Law School Didn’t Teach You Everything. Did it Teach You Enough?

You made it through law school (and you managed to earn some distinction along the way). Sure, you’re in debt up to your eyeballs, but that’s a worry for another day. And then you passed the bar exam on your first try. Woo-hoo! You were feeling like a hotshot that day, weren’t you?

That’s what made the first week of actual look-Mom-I’ve-got-my-own-office lawyering such a shock. For the first time in your life, you felt truly lost. Fish out of water, and you can’t even spot the shoreline.

It’s not that law school didn’t prepare you…it just didn’t prepare you for this, the day-to-day stuff you need to know in order to function effectively. Statutes? Case law? You’ve got them down cold. But you can’t quite remember the code number of the form you needed to file by end of business today. Or which clerk’s office it goes to. In fact, you’re sort of hazy on how you get to the courthouse.

Harried-attorney-drops-papersThe Gaps in Your Legal Education

Imagine that back in middle school you took a woodshop class, but you were never allowed to pick up a hammer—or a piece of wood, for that matter. Or a high school music class where you were taught how to read a musical score but never permitted to play it on an instrument.

That sounds absurd, but that’s the approach taken by most of our law schools. For instance, every legal student takes a course in contract law early on, but it’s a rare student who gets the chance to draft a contract (and have it critiqued) before graduation. Many students never actually see a contract before they’re in practice. Likewise, a law student may have the chance to participate in a handful of moot court exercises, but the odds say he will never get to role-play a settlement conference or a plea-bargain negotiation. A third-year internship may teach you how to fetch coffee for a law firm’s junior associates, but—unless you bond with an extraordinary mentor—your hands-on learning will be pretty skimpy.

What’s wrong with legal education today? There are three obvious barriers to law schools turning out students who are ready to practice law on graduation day:

Academic knowledge isn’t pragmatic knowledge

Law schools set two primary goals for legal education: teaching students the core principles and terminology of the profession and inculcating the habits of thinking like an advocate. All other goals get a lower priority…and the mundane daily work of a practicing lawyer is certainly low on the list. Learning to work with clients and court officers, learning how to negotiate with a neutral mediator or opposing counsel, even learning how to locate a bail bondsman in the middle of the night—these are skills that (it is assumed) will be acquired on the job.

Of course, your first client didn’t realize that law school taught you only half of what you needed to know.

Professors usually aren’t practitioners

Estimates suggest that almost half of law school professors have never practiced law. “Publish or perish” remains an imperative of the academic life, and it’s even true in law school. The greatest prestige goes to professors who have a rich output in print (or, increasingly, online)—but almost none of them maintain an active legal practice. The same is true of less-stellar professors who are still climbing the tenure track; they don’t practice law because that would interfere with time devoted to teaching law.

Universities have tried to cut payroll costs by hiring experienced attorneys as adjunct professors, of course, but their courses must cover so much ground in so little time that the instructors rarely get an opportunity to impart practical advice about routine lawyering. The upshot is that a gulf has opened between quotidian legal practice and the academic perspective in the classroom, and nobody knows how to fill it.

You never know where you’re going to end up

If there is some justification for law school’s choice to ignore specifics of legal practice, it’s in the fact that students do not necessarily open their practices where they went to school. Let us suppose you attended law school in Houston, Texas. Would you be well served if the school forced you to learn Texas statute law and the state legal system if, after graduation, you accepted a job offer in Virginia? Law school administrators think that the time which would be devoted to local justice system specifics would be better spent on universal principles.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but surely those “universal principles” could be tips on maintaining a well-functioning legal practice, couldn’t they?

The One Thing You Can Rely on

You can expect that the first few months of your legal career will be spent learning how to be a lawyer. It’s often going to be frustrating, and you will sometimes find yourself celebrating small victories along the way (“Look! I got the motion filed in the right office and on time today! Now, does anyone know where I left my shoes?”)

What may surprise you is that almost everyone you meet in a professional context will be rooting for you. They will remember their own first few months, and will be sympathetic to your situation. That doesn’t mean opponents won’t take advantage of your naïveté, or that judges will cut you any slack. But you will find there’s more goodwill and help than you may have expected, from both fellow lawyers and the people who service the legal profession.

At Casamo and Associates, we’re very experienced at working with newly-minted attorneys. If you’re in the greater Washington D.C. area and you’re just now learning how to conduct depositions, arrange for translation services, and create video exhibits for the courtroom, you should give us a call. We can even give you a friendly word of encouragement on the days you need it most.

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