The Skills We Wish We Learned in Law School

Elí Salomón Contreras
We need to know how to talk to our clients without using legalese and to explain the law in a manner that is easy to understand.

We need to know how to talk to our clients without using legalese and to explain the law in a manner that is easy to understand.

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If you are a young lawyer or law student, listen up! This article was written for you. (If you work at a law school and have influence over the curriculum design, you should read this too.)

Young lawyers who attended law schools throughout the United States and are currently in different practice settings (e.g., law firms of all sizes, nonprofit organizations, academia, government, public service, etc.) anonymously shared with TYL the top three things they wish they learned in law school. This is the career head start they want you to have:

I wish I learned more transactional law in law school. My school was very litigation focused. It would have been nice to have an equal balance.
It’s called the practice of law for a reason! Give yourself some grace as you adjust to the learning curve and find your groove. Very few mistakes are unfixable! It is okay to make a mistake. What is important is that you acknowledge the mistake and learn from it. Don’t forget, resources are everything! You are not always going to know the answer, and there may not always be a clear answer. However, if you know where to look to find the answer or whom to ask, you are on the right path.
I wish more concepts were turned more immediately into practical exercises (I say this as someone who failed on a couple of legal writing assignments spectacularly). Instead of just issue spotting, tasks that forced you to try writing the pleadings or the contract, etc. I should have taken clinical coursework, but I also do not think I should have had the option not to take clinical coursework.
  • How to conduct salary negotiations with prospective employers, how to find an expert witness, and Westlaw is not free (enjoy it while it lasts).
  • Career strategy tips, more focus on procedural rules, and professional etiquette.
Law school does a great job of teaching you how to think and write like a lawyer, but I wish law school contained courses on law firm management and effective client consultations and communication. As lawyers, we need to know how to talk to our clients without using legalese and to explain the law in a manner that is easy to understand. Clinics were a great way to get this practice, but it would have been nice for more courses to specialize in direct legal services.
  • Legal industry software, how to navigate public company filings, and basic accounting.
  • More focus on legal writing, post-law school life, and contract law.
How to draft a petition and a complaint, how to draft an answer, and how to draft a motion for summary judgment. I am certain that most law professors would argue that the 1L Memorandum and Appellate Brief incorporate the essential pieces of petitions, complaints, and motions for summary judgment. However, considering: (a) the amount of time and money every law student spends in law school in the United States, (b) the percentage of time the average litigator spends reading or writing petitions, complaints, answers, and motions for summary judgment, and, (c) the high number of non-typical-practice-related electives 2L and 3L law students have, American law schools can and should make drafting these common court documents a core part of the curriculum.
  • How to draft discovery requests and responses, how to take or defend a deposition, and how to handle billable hours.
  • How to bring in clients, how actually to practice law rather than just legal theories, and financial planning and literacy.
Law school doesn’t teach many practical skills, and we are expected to get too much of our training on the job rather than in school. I wish law school taught us the importance of the attorney-client relationship and interpersonal skills. The writing we learn in law school is not similar to writing memoranda for clients or motions for court. We also need to learn how to be marketable to the legal community.
  • How to speak to opposing counsel; the practical and logistical aspect of court practice; and note-taking for lawyers, such as for case management systems and billing.
  • Dealing with clients, time management, and how to practice law in the real world.
I wish I learned more practical skills. I wish I had more bar prep courses earlier rather than just for the 3L year.

Elí Salomón Contreras is the 2019–2021 TYL editor-in-chief and an attorney in California.