- Students who are uncertain about their legal career path can use skills-based courses to explore their interests in various types of practice while gaining skills that are often relevant across multiple practice environments.
Law schools have provided courses and experiences to prepare law students for everyday legal practice for many years. The variety of these opportunities has expanded greatly in recent years as law schools have responded to changing economic markets, diversity in clients, new American Bar Association standards, and innovative technology.
Learning the substantive law will always be an essential foundation for legal practice. However, students also need to develop skills related to the daily practice of law, whether their legal careers involve private clients, agencies, courtrooms, or corporations. Skills-based courses address various practice realities: advocacy, legal research and writing, drafting, practice management, legal technology, and alternative dispute resolution. These practical courses help students develop confidence in lawyering skills that will transcend any one substantive law specialty and increase their competence as lawyers.
When possible, students want to choose practice-ready courses to match their future legal plans. For example, those who are certain they want to litigate will gravitate toward advocacy courses, while others will enroll in transactional options. However, students who are uncertain about their specific legal goals can use these courses to explore their interest in various types of practice while gaining skills that are often relevant across multiple practice environments.
Clinics and externships are the most obvious practice-ready courses. The choices go beyond these, however, and include the following broad categories:
These courses include both class components and experiential options. Trial advocacy is offered by most law schools: students focus on all of the individual components of trial before combining them into a civil or criminal trial as the main course project. Students work on opening and closing statements, interrogatories, depositions, examination/cross-examination of witnesses, introduction of evidence, and many other specific aspects. Some law schools have advanced courses that teach more specialized skills and provide more complex trial simulations. There are also appellate advocacy courses, mock trial/moot court competition credits, and third-year practice opportunities in public service or nonprofit agencies to increase advocacy skills.
A wide variety of courses and clinic opportunities allow aspiring lawyers to learn effective communication skills for advising their clients. Students learn skills in listening, effective questioning, and explaining difficult legal concepts to laypersons. They learn how to deal with diverse clients during difficult periods in their lives: divorces, housing evictions, criminal charges, income tax audits, and denial of social security benefits. Students experience firsthand their important responsibilities as lawyers who are the lifelines for many people in our society. Under supervision, students learn how to provide their clients with professional and ethical legal advice and support. Additional opportunities are available through other law school experiences, such as pro bono work, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), and courses with client-assistance projects.
Students who are going to specialize in non-trial areas of work will benefit from courses drafting documents in their specialty areas. Many law schools offer courses that allow students to hone their drafting skills; examples include contract drafting or wills drafting. Students learn how to use form books and template databases. These courses may include simulations or work with actual clients under supervision.
Many law schools offer courses in alternative dispute resolution (ADR), such as negotiation and mediation. These opportunities often fulfill the training and supervision hours required for state certification. With the current emphasis on ADR nationally, this training enhances the résumés of the law students who participate.
A number of courses focus on the skills that students need to participate in practice management decisions—whether as firm partners, agency administrators, or solo practitioners. Selections include law office management, law office technology, accounting for lawyers, and more. These practical courses introduce students to the myriad of decisions that must be made in the complex business environment of present-day and future law practice.
Lawyers must depend on their competencies in research and writing every day. Whether they become solo practitioners who do their own research, law librarians who research for other lawyers, or new associates in large firms, graduates will regularly complete research to solve legal problems. They will continually be asked to present their findings in legal documents that provide clients, other lawyers, and judges with concise and accurate summaries of the law and arguments on behalf of clients. Courses such as advanced legal research, state-specific research, and statutory analysis will prepare them for these daily tasks.
Law schools also provide opportunities through various journals and independent research credits to improve student research and writing. No future lawyer can have too much experience in research and writing before graduating.
In signing up for these practice-ready opportunities, students need to keep in mind several things to be truly successful:
Students want to enroll in opportunities that broaden their practical skills as lawyers as well as in courses that increase their knowledge about the law. Graduates who are confident in the milieu of practice will be more valuable to an employer and more able to assist the people who are depending on them for legal assistance.