"Some Friendly Advice To New Law Students"


Excellent advice from Ken White (Popehat), an experienced and successful practicing lawyer; many thanks to him for allowing me to reprint it:

Across America, law students are starting their first year. Some are attending elite law schools on a traditional track; some are taking classes at night and working during the day. Many of them are freaked out right about now.

I have some words of encouragement.

1. Take all the clinics, practicums, and internships that you can. Nothing beats seeing how law is actually practiced. It helps you get a practical grip on what you might like to do, and helps you see how what you're learning applies to an actual legal career. Plus it's a crucial way to meet people and open doors.

2. Are you going to law school to become a professor? Good for you! Otherwise I strongly advise approaching it not as about academic excellence, but about training to be of service. Lawyers represent clients. Clients benefit from you knowing what you're doing. Clients benefit from practical excellence, not academic excellence. Academic excellence is a nice by-product of taking subjects seriously as you master them, but it's not an end in and of itself for a lawyer. You're training to do a good job for people who need help — whether you're going to be a civil litigator or a criminal lawyer or an in-house counsel guiding your company the right way. Some schools — particularly elite ones — encourage a contrived disdain for nuts and bolts of practice in favor of theory. Theory is nice — it's helpful to know the why, and to be conversant with theoretical arguments to back up your practical arguments — but a lawyer who can critique a rule of evidence, but not apply it, is not a lawyer who will be of service to a client.

3. Would you like to take some very specialized courses on some fun and esoteric issues? Fine. But don't neglect the building blocks, tedious as you may find them. I really didn't want to take Corporations and found it dull, but I use that knowledge all the time in civil and criminal litigation. I fled from Secured Transactions but soon learned that I would have benefited tremendously from it. Law and legal norms are everywhere and interdependent, and the theory that you can get by in your specialized area without all of the basics is usually wrong. ("But what are the basics?" is a subject for another post.)

4. Write every day — an assignment, a blog post, a substantive email. Speak every week — a debate, a podcast, an oral argument. Writing and speaking comfortably and effectively will always be useful no matter how you practice.

5. Resist excellence narratives that focus on the right background, the right school, the right job. The best lawyers are not the ones who went straight from Ivy to Ivy to Biglaw. The best lawyers are the ones who are serious, dedicated, and passionate about their craft. The best lawyers I've had the pleasure to work with have often been second-career lawyers, lawyers from schools that were not "top tier," lawyers who took a different path. But they were serious about being lawyers. Don't rest on your laurels just because you went Harvard to Yale, and don't sell yourself short just because you came to law after another career and you're going to a less "prestigious" law school. You can be excellent, but only if you work at it.

6. Law school culture often wants you to hate, resent, and fear your fellow students and see them as competitors. Resist. Make friends with, and be friendly with, different people. You'll learn from them. And you'll hate law school if you buy into the cutthroat narrative.

7. Some law schools also want to scare you. The "look to the left, look to the right, one of you will be gone at the end of the year" thing is theater. Don't buy into it. Work hard, care about your work, but don't envision yourself as in a struggle to survive. You're in a struggle to equip yourself to be a good lawyer.

8. Professors who use the Socratic Method — and other professors who interrogate you in class — do it for a variety of reasons. Some do it the reasons fraternities haze — it was done to them and it's tradition. Some of them are just assholes. Some do it to train you. It doesn't matter why they do it; you can't control that. It matters how you react. In a legal career, there will be a certain amount of unpleasantness. Whether you're a criminal lawyer or a civil litigator or an in-house counsel or a transactional lawyer or a public interest lawyer, you're going to have to live with it. The value of a Socratic professor — or a professor who's just an asshole — is that it helps teach you to stand up for your client. The key is confidence, and justified confidence comes from preparing and being serious about your job. You don't prepare meticulously for oral argument to avoid embarrassment; you prepare to serve the client. Prepare for Socratic professors like you're learning to serve a client — like you care about doing a good job for someone. It's not about you.

9. Outline concepts for the classes as you go along. Don't rely on other people's outlines, except to see a different perspective. The process of outlining forces you to figure out how things fit together. It's fine to do this together, but really do it all together — don't split it up.

10. Watch out for meta-concepts. If you got into law school, you studied for the LSAT, and if you studied for the LSAT, you learned that becoming familiar with the structure of word and logic problems made it much easier to solve them. Once you see how the "who is sitting next to Wayne if Earl is sitting to the left of Carl" fits together, solving it becomes a breeze. Legal analysis can be like that — both in law school exams (where you can become familiar not just with substantive rules of law, but with how professors embed legal issues into questions) and in practice. Keep an eye on not just "what is the rule in this case," but on "what logical and rhetorical moves did the judges use to get there."

