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December 01, 2014 Articles

Law School and Lessons Learned

A young lawyer reflects on his three years at a brand-new law school

By Denny Chan

Going to a brand new law school carries many risks. For example, the school does not have an established reputation. The school also does not have an alumni network. There is neither a flagship law review nor established student organizations. There are no job placement statistics or US News rankings to consider. Essentially, you are starting at a law school that is on a blank slate.

This is exactly what I did when I began at the University of California, Irvine School of Law in its inaugural class in the fall of 2009. Coming off the plane from Michigan, I had no idea what to expect. None of my close family members are attorneys, and although some of my college friends went to law school one or two years before I started, I still had little idea what I was doing as I sat down for orientation in August.

Perhaps this is what made law school in a sense so liberating. All 50-plus of my classmates were committed to building an institution together. Many of the basic premises law students have at other schools simply did not apply to us at Irvine. We were united not only by our commonality as fellow law students but also by the common mission in accepting the challenge from our founding dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, of helping build the ideal law school of the twenty-first century.

To this day, I continue to struggle when people ask me how I enjoyed my experience at Irvine. After all, it is not as if I have other law school experiences to which I can compare my three years at Irvine, so although I often explain what I enjoyed about my experience, I am left wondering how my experience at Irvine differed from life at a traditional, established (and ABA accredited!) law school.

One of the wonderful advantages of going to Irvine was the extremely hands-on nature of the school. The school’s career development office was very involved in assisting students and providing counsel about summer job opportunities, job-search challenges, and securing clerkships and public interest fellowships. The relatively small size of our inaugural class allowed the school to provide individualized support.

In addition, Irvine placed a strong emphasis in its curriculum on preparing students for the practice of law. One of the key highlights of our 1L schedule was a course called Legal Profession, a year-long look at different types of practice in our diverse industry and the issues facing the organized bar. Irvine also required all students to take a semester-long clinical course during their second or third years to better prepare them for the demands of practice. I was pleased to discover that the clinic requirement is still in place and even more clinics have been added to the mix for students to choose from. Outside of the formal curriculum, the school encouraged students to spend out-of-class time doing pro bono work, and these experiences gave students a more accurate exposure to the art of lawyering.

Besides these unique features of Irvine’s curriculum, my classmates and I enjoyed the usual parts of law school that better prepared us for practice. We were able to take all the standard skills-based classes offered at many law schools—negotiation, trial advocacy, and so on. We also had the opportunity to extern during the school year, and our summers were occupied with summer placements in the public and private arenas, just like many of our counterparts at other law schools.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have attended a law school with a particularly nurturing and supportive environment. I am grateful for all the real-world lawyering experiences I had even before I obtained my degree, and I sincerely believe Irvine prepared me for the practice of law probably as well as any law school  could.

There are caveats. In the more than two years since I graduated from Irvine and entered practice, I have realized that no legal education—no matter how perfect—can fully prepare graduates for the challenges of practicing law. With the legal hats I have worn since graduation, including both litigation and policy analysis roles, I realized there are still a number of critical lessons recent graduates need to learn quickly in practice. For what they are worth, I want to conclude with them because practicing attorneys, whether recently minted or not, may find them useful.

Communication is key. We have little choice. Our profession tends to be a bit crazy and intensely overworked. Solid communication with colleagues and supervisors is critical. Communicate often and do not assume people you work with or for know what you are doing or thinking.

Either learn fast or spend extra time learning. One of the first things my 1L summer mentor told me: “I’m sort of a generalist around here.” I did not realize until years later the extent to which lawyers are asked to learn new things. If you are not a naturally a fast learner, it may mean more hours trying to figure things out.

Relationships can make or break your career. I used to dread networking events, despite constant warnings about the importance of relationships in this profession. Although I heard it, I am always impressed by the extent to which that is true. Even though California has the largest bar association, the profession is small, and the more friends—former classmates, old supervisors, and others—you have, the better shape you are in.

These are hardly novel pointers, but they are worth emphasizing from time to time given their importance in our shared profession.

Keywords: litigation, trial practice, law school, young lawyers, law students

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