- A panel of lawyers from across the country to discuss the vital lessons they learned while attending law school.
KPI: With great power comes great responsibility. It sounds cliché, but whether you are working in a legal clinic or clerking (for a judge or in private practice) you come to realize there are real people counting on you. Someone is counting on your education and actions being taken on their behalf, when I first recognized this, it was both nerve-racking and empowering. Understanding that responsibility, and the fact it would only grow, drove me to fully commit to my legal education and it continues to drive me today.
SAB: There is no substitute for putting in the time, doing the work, and focusing for each task when it is at hand. There are outlines, study groups, and strategies for learning but none of them take the place of reading the material and understanding how it applies to various situations. Knowing the answer to a problem isn’t enough, the critical part is knowing why an answer is right.
AB: Organization and time management are the keys to success—and will ensure you maintain your sanity during law school and bar prep. Using a daily planner to block out my class/study time kept me on task and allowed me to schedule a workout class or a meal with friends during my breaks. Law school is mentally challenging, so offloading some of the stress on your brain by writing out a daily schedule will free up more space for you to learn to think like a lawyer.
JS: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Prior to law school, I tended to avoid situations that would make me feel uneasy. Law school taught me that the interactions that make you the most uncomfortable frequently open the door to invaluable life lessons, experiences, and individuals.
BM: There are several lessons learned during law school that cannot be understated: First, relationships matter. You will interact with students, professors, and staff on a daily basis. When you enter the practice of law, they will be great resources to you. Your classmates may refer you cases. They can help you find answers to complex legal issues. They understand the stresses of practicing law and can be a support system. Relationships matter. Second, practice makes perfect. Instead of devoting all your time to studying, get an internship or a clerkship while in school. Those experiences will provide you job opportunities and actually teach you how to be a lawyer. Law school is theoretical. It teaches you how to think. You need the practical. Get a job. Third, develop a work ethic. Law school can teach you discipline and help you develop a strong work ethic. Manage your time. Set goals. Work hard. Success is driven by hard work.
MJM: I quickly learned that my law school education was going to be vastly different from anything that preceded it. The day before classes started, all first-year students were invited to law school orientation. I proudly walked into orientation expecting to hear that we were a group of hard-working undergraduate students who made the cut to be accepted into law school. Instead, we were told that the work would be harder and different from anything we experienced in the past. We were warned that the attrition rate for first-year law students would be high – and it was.
Leaving orientation we all passed by the assignment board. To our surprise, there were cases to read and brief and assignments to complete. The due date was tomorrow, the first day of class. My initial reaction was that this must be a misprint. No one could possibly complete the assignment by the following day. There was no misprint. This is what would be expected of us for the next three years. I wrote that first date down on the inside cover of my Black’s Law Dictionary where it remains to this day. By the third year of law school, I learned to efficiently read and brief more cases than I thought possible in a short period of time. I learned to focus on the real holding of the case and not on dicta.
The most important law school learning experience was becoming comfortable with the Socratic method of teaching. The Socratic method can trace its roots to the Greek philosopher Socrates. As applied to law school, one or more students are called upon at random. That student stands up and must respond to critically probing questions from the professor. This can last for five minutes or for the entire class with the same student responding to questions as they learn to think on their feet.
While no one other than perhaps the law school professors enjoyed the Socratic method of teaching, it is the Socratic method that taught us the skill to think critically on our feet and be able to respond orally in a logical and persuasive manner. This is the very foundation of becoming a successful lawyer.
After three years of briefing more cases than I could count and becoming comfortable with the once-despised Socratic method of teaching, I was now ready to conquer the courtroom. The first week after graduation our then-senior partner sent me to my first motion hearing. I prepared an outline that was almost as long as the brief we filed. I grabbed my torts outline from law school and a copy of all relevant cases. I was the first lawyer to arrive in the courtroom.
I entered the courtroom and immediately froze. There were six tables for counsel and nowhere in our Socratic teaching were we taught where to sit in court. I remained anonymous in the back of the courtroom until counsel entered and took their seat. Drawing upon the critical reasoning learned in law school, I quickly concluded that the one empty counsel table was mine and took my seat.