11. Learn to believe in things. If you're ever going to be an advocate, or an adviser, you need to be able to believe in things. When you get up and defend someone charged with a crime, you need to believe in something, or the judge and jury sees you're just going through the motions and nails your client. You don't have to believe your client is good or innocent, but you have to believe passionately in something — that the system or the charges are unjust, that the punishment is disproportionate, or that the system is right to give every accused person an advocate and by God you are that advocate and you believe in your duty. It's the same with a civil client. You don't have to believe they're right, but you have to get up there and believe that we resolve disputes through zealous advocates, and believe in being that advocate. You have to believe in your advice as an in-house counsel, or public interest lawyer, or transactional lawyer. Cultivate believing in what you do.

Good luck.

NEXT: The Most Cited Legal Academics 2013-17 (Updated)

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. My advice is not to become a law student or lawyer. There are too many arseholes in the world as it is. Take up something less dishonorable, like grave-robbing.

    1. One could always dip a toe into the under world by becoming a commenter on Reason and/or Volokh Conspiracy. Get a sense of what the future would hold, so to speak.

      1. “Toe Dipping Not Allowed!” signs are prominently posted at the entrances to both Reason and the Volokh Conspiracy. The only ones allowed to write there are those who have already signed a contract with Satan, in their own blood. All it cost them was their soul but based on what they write, their souls were just taking up space anyway so no great loss.

  2. Excellent advice from Popehat – I assume since IANAL. At least his points tie in neatly with my experience in business. For other non lawyers I would summarised his eleven points thus :

    1. Forget about equality of opportunity. It’s just a slogan. Just grasp whatever opportunities you get.
    2. The competent succeed. The incompetent whine about the unfairness of the world. Incessant whining is bad for your health.
    3. Earning a living is not always fun. But failing to earn a living is never fun.
    4. It’s easier to display your competence if you’re articulate. But it’s even easier to display your incompetence if you don’t listen.
    5. Don’t confuse credentials with competence. Your customers won’t.
    6. Do as you would be done by.
    7. Don’t panic
    8. Don’t panic
    9. Competence is highly correlated with thinking.
    10. And sometimes you have to think for minutes on end.
    11. You have to be pretty smart to get away with being a phoney.

  3. I would (sadly) add:
    Grades matter. Grades matter A LOT…especially your first several years out from law school. If your mother has her own small law firm and your goal is to join her, then you can relax. If you are attending a super-elite law school and you KNOW you do not want to practice in a large firm, then you can relax. But for 90+% of law school students (95%? 99%???), you will be asked your grades at just about all large firms, small firms, and governmental agencies. You will be asked about your law school grades 10 years out from law school, if you want to become an FBI agent. Smart ass critiques will want to ask about your grades 20 years out, if you want to become president!

    So, in addition to focusing on all the other things I mentioned in my list…focus on getting good grades.

    1. On that point

      1) if your school has a strong evening program, take those classes. You’re competitors generally already have jobs and/or experience and are mostly there to get their box checked. A’s will be easier to come by

      2) You can often take courses from other graduate programs pass/fail. Most of those will be easier time-wise than a graded law class. Bonus, you’re more likely to learn useful stuff.

      3) make friends with upper classmen – they can give you de facto transcripts of the course (professors are lazy too). Use those transcripts to answer your 1 question/week and get your 10% “class participation” bonus.

  4. Wonder if Rudolph Giuliani thinks much about number 11? From his television appearances, well, doesn’t much seem like it.

    1. Rudy is a fan of Spinal Tap. He has “11” printed on his t-shirts and bras.


  5. 1. All of the serried ranks of books in the law library, contain Reasons for Decision.
    2. Every Decision is the history of a *mistake*. Someone was wrong about how it happened, who caused it or what the words meant.

  6. (Premature expostulation!)
    3. Someone refuses to accept that they were the cause of the mistake and so everyone ends up in a courtroom where the person *who knows the least about what went on* must decide.
    4. Read caselaw so as to learn to recognise the class of mistake: there are underlying classes. Many of the ‘hornbook’ cases of examples of a particular class. The overlying facts are merely the structure which determines the class. The classes are often determined by the relationships between the parties. Parties to a contract are in a relationship which parallels the relationship between a trustee and a beneficiary. Most law school programs seem to go out of their way to obfuscate that parallelism.
    5. About the end of your first month, beg, borrow, download a copy of ‘The Paper Chase’, the 1973 movie about first year law. Although not overtly meant to be a comedy, watch it as a comedy. And when you have watched it, remember that John Houseman won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance in what was effectively his first major acting job. And he had never taught law either! It’s not a real view, although like any parody, it has lots of bits of truth. You will want popcorn, and beer and others from your class!

Please to post comments