To many attorneys, returning to the classroom sounds about as appealing as retaking the bar exam. Why choose to sit through another lecture when you are still having nightmares about the Socratic method? Why willingly spend more money on classroom credits when you have barely put a dent in your law school debt?
Actually, there are good reasons to go back to school, not a few of which relate to stabilizing or improving your financial situation in these uncertain economic times. In particular, additional coursework beyond your JD can help you better compete for jobs and clients and break into specialized areas of law. For example:
- Foreign language and culture classes can help you tap into a non-English-speaking client pool, broaden a job search to include overseas positions, or develop or enrich a practice in immigration or international law.
- Accounting and business courses can help you navigate complicated damages models and financial statements, launch a solo or small group firm or improve the bottom line of an existing one, or complement a practice in corporate, entrepreneur, or bankruptcy law.
- Biology, physics, chemistry, and/or engineering undergraduate courses are a statutory prerequisite for most applicants to the patent bar and are likely required if you aim to become a patent prosecutor or in-house intellectual property counsel.
Fortunately, many of us live near a college or university with a reasonably priced post-baccalaureate program. The question then becomes how to juggle the demands of your law practice with those of your professors. For those willing to take on that challenge, consider the following tips from someone who has thus far survived seven post-bacc semesters.
Be realistic about the time commitment. Do not fool yourself; a for-credit class is a big time commitment. Between commuting to and from class, attending lectures, reading the course materials, and studying for exams, a typical three-credit class will consume at least seven hours a week (assuming you have a quick commute). In the context of a 40-billable hour week, that is an almost 20 percent increase in your workload. If yours is a busy practice characterized by unexpected and inflexible deadlines, honestly assess whether you can handle the additional time demands before enrolling.
Limit yourself to one class a semester. Unless you are able to arrange a work sabbatical, can get by on four hours of sleep, or do not care about passing, do not take more than one class at a time.
Consider a summer course. If your schedule is fairly predictable and you anticipate a quiet summer, consider immersing yourself in a six-week summer course. You will be attending class more frequently during the week, but the payoff is an intense (and some would say more rewarding) educational experience over a shorter period of time.
Confirm the course content. There are sometimes large gaps between the one-sentence description of a class found in the course catalogue and what the professor intends to teach. If you are at all unsure about a course’s content, find out exactly what it will cover before enrolling. An easy and effective way to do this is to e-mail the professor, explain your circumstances, and ask whether the course is a good fit for you. Better yet, ask her to send you the syllabus and determine this yourself.
Immediately notify the professor of conflicts. Once you get the syllabus, examine it for scheduling conflicts. Note when papers are due and exams are scheduled. Is the midterm scheduled on the same day as a client’s mediation? If so, immediately tell the professor. Most professors will accommodate you if they can but only if informed of the issue at the outset. After all, they too are busy professionals.
Determine the professor’s policy regarding videotaping lectures. These days many professors use technology to complement classroom learning, and for some that includes posting videotapes of lectures online. Find out in advance whether your professor has a similar practice. If so, it will make juggling work and class easier because you can watch a lecture on your home computer if a work commitment forces you to miss class.
But try hard to attend class. Even if your professor posts her lectures online, still make it a priority to attend class. Many video microphones do not capture everything that is said in class, especially if it is held in a large lecture hall. Depending on where the camera is placed, you might also have trouble making out what the professor has written on the blackboard or projected on a screen. But more importantly, you will learn more and have a more meaningful experience if you attend the live lectures because the classroom setting will force you to focus your complete attention on the subject and engage with your professor and peers.
Make class time count. After a long day at work, it is very tempting to zone out once you sit down in class. However, doing so only adds to the time you will later need to study to understand the material. So sit in the front row. You will not nod off or surreptitiously try to complete those time sheets if the professor is six feet away. Take notes in a notebook, not on a laptop. Even if you have the most charismatic professor and are the most disciplined of students, if you can access the Internet, it is only a matter of time before you will start using class time to catch up on e-mails. Ask questions. Your mind is much less likely to wander to your to-do list if you feel like you are having a conversation. Finally, consider completing the assigned reading after the lecture that covers it. Although this is admittedly not the preferred order in academia, it is a surefire way to keep you on your toes throughout the lecture. And when you later do the reading, you will do so more efficiently because you already will understand the material and know what the professor considers important. This method, however, requires that you complete each reading very soon after class and may not be effective outside large lecture classes.
One last tip: if after attending a few lectures you conclude that the class and coursework are too much to keep up with while working, drop the course. Just make sure to do so before the drop deadline if you expect a refund.