Considering Law School? Read This First.

I often tell people that becoming a lawyer is like learning how to walk at least three times over.  College does nothing to prepare you for law school.  Law school does nothing to prepare you for the bar.  And none of that prepares you for practice.

In college you are trained to think a certain way, largely depending on the type of degree you earned.  If you were a business student, then you learned to think in absolutes, that everything has an answer and the faster you get to that answer and move on, the more successful your business will be.  Then, you get to law school.

In law school you discover that basically nothing you learned in college applies.  In my business undergrad I was taught to get in, solve the problem, and get out. In stark contrast, law school (especially final exams) was a practice in rolling around in the facts like a pig in slop.  I quite literally finished my 1L contracts final in 30 minutes and could not, for the life of me, figure out why people were still typing so furiously.  Needless to say, this magna cum laude graduate struggled through law school trying to unlearn what I learned in college and relearn what I needed to stumble through law school.  Once you sacrifice at least three years of your life and most, if not all, of your spirit (or in my case five years for a part-time JD/MBA program and pretty much ALL of my spirit), you get your JD.  You walk proudly across the graduation stage, breathe a sigh of relief, celebrate your amazing accomplishment and, about three beers in, realize not only do payments on your oppressive student loan debt start in only six months, but you have to begin studying for the bar.  TOMORROW.

If I had one piece of advice to give to anyone considering law school, it would be to take bar review BEFORE law school.  Spend the money and the summer in bar review and you will SAIL through law school.  For me law school was like trying to put a 10,000 piece puzzle together without the benefit of the box.  Midway through bar review, someone handed me the puzzle box and all the pieces fell into place.  It would have been immensely helpful if that had happened in my first year of law school, but that’s not how this screwed up system works.

So while you’re studying for the bar, you have to relearn (again) how to take exams.  Throughout law school each professor had a preference – IRAC, CREAC, FIRAC, MIRAT, IDAR, CRAAC, TREACC…the list goes on and on.  Each final you wrote had to adhere to the professor’s rules.  After three, four, or five years, when you finally have that system figured out, you get to bar review where they teach you an entirely new process.

Once you make it through the bar and get passing results, now you get to practice!  Congratulations!  Suddenly Major Realization #2 hits you – you have no idea what you’re doing.  Sure, the state bar hosts that “Bridge the Gap” class that is supposed to narrow the humongous chasm between academics and actual practice.  My Bridge the Gap class covered where you park at the courthouse and how not to piss off the Discovery Commissioner.  During the lunch break I frantically polled other newly minted lawyers – are you guys as terrified as I am?  Some weren’t.  They believed the hype that sold us on law school in the first place – we’re the top 1% of educated professionals in our society; lawyers are responsible for keeping society in order; blah, blah, blah.  These guys fearlessly took on any case with no consideration of that pesky rule on competency.  The rest of us felt woefully underqualified to handle something as simple as a traffic ticket.

If I had it to do over again, I’d do the bar review before school thing.  I’d also take advantage of every externship, internship, clinic, or moot court experience during school – anything that would have given me a glimpse into what lawyers actually do every day. I went to law school part-time at night and worked during the day.  My schedule didn’t allow me to get involved in any of that stuff.  I’m not 100% sure that I’d have been less terrified if I had participated, but I think it could only have helped.

Other professions have residencies, apprenticeships, or other opportunities for you to learn from someone else before you’re pushed out of the nest.  Law is not like that.  You’re incredibly fortunate if you land a job with a senior partner who is willing and able to teach you.  The reality is, though, that inexperienced lawyers cost firms money.  If they had the time to train you, they wouldn’t hire you.  You’re another mouth to feed and more overhead that cuts into the profits enjoyed by the senior partners.

So you’re newly minted, considering opening your own practice, or have been practicing a while and want to expand your practice areas.  What do you do?  Read on…