June 21, 2018 Articles

Beyond Your Degree: Getting the Most Out of Law School

By Lauren Lake

When I hear colleagues give law school advice, they often give some variation of “go to class,” “the best way to read and brief your cases is [fill in the blank],” “start your outlines early,” or something along those lines. While that’s undeniably good and important advice, there is more to law school than getting the highest grades and learning how to analyze cases and arguments like a lawyer. As I reflect on my own recent law school experience, my advice to you focuses, instead, on the bigger picture so that you will succeed not only during but also beyond law school.

1. Have a Growth Mind-Set
Do you know what you want to do once you’re an attorney? Regardless of your answer, think of law school as a place to grow as a person and a professional. Explore new things, like a class, clinic, or journal that covers an interesting area of law, but that you don’t think you’d like to practice, or a moot court team even if you don’t want to litigate. Explore externships and internships too because they’re relatively low risk and high reward. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you don’t have to do it for more than a semester, but if you love it, you may just change the path of your legal career for the best.

Participate in class and volunteer to answer questions. You may get an answer wrong, but you’ll have thought for yourself and your professor will guide you to the right answer. It’s better to do this in law school and learn how to recover from an incorrect fact or statement of law because you’ll have that happen once you start to practice; knowing how to navigate those situations is invaluable. Your law school has a strong, intricate safety net to catch you when you make a mistake, and if you’re taking on challenges, you’ll benefit from that safety net. Don’t waste it. If you measure your success with growth, then you’ll gain immeasurably more experiential knowledge than your peers.

2. Sign Up and Show Up
This one’s pretty simple. In addition to student organizations, you should join the ABA as well as your state, local, and specialty bar associations. As an added incentive, membership in many of these associations is free or discounted. Then, once you’re a member, you need to do something with those memberships. For example, you could attend events, continuing legal education programs, conferences, and networking events or get involved with a committee or multiple committees. If you aren’t immersing yourself in the organizations you join, then they’re just lines on your résumé, and that’s worth practically nothing. When you show up at ABA and other bar association programs and events, you’ll actually reap the benefits of those memberships, including meeting other attorneys and developing your soft professional skills (e.g., leadership, communication, teamwork, adaptability, conflict resolution).

3. Find Mentors (Yes, You Need Mentors)
Mentors are people with more knowledge and experience who can help make your life easier and offer support during and after law school. Having other people who are invested in your success can give you the extra push when you need it. Your job as the mentee is to be appreciative and responsive when your mentor shares advice, an encouraging word, or an opportunity.

When you’re seeking a mentor-mentee relationship, look for professors, classmates, supervisors, judges, or others whom you admire or whose point of view you value. Also, aim for a diverse panel of mentors who will have different strengths and weaknesses. Some mentorships start organically with very little work by you or your mentor, but other times, you must actively pursue the mentor and explicitly ask for your mentor to help you—telling him or her what that means to you. Also, like all relationships, mentorships ebb and flow and may develop a different dynamic or even end. That’s OK because if you have multiple mentors, the support of your collective mentorship pool will remain fairly constant.

4. Make Your Own Happiness
As a law student, you have less free time than you did before law school, but that doesn’t mean that you should give up the things that keep you sane and bring you joy, such as hobbies and extracurricular activities. Instead, make sure that you find time to continue doing those things, perhaps by finding ways to integrate into your law school experience working out, talking with friends, watching movies, reading books, playing video games, or whatever you enjoy. Before law school, I ran marathons, and while I didn’t run as many miles during law school, I met friends for runs and we’d socialize and work out together. There will be days that are really, really tough and you’ll think about quitting or not doing your best, but there should be just as many instances of solace and cheer because you decided to attend law school and become an attorney. To use the words of one of the judges for whom I clerked, “No one is as concerned with your happiness as you are.” So make your own happiness a priority!

5. Establish Your Brand
You must start consciously and deliberately deciding on your “brand” as a member of the legal community. Choose at least three words that you would like others to use to describe you—mine are authentic, responsible, and integrous—and make sure that what you do and say furthers those descriptors. Your branding starts the day that you arrive at law school, whether for orientation or your first day of class. Your reputation is a blank slate as a law student and will develop based on how your classmates and others perceive you. The legal community is small, and one day not too far in the future, your classmates will be your colleagues, and what they think about you will spread through your legal community. Make sure that what they say matches what you aspire for them to say. Do this and when you start to practice, you’ll be on the road to success!

Lauren Lake is the law clerk to the Honorable A. David Copperthite on the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore, Maryland.

Copyright © 2018, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).