
 See, e.g., David Segal, What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering (Nov. 19, 2011), available at: After Law School, Associates Learn to Be Lawyers - The New York Times (nytimes.com)