Want to Be a Lawyer? Work at it First.
Oh Special Snowflake, my Special Snowflake, how you rush off to Cooley without any forethought. Law school has been jokingly referred to as the last refuge of the vaguely talented, and it has traditionally served partly as a way station for those uncertain about what to do with their lives. Now a legal education typically comes with $150,000 in student loan debt, so it’s too expensive a choice for those who do not want to spend their careers practicing law. Graduate from Yale, or Harvard Law, and you will have a nifty social signaling tool, but this valuable effect probably disappears somewhere between the top five to fourteen law schools.
My law school lemming, I cannot look at you and tell if you will be successful in the practice of law. I can only tell you that the days are over when you can be a brilliant introvert, who surfaces from reading case law to disappear when it comes to interacting with the public. Instead successful lawyers combine a number of traits. They are; knowledgeable about substantive law, skilled at civil procedure, have good to excellent people skills, are reasonably glib and quick on their feet, exhibit the ability to make and close a sale, and maintain the resulting relationship. They should mostly enjoy the practice of law, and be able to tolerate the parts which are disagreeable to most people. They are good negotiators and competent business people. Family connections to obtain a first Attorney job and other opportunities will greatly help. Finally they also should have what is commonly referred by Professor Bill Henderson as "Fearlessness" or what Allan Dershowitz calls Chutzpah, and what most people call "balls". Most of us who practice law do not perfectly match this entire description.
It would be helpful for the would-be law student to have a reasonable appraisal of their strengths and weaknesses before they chose to plunge over the cliff. However there is no standardized way to figure out prior to attending law school whether you will even be good at digesting case law, and engaging in legal reasoning. Back in the 1980s, John Delaney who taught at NYU wrote the work books "Learning Legal Reasoning – Briefing, Analysis, and Theory" and "How to Do Your Best on Law School Exams". If you sat down and worked your way through all the essay assignments in both of these books and then had a lawyer friend review the assignments in order of completion, you with probably get a realistic answer for whether you might do well during your first year in law school. Since I have not tested this method on a large, representative sample of pre-law students this remains only a theory. Let me therefore move on to what you definitely can learn prior to law school.
Finding Out If You Really Want To Be a Lawyer Prior to Law School
Let me acknowledge first, that we are graduating close to twice the number of JDs each year then for whom there are full time lawyer jobs. I will concede that someone who utilized all of my advice may still end up unemployed. But before taking this risk, you can find out if 1) You want to put up with being a lawyer, and 2) If you have some of the people skills to succeed, and 3) you can test your family connections, and networking abilities to line up pre-law school paralegal jobs and internships.
Students who want to become doctors and nurses volunteer and intern in a number of placements, so should you. It always amazed me at law school, how many of my fellow attendees had never had any such experience. Some ended up loving the practice of law, others became rapidly disillusioned. By the time you show up as a One L, you should have at the very least, lined up a series of paid and unpaid jobs and experiences that have helped you confirm that you really want that law license.
Here’s a good first question. Can any member of your family or friends of your family help get you a low paid job with a lawyer or law firm? If not can they help you get a legal internship, say at the local prosecutor, public defender, or legal aid office? Predictably, social connections make the world go around, and if they can’t, you’ll have to depend on selling yourself from day one. It’s useful to know this before law school. For example, suppose you are in the bottom half of your law school class but friends and friends can help you line up summer employment between 1L-2L and 2L-3L because, they’ve done it before. If they can’t you are going to have to get your first lawyer job through either networking/salesmanship or high class placement. If you don’t have connections, good law school grades, or sales or networking skills, law school graduation will likely end in unemployment.
Without family connections, you are going to need some talking points when applying for legal jobs and internships. Good grades are always a plus, but let me give you a couple other quick ideas. Lawyers are always notarizing documents. If you have a couple hundred spare bucks become a notary public and bring your stamp to the interview. It requires a room temperature I.Q. but will save many employers much time, if you can help them churn out documents. Fluency in a much used language like Spanish will also markedly increase your value as a paralegal. In my experience, there are plenty of Latino clients and potential clients who cannot speak directly to their lawyers. If you have a fluency in another language such as Chinese, where there is such an immigrant community even better. You can talk your way into an immigration law practice. If you can brush up your language skills in college it’s a very transferable skill. I can’t tell you how often in public defender offices the official translator doesn’t show up in time because of other commitments, and being able to handle the client yourself would be of great help.
A course in accounting can help you work with financial records, and even with billing on slow days. Being skilled in computer repairs/programming also helps. You might help a firm by building spreadsheets and court exhibits for them. Good proof reading and typing skills can be useful, at least for the older attorneys who went to law school before word processing became common. If the firm handles Personal Injury cases, and you have a background with medical records, or courses in anatomy and physiology, you may have a selling point.