Since that day I have tried over 100 jury trials through conclusion and had the honor of arguing a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps the best lesson learned in law school is that to succeed in this profession every day must be treated as a new learning experience. This is true whether we are meeting with a new client, conducting a deposition, trying a case or keeping up with the latest case law. In that sense regardless of our age or experience we will always be in law school.
AN: Best lesson I learned in law school (although I have not always applied it) is to know when to be still and quiet during in argument in front of a Judge and when you have said enough. I feel like I have lost hearings when I belabor a point or try to pile drive an opponent instead of letting their own weight take them down.
LE: The law school I attended, the University of Southern California Law Center (USC), teaches students to think creatively and to argue both sides of a matter. Most students come to law school believing that there is one right legal answer for each fact hypothetical and their job is to find that answer. USC Law trains them to consider the hypothetical from both sides and to creatively construct arguments for either side. Students who come to law school with a background on debate teams are usually better prepared for this kind of thinking, because debate competitions randomly assign “pro” and “con” sides to the issue under consideration.
Another lesson I learned at USC Law is the importance of specialization. USC encouraged its graduates to specialize, rather than to be a generalist. Throughout my career, I have focused on just a few areas of law and have developed a high level of expertise in those areas. This may not be possible for a lawyer in a smaller community, but having spent almost all of my career in a metropolitan area of nearly five million people, that option has been open to me and I have taken it.
One thing that neither USC nor any other law school teaches is how to select good clients and how to provide good customer service to clients. This would be a subject worthy of consideration in law school, but it is not touched upon. I learned client selection and service from my mentor, the late Dale Haralson, who treated each client as though they were the only client he had, even though he had many clients. I have tried to emulate this and have been rewarded for doing so.
MM: I made an irreversible decision when I accepted admission to law school. I landed on the shore of my legal education and burned the ship making the path forward to a legal career the only option. With the benefit of decades of experience in the profession, I have a clear sense of the lessons from law school that mattered. I would like to share my top five with you.
1. Start from the End
I crisply recall picking up the heavy constitutional law book during my first semester of law school. It was followed by equally weighty books in the remaining 1L courses. The wide-eyed law students, myself included, were expected to scour each page to uncover nuggets of wisdom. This was, in my humble opinion, an inefficient approach. Through trial and error, I learned that getting a handle on the legal outline first allowed for a thoughtful and relevant analysis. The same holds true in a fast-paced legal profession where the boundaries of the law are constantly evolving.
2. Cultivate Relationships
I found that the best way to learn is to learn from the best. To get access to the best in the legal field, consider the value of cultivating relationships with law professors. Many are connectors and gatekeepers in the broader legal field. This helps with your education and career opportunities post-graduation. Indeed, the ongoing relationships with many of the outstanding professors who shaped my legal education remain valuable to this day.
3. Focus on the Winners and Losers
Law school is principally designed to provide a framework for thinking. However, the reality of the legal field is that the balance of the work depends on people with their own unique motives, personalities and aims. In each case, the parties advance towards a conclusion in which one side will, on balance, ultimately prevail. Understanding who wins and loses while evaluating potential outcomes will enhance your study as a law student and success in the profession.
4. Organization Trumps Arguments
The legal field is full of talented orators. However, a silver tongue rarely prevails over raw evidence. Understanding the evidence needed, identifying the most important pieces to highlight, and presenting the materials in a way that is accessible to the jury are keys to maximize the opportunity for success. Those who do this best are highly organized and focused.
5. Be a Career Entrepreneur
The best opportunities are rarely advertised. They come by connections and word-of-mouth. In law school, I was able to establish a connection with someone in the Courthouse. They were impressed with my enthusiasm and desire to learn more about the inner workings of the judicial system. This interest became an internship with a highly respected federal judge. That connection parlayed into my first position as a young trial attorney. With each step in my career, I have fostered the same entrepreneurial approach to opportunities. As one of the decision makers hiring new employees for our award-winning personal injury firm MDK Law Group in Phoenix, Arizona, I have consistently found that the best candidates are often hired off-market. If you are seeking unique opportunities to advance professionally, I encourage you to take an entrepreneurial approach in creating opportunities for yourself.