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I Graduated Law School! Now What?

Dorlin Armijo

I Graduated Law School! Now What?
Boy_Anupong via Getty Images

As a law student, you are blissfully unaware of a reality that every young lawyer soon learns in their first year of practice—law school does not actually teach you how to practice law.

Now, before each of you demand a prompt refund from each of your respective legal institutions, I submit to each law student or recent graduate the following bits of information that I have learned in my short time of practicing law. These tools, while not an exhaustive list, aspire to provide some insight into what to do with those “critical thinking skills” you have thus acquired and hope to put to good use.

Plan Ahead

Most of you are quite familiar with the unsettling reality that most law school classes are graded by one final exam. Because of this torturous and peculiar schedule, law students typically create case summaries, briefs, or outlines that track information he or she learns throughout the course of the class instead of attempting to cram four months of information into your brain two weeks before a final. The practice of law is no different. In every lawsuit or transaction, every lawyer is faced with an end goal or desired result. Perhaps that end goal is trial or a final arbitration hearing or the closing of a real estate transaction. Whether you are a litigator or a transactional attorney, when you are assigned to a matter, you would be wise to ask about the end goal or desired work product and about the deadlines associated with those. Once you know where the end is, you should work with your supervising attorney to make sure that the case or transaction stays on track. You should also check in with yourself to make sure that your first draft does not come to the partner on the eve of a court deadline or that you did not spend 20 hours drafting a formal memorandum when the assignment called for a short email summary.

Do Not Recreate the Wheel

In your time as a law student, I am sure that you each have either sought the golden outline that purports to have the exact exam questions and verbatim information that a professor gives during lecture. A lucky few of you have even discovered that professors often recycle exam prompts or question—golden nuggets you then used to your scholastic advantage. The same is true of the practice of law. While some assignments are true unicorns—never assigned before and concerning novel questions of law—most are not. Before you draft anything, check in with a more senior associate, your assigning partner, and/or your firm’s online database. You will be happy to learn that entry-level and senior associates alike have completed this same task before you. Consult these forms and let them guide you through the murky waters of your first assignments.

Outlining Is Key

First disclaimer: I do not actually know what most transactional attorneys do on a day-to-day basis. I am a litigator—apologies, in advance. This tip, therefore, is probably only helpful to aspiring litigators. Second disclaimer: “Outlining” does not refer to the treacherous 100-page outlines that you are all accustomed to writing. To the contrary, most successful outlines are quite short. They succinctly organize the arguments in your head before you put pen to paper. Most of the time, what you write down as your initial outline will not be good. Resist the urge to run to the partner with your first-draft masterpiece. Instead, sit and think. Is there a better way to organize the information? Does your outline capture all the substantive information and arguments? If a judge only reads your first page and headings, would he or she know what your argument is and what remedy you seek? If the answers to these questions are no, scrap the outline and try again.

Use the Substance You Learned as a Starting Point

In law school, and especially when studying for the bar, you learned a new language. You memorized elements of several causes of action and may even have learned the meaning of the following phrase: “an interest must vest, if at all, within 21 years after the death of a life in being.” Do not waste that knowledge. Use it to your advantage and let it feed your curiosity. Your fine legal education taught you how to be curious. For example, what the heck does it mean for something to “vest”? Whose “life in being”? When do I start to calculate the time? Do holidays count? With that legal phrase, you now know enough to jumpstart your legal research, use your knowledge to your advantage. Even when you do not recall every detail or every element of tortious interference with a contract, for example, you’ve learned that every aspect of the law has several moving parts. Just like in law school, figure out what all those parts are and ask questions. Use what you do know to ask the partner (or your friend Google) the right questions so you can draft the right motion or language, do the right research, or settle at the right value.