There are plenty of for profit schools that will sell you expensive paralegal courses. I’d go to your local community college and pick up a few paralegal continuing education credits. Paralegal degrees can be a very expensive proposition, so the point, is to not to go heavily in debt before law school but get a smattering of experience that will allow you to obtain internships and then paid paralegal gigs by assembling your talking points. After a couple of internships, a future employer is not going to give a shit that you don’t have a paralegal degree if you can quickly and competently fill out a HUD-1.
You are probably unlikely to get a paid part time or summer paralegal job right off the bat, so you will need to start with an internship. If you have great connections and get a paid job in a family firm, ignore the first sentence. If you are lucky you may have a father, mother, uncle, or aunt, who is a lawyer, and can teach you along the way. I can’t stress enough the value of such an opportunity. What should you look for in an internship? The answer is an experience that closely mimics the responsibilities of a paid position. In other words something, with a bit of stress, responsibility, deadlines, and difficult client contact. For example if you are only going to follow an attorney around for a summer, you will learn something, but you will not have contact with any of the challenges that make law so rewarding, or alternatively so stressful. For example, answering the phone at legal aid (if they haven’t been completely overwhelmed with law students) will give you some experience dealing with people with various legal crises in a wide variety of areas. You’ll also start to develop a bullshit detector, which is very valuable.
When lining up jobs look for the lawyer who gives you some leeway to do things rather the Attorney who never allows you to touch the steering wheel. Some attorneys are control freaks, but if they only allow you to say copy documents, you’ll never get useful experiences that will tell you if you can put up with the law as a 30 year career. (I should warn you however that as a solo, I spent so much time with the toner, that Xerox should award me an LLM) The most skilled paralegals in my humble opinion handle real estate transactions. It features a mixture of some legal knowledge, tight time deadlines, and occasionally abrasive emails and phone conversations with other paralegals and attorneys.
You won’t get that true law experience until you spend a full day arguing with someone at another law office about small points related to a civil case/closing/or real estate transaction. Volunteer to help draft your attorney’s cease and desist and collection letters using his prior correspondence as a model. Nothing will teach you more quickly how to start channeling the curious mixture of aggressiveness and legal formality that makes up legal practice. But before being a complete dick to some deadbeat, make sure you consult the Federal Fair Credit Act first! Being a successful lawyer requires not only knowing where the line is, but how to approach it, without sliding over.
I don’t know how many internships or paid paralegal jobs you should work one before you have the experience to know whether you want to devote your working life to the law. I would say a minimum of two placements, perhaps a year of time with at least one of these internships/jobs involving challenging work that closely resembles the stresses that you see in law practice.
I’ll finish with a UPS analogy. I once worked as a UPS Helper before Christmas. The driver tells me the door; I take the package and sprint, drop it off, and repeat a couple hundred times a day. It was relaxing in a way. The Driver was actually pleasant because he wanted me to stick around through Christmas Eve when a lot of the helpers quit. No problem, UPS might be worth looking into for a job. 90K a year for hard work sounded very good. So after Christmas I worked presort unloading trailer trucks. We would have to move 800 to 1,200 packages per 4 hour shift, with a supervisor yelling at us for moving too slowly. I then realized it would take 5-6 years if I did well to move from pre-sort, to sorting and loading trucks, to driving on weekends while making yourself available on short notice for short term driving assignments. All of this was expected before becoming a full time driver with a route. I also realized I wasn’t a particularly good driver, and didn’t want to spend 5-6 years trying to climb this career path, so I left pretty quickly.
I wasn’t upset at UPS. Rather, when I had obtained a fuller UPS experience, and not the Disney version, I realized that I didn’t have the fire in the belly or ability to drive the Brown mobile. I actually got paid to learn this, rather than go to "Brown" University, pay for an expensive degree, and then learn the career wasn’t for me. Sure, as an Attorney you will never have to move twenty, seventy five pound packages in a row, but as a worker’s comp lawyer told me, you will have to shovel the shit, and by shit he meant the inexhaustible number of motions, briefs, letters, and hearing preparations, that he had to carry out to be able to represent his clients well against other attorneys who were constantly trying "eat his lunch" for their clients. Before risking unemployment with $150K in student debts, you should have at least one of these experiences, prior to law school, that imitate the legal version of presort, and then ask yourself if you really want to practice law through better or worse. The United States has enough dissatisfied lawyers, know if you will be one of the exceptions before you show up for your first class in Civ Pro.