It’s been 26 years since I first walked into Chicago-Kent on Adams. I was an immature 22 year old who only applied to law school because a friend from college enlightened me that having a law degree can create a lot of options for you. Plus, it allowed me to delay entering the working world, which looking back, is a real entitled, white-privilege type of thought to have. Of course law school and living wasn’t as expensive back then, and I was able to survive off of some savings and jobs as a law clerk and bartender.
It would be naive and arrogant to think I have all the answers for new law students, most of whom weren’t born when I started school. Certainly technology and Covid have changed a ton for them compared to what I went through. But I do think I have honest advice that can help. In no particular order, here are some things I wish I knew, or think you should know.
1. You will quickly discover that being a 1L is often a psych job. You hear the old, “Look to your left and right, one of those people won’t be here in three years” nonsense. People get paranoid and competitive. They read something for class and want to make sure you know how hard they are working. The good news is that bad vibe does disappear once everyone settles in. And the people that are gone usually leave, not because they flunked out, but because they quit after realizing law school wasn’t for them. Better to do that before you have a huge student loan bill to pay back.
2. Do you know how to read a legal opinion? I’m not aware of anywhere that it’s taught before you get to law school and I don’t recall being taught how to do it. Instead it was just something you figure out over time. Here’s a great resource to reduce that learning curve. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1160925#.XvJfyQGbaGI.twitter
3. If you go to a top 25 law school, being in the top half of your class can be enough to get a high paying summer clerk job, assuming those jobs come back next year (which I think they will). I’m not saying working at Jenner and Block, Sidley, Baker, etc. is a good idea. That depends on the person. But the summer clerking jobs pay a ton and can open up doors for you. If you are at a second or third tier school like I went to, you better be in the top 10% if you want one of those jobs.
4. One thing you will realize once you start working in a law firm is that there are a lot of smart lawyers. There are also a lot of dumb ones. All of those people passed the Bar exam. That should give you confidence that if this is what you want to do, it’s attainable for you. I’m sure you will see the same in your law school class. Some people will blow you away by how intelligent they are. Others will blow you away because you won’t believe they got admitted to the same school as you.
5. Use your age to your advantage. Lawyers have traditionally been slow to adapt to technology and slower to understand it. If you are knowledgeable about coding or social media, use that to your benefit when looking for jobs and creating your resume. Just like speaking a foreign language, a niche skill can benefit you. Some young lawyer is going to make a killing by teaching law firms how to really use social media.
6. I think the best way to succeed in law school academically is to treat it like a job. If you work from 9-5 most days that is enough to do well in class.
7. Network, network, network. Going on informational interviews is a great way to get to know people. Become friends with your classmates. Aside from being fun, the lawyers you know down the road can open many doors for you.
8. Participate in your school’s legal clinic. The best class I had in law school was a legal clinic on mediation. It taught me a ton and allowed me to become a licensed mediator and work on real cases. Other clinics allow you to work for the State’s Attorney’s office and handle some actual cases. There are options for almost every area of law. It’s a great resume builder and more importantly gives you exposure to practicing which will help you decide what area of law you might want to focus on.
9. Don’t be a dick. This is kind of the opposite of networking. If you fail to realize that all of your classmates have value or you just act like an asshole, it will surely come back to hurt you some day.
10. Don’t be dumb on social media. I’m sure I would have failed this advice if Instagram was around in the 90’s and I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but if you wouldn’t want something about your personal life coming up in a job interview, don’t post it. Most firms I know look into this stuff.
11. Have some fun. If you are in Chicago, you are in one of the best cities in the world. You can’t enjoy all it has to offer right now, but I’d bet there are still some mixers with your classmates, chances to explore the City, etc. that you can still take advantage of. Don’t get psyched out by how hard law school is supposed to be. I remember one classmate who really enjoyed himself saying, “All I want to do is write wills for old ladies, I don’t need to worry about all the other stuff.” It’s a good point in that if you treat law school like a job, even if you have to work a real job too, there still can be some time for yourself. And I assure you that most law firms want to bring in people who are comfortable socializing as it’s often part of the job. I’m not saying be a clown, but don’t be a hermit either.
I hope this helps a little. I wouldn’t say that law school was amazing, but I do have many good memories and my college friend was correct. Being an attorney can open up many different possibilities in life for you.