Advice to Entering Law Students

Some ideas that might help you make better use of the opportunities available to you.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Over the next couple weeks, many students will be starting law school. If you're one of them, you may want to think carefully about how best to use your time in law school to increase your odds of having a successful career. I agree with much of the advice on this score offered by prominent criminal lawyer and legal blogger Ken White. Here are a few additional suggestions that I think may be useful. I have deliberately tried to focus on points that I don't often see in other articles and blog posts devoted to this topic.

1. Think carefully about what kind of law you want to practice.

Law is a profession with relatively high income and social status. Yet studies repeatedly show that many lawyers are deeply unhappy, a higher percentage than in most other professions. One reason for this is that many of them hate the work they do. It doesn't necessarily have to be that way. There are lots of different types of legal careers out there, and it's likely that one of them will be a good fit for you. A person who would be miserable working for a large "Biglaw" firm might be happy as a public interest lawyer or a family law practitioner, and so on. But to take advantage of this diversity, you need to start considering what type of legal career best fits your needs and interests.

There are many ways to find out about potential options. But one place to start is to talk to the career services office at your school, which should have information about a range of possibilities. Many also often have databases of alumni working in various types of legal careers. Talking to these people can give you a sense of what life as a practitioner in Field X is really like.

Regardless, don't just "go with the flow" in terms of choosing what kind of legal career you want to try. The jobs that many of your classmates want may be terrible for you (and vice versa). Keep in mind, also, that you likely have a wider range of options now than you will in five or ten years, when it may be much harder to switch to a very different field from the one you have been working in since graduation.

2. Get to know as many of your classmates and professors as you reasonably can.

Law is a "people" business. Connections are extremely important. No matter how brilliant a legal thinker you may be, it's hard to get ahead as a lawyer purely by working alone at your desk. Many of your law school classmates could turn out to be useful connections down the road. This is obviously true at big-name national schools whose alumni routinely become judges, powerful government officials, and partners at major firms. But it's also true at schools whose reputation is more regional or local in nature. If you plan to make a career in that area yourself, many of your classmates could turn out to be useful contacts. The same holds true for professors, many of whom have extensive connections in their respective fields. They are sometimes harder to get to know than students. But the effort is often worth it, anyway. And many of them are actually more than eager to talk about their work.

This is one front on which I didn't do very well when I was in law school, myself. Nonetheless, I am still going to suggest you do as I say, not as I actually did. You will be better off if you learn from my mistake than if you repeat it.

3. Think about whether what you plan to do is right and just.

Law presents more serious moral dilemmas than many other professions. What lawyers do can often cost innocent people their liberty, their property, or even their lives. It can also save all three. Lawyers have played key roles in almost every major advance for liberty and justice in American history, including the establishment of the Constitution, the antislavery movement, the civil rights movement and many others. But they have also been among the major perpetrators of nearly every great injustice in our history, as well.

Robert Cover's classic book Justice Accused—a work that made a big impression on me when I was a law student—describes how some of the greatest judges and legal minds of antebellum America became complicit in the perpetuation of slavery. While we have made great progress since that time, the legal system is not as far removed from the days of the Fugitive Slave Acts as we might like to think. There are still grave injustices in the system, and lawyers whose work has the effect of perpetuating and exacerbating them. We even still have lawyers who do such things as come up with dubious rationales for deporting literal escaped slaves back to places where they are likely to face further oppression.

Law school is the right time to start working to ensure that the career you pursue is at least morally defensible. You don't necessarily have a moral obligation to devote your career to doing good. But you should at least avoid exacerbating evil. And it's easier to do that if you think carefully about the issues involved now (when you still have a wide range of options), than if you wait until you are already enmeshed in a job that involves perpetrating injustice. At that point, it may be too late, both for you and (more importantly) for the people harmed.


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  1. Alternative view. (disclosure, I am NOT a lawyer)

    1. “Law is a profession with relatively high income and social status”. Check Google to find the social status; somewhere around politician and used car salesman. The high income is for the partners, not you. And you have lots of loans.
    2. Sounds like it is all about “pull”, not laws.
    3. Think long and hard about this one. There is objective right and wrong, no matter what they will teach you.

    As a side note, there are 50,000 open positions for truck drivers.

    1. Average income for associates in the US is about $70K, which is a good $10K above median household income. Pretty good living. Median for truck drivers is about $40K, although that goes up to $73K if you include only private truck drivers.

  2. It has been many, many years since I left law school (1982), but unless things have changed significantly, success in law school can be strongly influenced by the choices you make as an undergrad. LEARN TO WRITE WELL. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

    I graduated from a small private liberal arts college, and I never had a semester as an undergrad when I didn’t have to write two, three, four or more term papers – 20 pages or more, footnoted, with a bibliography. When I arrived at law school, I already knew how to write, I was perfectly comfortable writing an organized, coherent, grammatically correct answer in an essay test; and essay tests are almost all you’ll ever see in law school, and they will determine 100% of your grades. And I graduated near the very top of my class. Several of my law school classmates graduated from huge State Universities where it was easy to avoid those classes that required you to write, and when they got to law school, it really didn’t matter how smart they were, their inability to write well put them at a real disadvantage. If you really hate to write – don’t go to law school. You’ll hate a career in which producing an organized, coherent, persuasive written product is a major part of your job. If you are set on law school, practice writing well every chance you get.

