First, try to replicate your undergraduate experience.
I graduated from Mills College in Oakland, California. Mills instilled in me a lifelong love of learning and a deep sense of social responsibility. Thus, when I entered law school, I was determined to treat it as yet another liberal arts experience, but this time with a professional goal. While in law school, seek out your professors. Visit them during office hours. Ask questions in class. Explore the library and check out books that are not on your syllabi. You should take classes that genuinely interest you, not just because they are on the bar exam. As much as possible, attend speeches and events sponsored by the law school.
I’ve translated all of this into my practice. I exclusively practice federal criminal defense, and I have a special commitment to representing people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities. For me, criminal defense is not only intellectually stimulating, but also I am concerned about the underlying reasons why people commit criminal acts and the consequences of a conviction on those individuals and on our society.
Second, understand that learning takes place outside the classroom, too.
I was in law school during the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. Some of the best analysis I ever heard of this watershed moment in American history was given by professors speaking to groups of us in the hallway. Exciting legal events are always happening. Engage your professors in discussions about them.
After my 1L year, I externed for a federal judge. From that experience, I learned the Federal Rules of Evidence inside out. But, more importantly, my judge taught me a reverence for the law and the importance of proper courtroom decorum.
Finally, I was president of the Student Bar Association. Again, this replicated my undergraduate experience when I served as president of student government. Three of our initiatives involved the ABA: we participated in the Law Student Division including attendance at the Annual Meeting held that summer in San Francisco; we launched a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program to help low-income individuals complete their tax forms; and we initiated a mock trial program for high school students.
This outside involvement led to the single most important career decision I’ve made: To join professional organizations and to become active in them. Besides being a member of the ABA, I am serving my third term on the board of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). In 2009 and again this year, I traveled to Liberia as part of an NACDL-United Nations sponsored training mission to train its criminal defense bar. By connecting with colleagues from across the country, you learn to become a better lawyer and make lifelong friendships.
If I had to give any advice, it would be to see law school as more than just a place to take classes. Take advantage of the opportunities that were not open to previous generations of students, like clinical programs and study abroad. Realize that although there may be dark moments, law school is the means to a respectable and noble end.