The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


"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.