Ponderings of a Law Professor: Moving from Law School to Law Practice

(Editor’s note:  Professor Mazzie’s June post for the Ms. JD blog remains relevant, as last year’s law graduates make their transitions from school to work, and current students contemplate their future paths.)

[T]housands of law students have graduated from their respective law schools [in May and June].  They will spend this summer studying for bar exams and possibly looking for work.  Most are probably ecstatic that law school is behind them and “real” legal work is ahead.  Perhaps, though, in August when their classmates begin to gear up for classes these graduates will have a moment of feeling left out – a sense of emptiness because for  years their lives have run on an academic calendar that will no longer apply to them.

But what of the transition from law school to law practice?  Many students andscholars alike think that two years of legal education is sufficient.  The adage is that in the first year of law school, they scare you to death; in the second, they work you to death; and in the third, they bore you to death.  By third year, students are itching to get out there and do.  Every law school professor has heard their students complain about how useless their 3L year is.  Many of us try, to little avail, to convince students that there is value to the final year.  There are many others, though, who think that even three years of legal education cannot make lawyers who are ready to practice.  These scholars believe that law school as currently structured scarcely prepares any student to do legal work with any real competency.  According to the Carnegie report in 2007,

Most law schools give only casual attention to teaching students how to use legal thinking in the complexity of actual law practice. Unlike other professional education, most notably medical school, legal education typically pays relatively little attention to direct training in professional practice. The result is to prolong and reinforce the habits of thinking like a student rather than an apprentice practitioner, conveying the impression that lawyers are more like competitive scholars than attorneys engaged with the problems of clients.

Many students these days are fortunate to have had the benefit of clinical experiences and internships to provide them with actual practice experience.  But even then, the quality of such experiences naturally varies, as does the mentoring students receive while engaged in such experiences.  More than ever, it seems that law students must “hit the ground running” after they graduate, yet it is unclear how many are prepared to actually do so.  I can tell you that nothing is as scary as when you get an assignment in practice and suddenly realize these are real people in a real situation involving real money, and you are being asked for your legal assessment of the situation, a situation that feels all the more scary when you recall that you were just sworn into the bar the week before.

While you may have been very successful at being a law student, remember that you are new to law practice and that learning something new takes time.  As well, know that even if you didn’t feel you mastered law school that does not mean you will not master law practice.  What it takes to succeed in law school is only part of what you need to succeed in practice.  And much of what you need in practice, you will end up learning on the job.

Formal mentoring in practice seems a quaint memory.  While some states mandate mentoring programs, most do not.  You may be assigned a mentor in practice, or you may find one through various professional networks.  She may be a great lawyer and a quality person, but there may not be the time or the formal structure in place to make the most of that connection.  Even so, you may want to find your own mentor, someone with whom you connect.  But don’t limit yourself.  Observeall the lawyers with whom you work.  There are as many ways to practice law as there are lawyers who practice. Notice what works – and what doesn’t – and when and for whom.  While connections with experienced women lawyers are crucial for beginning women lawyers, don’t feel that you must limit yourself to observing only women lawyers.  One mentor shares her mentoring advice here. The purpose of having a mentor is to provide you with aid and comfort.  Find someone who gives you these things!

Best wishes to all newly minted lawyers!


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Cess Zyrlyn

    Learning law in school is different from learning it from actual experience but both are equally important. Law school provides the things you need to know to apply in real legal cases. How you apply concepts learned from school, however, needs a lot of experience. This post was helpful. Thanks for the share.

  2. Margo Sutton

    I think it would be really hard to just to jump into practice on your own. It is important to find good mentors who you can bounce ideas off of and questions. Going to court is equally important. Watch the other lawyers during motion sessions; you might soon be arguing a similar one.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.