Law schools do not, nor do they claim to, teach students how to practice law. A law school education is a necessary but insufficient foundation for a legal career. A law student or recent law school graduate may equate success in the law with the ability to recite the elements of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim or to identify when a contract is subject to the Statute of Frauds. While such skills are important, success in a legal career certainly does not turn on these skills.
With this said, there are a number of skills acquired in the course of law school that are invaluable. With the proper direction, these skills can convert into a successful—if not remarkable—legal practice. The following skills acquired in law school will, if implemented properly, lend themselves to a flourishing law practice.
Attending law school is no small commitment. At a minimum, it is three years of (mostly) intensive academics, six semesters of final exams or papers, and the bar exam. Many law students also take on a law journal, mock trial team, moot court team, or clinic. And those are only the academic aspects. Law school is also a tremendous financial commitment and the start of a profound lifestyle commitment. Clearly, successful law students are capable of making meaningful commitments.
When law school graduates first enter private practice, however, they often fail to make an express commitment to their practice. This is for varying reasons, but in all instances, it is a mistake. Whether you have accepted a position as an associate in a top-tiered law firm solely to pay off your student loans or joined a small firm as a clerk hoping a more lucrative position will present itself, it is imperative to make a decided mental commitment to your practice. A committed practitioner gains the respect of his or her colleagues, develops career-long connections, and is assigned to more desirable projects. If you are of the mindset that your job is a temporary one, you are not being the best practitioner you can be.
Law students are nothing if not prepared. First-year law students, in particular, are taught to compulsively “brief” cases in preparation for class, pore over thousands of legal principles in preparation for exams, and compose draft after draft of internal office memoranda for a two-credit legal writing course. This tradition of preparedness continues with second- and third-year law students as they prepare for interviews, law journal write-on competitions, trial and appellate advocacy presentations, and ultimately the bar exam. The good news is this intensive preparation is not an inconsequential exercise; rather, the art of preparation is an invaluable skill and should be carried into your practice.
For example, if a senior attorney in your firm assigns research and asks you to present the findings orally, prepare as you would for any formal presentation. Even if you have an informal relationship with the attorney, do not construe this as permission not to do your best work. If you are asked to participate in a client meeting, prepare assiduously: know key facts that concern the client and review and annotate any relevant documents in advance. In your career, as in school, you will never be chastised for your steadfast preparation. Indeed, the best attorneys in private practice are not necessarily smarter, nor are they naturally versed in the law. Rather, the best attorneys have simply out-prepared their opponents.
Though individual academic achievement is emphasized in law school, the law school experience, in general, is largely collaborative. By week two of law school, if not sooner, students are sizing up classmates to assess who will make the best study partners. No law journal is issued without the collaborative (and often colossal) effort of a cast of editors and senior and junior journal members. In a moot court competition, team wins are most significant. This is true of trial advocacy competitions, as well.
Collaboration is equally important in private practice. To be successful, you must work well with others. Show enthusiasm at the prospect of working with lawyers you have not worked with before. Demonstrate that you work easily with any group of attorneys and staff that happen to be assembled to work on a case or deal. Treat everyone as an equal and with respect. Without a doubt, you will be a better practitioner for it—senior attorneys will want to work with you, fellow associates will regard you as a mentor, your secretary will care about the quality of your practice, and the mailroom will pull postal strings when you are in a bind!
Command of Spoken Word
Law school markedly improves a law student’s oratory skills. Whether speaking in class when called upon, explaining complex legal principles to a study group after class, or rehearsing mock arguments and other advocacy skills, little by little, law students develop their vocabulary, diction, and oral presentation skills. And this is something of which lawyers should be proud.
This command of the spoken word is the foundation for a successful legal practice and should be readily demonstrated in your daily work. In discussions with more senior attorneys in your office, speak clearly and with assuredness. In dealings with opposing counsel, speak authoritatively and decisively. In client presentations, use discretion. Contribute sparingly, but make meaningful contributions. In any appearance before a judge, be mindful of sentence structure, tone, and diction. In all instances, hone and develop this skill.
Admittedly, not all law students have enviable social skills. This is a function of youth and the level of focus required to be a successful law student. However, a successful attorney is both excellent at his or her craft and polished and sociable. A competitive attorney who wins and loses graciously is an exceptional one. Above all, an attorney with good judgment is sure to have a long, successful career.