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Expand Your Legal Horizons This Summer


Vol. 39 No. 9
ByAmy L. Jarmon

Amy L. Jarmon, assistant dean for academic success programs at of Law, is a professor and coeditor of the Academic Support Blog. She has practiced law in the United Sates and the United Kingdom.
As the summer break approaches, many students are focused solely on finding paid legal employment. Although a line on your résumé and money in your pocket are certainly desirable, do not overlook other ways that you can acquire some legal skills or broaden your understanding of the law, legal system, and legal profession.
Spend time in a courtroom. Many law students have never or rarely observed actual court proceedings. Consequently, they are studying their law courses in a vacuum. Take the opportunity this summer to sit in the public galleries at the courthouses in your local area. Choose a variety of courts to observe across the court hierarchy and subject matters: federal, state, criminal, family, traffic, and more.

Through observation, you will gain knowledge about the daily professional lives of judges and lawyers. You will observe good and bad examples of skills needed in the courtroom. You will see how the legal process impacts peoples’ lives: plaintiffs, victims, defendants, and their families. You may even have the opportunity to network with lawyers and judges once they realize that you are a law student sincerely interested in learning more about our legal system.

Make a difference in your legal community. Participate in pro bono activities available in your area. Your assistance will not only give you new skills, but it also will benefit those who are often the most vulnerable citizens. Contact legal aid and nonprofit legal services to see how you might add value to their work. Consider training as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, mediator, or hotline volunteer. Talk to local bar groups about providing volunteer administrative assistance on committee projects. Volunteer to undertake research for a solo practitioner.

Make a difference in your greater community. Volunteer regularly for a worthy cause in your area. Your time will be invaluable to nonprofits and neighborhood groups. Law students who volunteer can gain compassion, become aware of how privileged they are to attend law school, and sometimes discover a passion that becomes their legal calling. In addition, law student volunteering improves the image of the legal profession as a whole.

Build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Serve meals at a soup kitchen. Walk dogs at an animal shelter. Tutor for an adult literacy program. With each task, consider how the specific clients are affected by larger legal issues: landlord disputes, benefits eligibility, animal cruelty, underemployment.

Become an armchair critic. Movies and television series with legal themes abound. Whether you choose drama or comedy, you can evaluate the offerings for their legal accuracy and perspectives on justice and the profession. Test your knowledge of court procedure, evidence, ethics, and doctrinal law. “Can they really do that legally?” “Is that the correct procedure?” Such questions give you an opportunity to research the law and expand your knowledge.

If you are staying local for the summer, your law school library or public library may have an extensive DVD collection for circulation. An Internet search for “list of legal movies” will garner a number of website sources. Whether you prefer classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men or newer films such as Presumed Innocent and Conviction, you will have a great deal to choose from for your viewing pleasure.

Switch your legal reading from cases and statutes to nonfiction. Autobiographies, biographies, books about famous trials, and legal histories can expand your understanding of the events, lawyers, and judges so instrumental in shaping our legal system. Read volumes on jurisprudence and ethics to expand your depth of knowledge. An Internet search for “list of legal nonfiction” will provide a starting point. Law schools often have suggested reading lists for first-year students. Ask your law librarian for a referral to a bibliography.

Escape with legal fiction. Legal novels and plays provide both entertainment and an opportunity to evaluate the accuracy of the legal details. Choose legal literature from a variety of countries and historical periods. Dickens, Grisham, Kafka, Lee, and Turow are just a few of the well-known authors in legal fiction. An Internet search for “list of legal novels” will provide you with many suggestions for summer reading. Once again, your law library may have a suggested reading list and multiple titles in its collection.

Update yourself on news events and politics. It is easy in the midst of a busy academic year to catch only the headlines and skip most news coverage. During the summer, take time to read several major newspapers online daily. Watch a selection of television commentators with opposite political leanings (even if they make your blood boil) and critique their opinions carefully. Immerse yourself in local, regional, and national news. Analyze whether the popular media is reporting legal coverage accurately or oversimplifying complex legal issues. Watch for law-related stories that build on courses from prior semesters.

Explore a new legal topic. Your law school may not offer courses on a topic that intrigues you or scheduling conflicts may prevent your enrollment. Spend time researching your interest on your own. Read basic legal sources to gain background.

Expand your expertise in a specialty area. You may want to pursue a topic in more depth than prior classes allowed. Perhaps you wrote a paper that could be expanded or taken in a different direction. Investigate whether your paper topic could be developed for a writing competition entry. The American Bar Association regularly lists its law student competitions in this magazine and its eNewsletters.
Local bar associations, law firms, and law schools also sponsor competitions.

Gain a global perspective through travel. Whether you enroll in law school study abroad courses or travel on your own, you want to “trade your American spectacles” for a deeper understanding of the values, perspectives, and culture of the countries you visit. Go beyond mere tourist sightseeing. Develop an understanding of the legal system by observing trials at local courthouses. Follow the political, economic, and legal events in the local media. Consider your travels as your own comparative law seminar and write down your observations.

Gain a global perspective through personal studies. Even if you cannot afford to travel, you can still broaden your horizons by studying another culture. Choose a country that interests you and learn more about it. Read books about the country’s culture, history, and people. Listen to its music. Watch documentaries and movies filmed in that location. Learn about its legal system. What historical, social, and economic trends affected the emergence of the rule of law? Does the country have a civil law or common law system? How is the legal profession organized? What are the current legal tensions and issues?

Study a second language. Bilingual lawyers are highly sought after in today’s legal market. Consider enrolling in language courses at a local college. Teach yourself the conversational basics through a home course.  If you already have familiarity with another language, re-immerse yourself in it for the summer. Add legal terms to your existing vocabulary for the language.

Be creative about expanding your legal horizons. Adding these strategies can increase your legal skills, knowledge, and understanding. Paid employment is not the only option for a productive and fulfilling summer.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.

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