  3. my advice, well, since you didn’t ask…
    1. consider getting a job which isn’t a parasitic tool of Empire ?
    (yeah, there are the 4 lawyers doing dog’s work, the rest, not so much…)
    2. ANYTHING else would be of more ACTUAL utility to society rather than serving as bootlicks and obfuscators of Empire; IF that is your supposed motivation, to benefit society, not yourself… otherwise, only the sociopaths will be left standing at the end of the day, they will go on to become the lawyers, pols, judges, pundits, CEOs, etc, of Empire used to rob and kill us 99%
    yeah, its good to be the king’s goons…
    3. the outsized influence of amoral rich lawyers on and IN ‘our’ (sic) gummint IS one of the main problems, throwing more mercenary parasites at the problem will only exacerbate it…

    1. Let me suggest that lawyers are only parasitic to the extent that a much more avaricious class of parasites – politicians – allows them to be. The United States is only the most over-lawyered economy in the world because we are also (close to) the most over-governed, over-regulated economy in the world. True, there are examples where there are more regulations, more red tape, more bureaucratic delays, like Greece. But in Greece, the grey and black market constitutes nearly 30% of the economy – to make an (almost) honest living, people simply ignore the regulations and hide their activities from the government. That is much less frequent in the U.S. (where grey market activity is only 5% or less of the economy). If you don’t like parasitic lawyers, stop electing parasitic politicians.

  4. Best advice: DON’T DO IT, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

    From one who has a J.D. and now happily teaches high school history.

  5. I’ve been reading Volokh Conspiracy since 2004 or 2005. This is my first time commenting. Until recently, I was spending ~$1.5mm a year on legal fees with big law firms. From my perspective as a client of biglaw, please allow me to share some insights.

    In my experience, the best jurists in America are the women and men who can quickly absorb new information about things they aren’t experts on, synthesize it, and organize it in their brains for later use. A good example: this past week at the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, a three-judge panel published an opinion in Core Wireless Licensing v Apple Inc. Go read the opinion. It’s astonishing.

    And do you know how you become this excellent jurist? BY WORKING INCREDIBLY HARD. You will not make it in biglaw if you aren’t willing to work hard.

    Secondly, the best jurists in America are able to write clearly, concisely, and persuasively to enable others to understand and embrace their legal opinion. You better figure out how to write, and you better figure it out before you leave.

    Finally, I want to re-emphasize something Ilya wrote. A huge part of biglaw is people skills. A lot of your success will be based on how well people like you – the clients, others in your firm, and your adversaries across the table.

    Good luck to any new 1L reading this.

  6. Buy the best liquor you can afford to minimize hangovers.

    Don’t date other law students.

  7. “1. Think carefully about what kind of law you want to practice.”

    One thing that I didn’t realize going in, is that much of the practice of law is boring, doing the same thing over and over again for years, if not decades. Looking at millions of documents for a needle in the haystack. Etc. I should have known better – my father practiced law for almost half a century. I always dreamed about going into practice with him, but glad I went in a different direction. I think that I would have been bored silly with his practice. For many, law school is intellectually stimulating, but the practice of law is not.

    I stumbled into my legal specialty. I was a programmer before LS, so thought Computer Law would be interestIng, but found when I got out that those in the field without a patent ticket seemed to lose clients to those who did. So, ultimately, that is what I did. Turned out to be a great fit. Rarely boring, because when you get bored with the law, you always have the technology, and when you go back to the law, or the procedure, it has changed. And you constantly have to deal with people who are smarter than you are, so you get pushed.

    I flopped around in LS deciding what electives to take, look back now, and have no regrets, which is funny because I didn’t end up where I thought I would be. Pretty much every one was useful for where I ultimately went.

  8. “A person who would be miserable working for a large “Biglaw” firm might be happy as a public interest lawyer or a family law practitioner, and so on.”

    Good luck with that if you have a ton of debt.

    That said, many government jobs and some public interest jobs have loan forgiveness programs. They can effectively give you “big law” levels compensation with “government worker” level work/life balance.

  9. Being a lawyer is a miserable career choice for many because the law itself is so often used to inflict abuse and violence. The “law” is all about arbitrary rules enforced by manipulators of facts and twisters of logic and about the deceptive use of argument to gain advantage over others, for a fee.

    Judges are lawyers who are willing to compromise their view of right and wrong in exchange for the power, prestige, and income which come with the donning of a robe. Judges are lawyers who are willing to inflict pain, take property, and destroy lives – and who expect to be respected and well paid for the job that they do. Judges are lawyers who are willing to turn a blind eye to injustice committed in the name of the law. Appellate judges are lawyers who are quite often willing to turn a blind eye to injustice and legal cruelty unless a legal argument interests them.

    The law is a properly despised profession.

    a recovering lawyer dedicated to exposing the legal “system” as an institution for the advancement of legalized theft, coercion, and violence

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