What You Do & Do Not Learn in Law School: A Family Lawyer’s Perspective
By Krista N. Yancey
We are all familiar with the recurring discussions over whether law school really prepares its students
for practice. Luckily, I have had the pleasure of working with dozens of excellent professors and mentors throughout law school, during internships, and in the beginning of practice. Every single one, it seems, has shared a story about when they were fresh out of law school and something unexpected happens when first walking into a courtroom or client meeting. Every lawyer has a moment (or several) he or she thinks, “Law school did not prepare me for this.” From my experience, law school prepares you for practice in a number of ways, but there are other parts to practice you can only learn on-the-job. The following are a few observations from my first year-and-a-half in practice.
In law school, you do learn to analyze how the law applies to a certain set of facts. You learn frameworks for the law, causes of action and legal precedent. You learn how to perform legal research so that, if you are unfamiliar with the controlling law for a given case, you can find it with some degree of efficiency.
The curiosity and love of learning cultivated in law school is essential to maintain as a new lawyer because there is much more to learn. Once you find your practice area, your knowledge must extend past the law to be a truly effective attorney and counselor. By the time you graduate from law school, you probably do not know much about the non-legal aspects of your practice area, yet this knowledge is essential.
As a domestic relations practitioner, I need to be conversant in retirement accounts, investments, insurance plans, the real estate market, education, psychology, public benefits and community resources. Real estate attorneys also need to be familiar with local government. Likewise, corporate attorneys not only need to be familiar with the structure, culture and goals of their clients, but also industry trends. No matter what your practice area, it is important to not only know the law but also how non-legal aspects affect your client’s work.
Because of ABA and school curriculum requirements and tested bar exam topics, you do receive legal education about a broad variety of subject matters. We can all explain personal jurisdiction, recognize proximate causes, identify consideration and define mens rea even if we work in specialized practice areas. Prior to practice, these concepts existed in the realm of their respective course subjects: we analyze whether there is personal jurisdiction over the defendant in Civil Procedure, a proximate cause in Torts, consideration in Contracts and mens rea in Criminal Law. This degree of mental organization is help¬ful, even necessary, to remember all of the information necessary to ace an exam or pass the bar.
Law practice, on the other hand, is interdisciplinary. In law school, you may not see how course subjects intersect. You may be retained to represent a client in a specific transaction or legal dispute, but your advice may have consequences outside of the direct realm of your representation. A host of factors, including tax implications, the ability to seek future remedies, bankruptcy protections, an eventual divorce or dissolution of a business and the rights of creditors may influence how you prepare your pleadings or draft a contract.
You do learn how to argue in law school. You are trained to pick a side and defend it, passionately arguing your point. Clearly, the ability to persuade others is important to your success as an attorney. That is, more or less, what we are hired to do for our clients. As attorneys, we have an ethical obligation to diligently represent our client’s interests.
At the same time, respect for others and the court is just as important as your dedication to your client’s cause. Law school does not necessarily teach you how to listen and interpret how others perceive your client’s position. Diligent and successful representation also involves knowing when to concede. Your respect for others and the court often has a direct impact on whether your client’s goals will be met.
The workload of law school does require the organizational and time management skills necessary to succeed in practice. It promotes the self-discipline required to be a productive new attorney.
Law school, however, does not demand quite the level of efficiency required in law practice. Even the most organized new lawyer will likely struggle to balance quality, thorough work with the demands of billable hours and uncontrollable deadlines. While the availability of administrative support staff in practice often improves efficiency, law school does not teach you how to effectively delegate and supervise this work.
Generally speaking, your short¬comings in law school affect only yourself. Law school does not teach you how to manage and fulfill the expectations of clients and your supervisors. In practice, the suc¬cess of others is tied to your work. Hence, the importance of effective communication with those you work with and work for cannot be stressed enough!
Extracurricular organizations, internships and pro bono programs offer law students an opportunity to develop a life outside the class¬room. Through these opportunities and other activities, students do learn to become more well-rounded individuals, which make for more successful attorneys.
Law school does not necessarily teach you how your activities out¬side the office can truly benefit your professional life. The relationships you form through involvement in your community often bring business and referrals as well as information on issues affecting your clients and your practice. Professional groups help new attorneys find experienced mentors and allow us to create relationships with other professionals that extend beyond the courtroom or negotiating table. In addition, our work as attorneys is not sustainable without some balance. Successful attorneys often find that their activities outside the office complement their legal practice.