Some Friendly Advice To New Law Students

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PG tries to stay away from topics that will primarily be of interest to lawyers (although several lawyers are regulars on TPV).

However, as the academic year shakes itself awake in the US, he thought the following would be of interest. The person posting this is a respected professor at the UCLA (University of Calfornia – Los Angeles) School of Law and the original author is a respected attorney.

From Reason:

Across America, law students are starting their first year. Some are attending elite law schools on a traditional track; some are taking classes at night and working during the day. Many of them are freaked out right about now.

I have some words of encouragement.

1. Take all the clinics, practicums, and internships that you can. Nothing beats seeing how law is actually practiced. It helps you get a practical grip on what you might like to do, and helps you see how what you’re learning applies to an actual legal career. Plus it’s a crucial way to meet people and open doors.

2. Are you going to law school to become a professor? Good for you! Otherwise I strongly advise approaching it not as about academic excellence, but about training to be of service. Lawyers represent clients. Clients benefit from you knowing what you’re doing. Clients benefit from practical excellence, not academic excellence. Academic excellence is a nice by-product of taking subjects seriously as you master them, but it’s not an end in and of itself for a lawyer. You’re training to do a good job for people who need help — whether you’re going to be a civil litigator or a criminal lawyer or an in-house counsel guiding your company the right way. Some schools — particularly elite ones — encourage a contrived disdain for nuts and bolts of practice in favor of theory. Theory is nice — it’s helpful to know the why, and to be conversant with theoretical arguments to back up your practical arguments — but a lawyer who can critique a rule of evidence, but not apply it, is not a lawyer who will be of service to a client.

3. Would you like to take some very specialized courses on some fun and esoteric issues? Fine. But don’t neglect the building blocks, tedious as you may find them. I really didn’t want to take Corporations and found it dull, but I use that knowledge all the time in civil and criminal litigation. I fled from Secured Transactions but soon learned that I would have benefited tremendously from it. Law and legal norms are everywhere and interdependent, and the theory that you can get by in your specialized area without all of the basics is usually wrong. (“But what are the basics?” is a subject for another post.)

. . . .

5. Resist excellence narratives that focus on the right background, the right school, the right job. The best lawyers are not the ones who went straight from Ivy to Ivy to Biglaw. The best lawyers are the ones who are serious, dedicated, and passionate about their craft. The best lawyers I’ve had the pleasure to work with have often been second-career lawyers, lawyers from schools that were not “top tier,” lawyers who took a different path. But they were serious about being lawyers. Don’t rest on your laurels just because you went Harvard to Yale, and don’t sell yourself short just because you came to law after another career and you’re going to a less “prestigious” law school. You can be excellent, but only if you work at it.

Link to the rest at Reason

6 thoughts on “Some Friendly Advice To New Law Students”

  1. After I realized I loved law and hated law school, and didn’t want to spend my career as a lawyer, I left after first year to do a co-op in public admin that suited my talents and interests (and personality) much better. Years later, I read One-L by Scott Turow, and I found it highly accurate to first year law.

    IMO, the biggest advice is to remember that like with all graduate programs, law teaches you to look at issues in a very narrow frame…economics does, sociology pretends it doesn’t but also does, psych definitely does, etc. Law school training tends to look at the principles of law, and the people involved fade into the woodwork.

    I was amazed at the start of law school how many of my fellow classmates had truly noble goals and could only see people; by six months in, they were all criminal or corporate law wannabes, and they couldn’t tell you anything about the people in the cases they were reading.

    One of my professors pulled me aside and pointed out that I was still seeing the people — a case involving people that had been dead for more than 70 years angered me with the obvious injustice dealt to the loser, not once but twice — and that part of my frustration was that no one else in the room could see the harm, they only saw the rule that was being created by the case. She pointed out that they couldn’t see the people anymore, not as a good thing or a bad thing, just a thing that I should be aware of, as she figured if I still saw people after six months, I would still see them in 2nd and 3rd year too and be equally frustrated.

    I found an alternate calling, but once in awhile, particularly for admin law, I feel the call of the law…

    Thanks for sharing, PG


    • Good points well-stated, Paul.

      The difference between law as it’s taught in law school and law as it’s practiced on a retail level is both vast and stark.

      Having dealt with attorneys who had excellent academic credentials but hated the practice of law, I can attest that an attorney who doesn’t like what he/she does on a day-to-day basis isn’t going to do the best job for the client.

      • I’ve often wondered if, had I completed law, if I would have been able to “still see the people” as a practicing attorney in any of the fields, or only for those cases such as family law where you see them mainly because they’re sucking the life out of you over time.

        As a govt geek, who has dealt with law pertaining to intellectual property as well as international human rights and disability clients, I often find that the anecdotal evidence we have to show how an existing reg or law is affecting the “lived experience” of clients goes much farther than the legal principles in defining what we’re trying to do…

        A path not taken, and I don’t regret not finishing law school, but I do regret somewhat not maintaining more of a passionate involvement in law. Perhaps for my retirement…Labour law is kind of fun for me, an area where people frequently burn out I hear.


  2. I actually saw this article last week and it was really insightful. The original author is Ken White, who runs a blog at He’s an advocate for 1st Amendment rights and his blog has a lot of very interesting discussions about 1st Amendment and technology-related legal cases. He’s also in the unique position of having been a federal prosecutor for several years before becoming a defense attorney, so his blog posts are usually well balanced perspectives from both sides of the bench. Just don’t get him started on ponies…

  3. I have a friend that started law school today. They have been clear that their purpose in earning a law degree is so that they can promote their political ideology. They lean hard one way. This person has no interest in opposing arguments and acts like a child when anyone disagrees with them or simply offers an alternative view. I’ve not attended law school, but I’m thinking their lack of objectivism will make law school difficult for them.

    Am I wrong?

    • One of the things necessary for a successful law student and a successful lawyer is the ability to understand and argue both sides of an issue. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you don’t always have the luxury of choosing each and every client. Criminal lawyers don’t always represent innocent people. Even in law school classes, a student may be assigned to argue a side of the case with which he/she doesn’t agree.

      Black and white cases are easy. Gray cases are where the real action is.

      Unless your friend wants the questionable distinction of holding a law degree, he/she may not be any better at arguing for his/her side of issues after law school than he/she is right now.

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