Vol. 40 No. 9
By G.M. Filisko
G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and freelance writer in Chicago.
How great would it be to ask a practicing lawyer that difficult, maybe even intensely personal, question you have been struggling with and perhaps afraid to actually ask?
Fear no more. Student Lawyer has gathered questions vexing students throughout the country and asked lawyers with a wide range of skills and experience to provide frank, concrete answers. Here, we provide the answers you need to questions that have likely also been nagging at you—and even some questions you did not realize you needed answered.
Questions from 1Ls
Did any courses prove particularly useful as you started practicing?
As you know, law schools receive plenty of criticism for failing to prepare lawyers for law practice, and there are many opportunities for improvement. Having said that, most law schools offer a wide variety of courses, from theoretical to intensely practical, that will prove useful when students start practicing.
In my view, the most important classes you can take are legal research and writing, both basic and advanced. I attended Cornell Law School in Ithaca, New York. At the time, it had an intensive, three-week legal research and writing program over winter break that served me well in subsequent summer positions since I was one of the few associates who could turn in a workmanlike memo without any further editing.
In my own experience now as a hiring lawyer, the greatest failing I have observed with students and new lawyers whom I have interviewed or hired is an inability to analyze both sides of an issue and summarize the findings in a coherent memo or persuasive brief. Mastery of legal analysis and writing skills in law school are critical—both because these tools make you an immediate asset to a law firm and also because they are virtually impossible to spend time on and improve once in practice.
After legal research and writing, I found the skills classes I took, as well as some extracurricular activities, were very helpful not so much when I worked at a firm but when I started my own practice. I took a full year of trial advocacy and skills, where we took depositions, drafted interrogatories, and eventually prepared witnesses for a mock trial. The class gave me confidence on the basics when I had my first trial. Likewise, moot court prepared me to draft briefs and argue (a course on appellate advocacy could do the same).
If I had known better at the time, I would have taken a class on contract or transactional drafting, both of which are skills I never developed very well partly because I never felt I had acquired a solid foundation for them in law school. I did not take accounting, but many of my classmates did. I think an overall understanding of accounting principles can be valuable not just for running your own practice but for assessing damages and the worth of cases.
In addition to skills classes, any hands-on experience you can find—whether it is working in a legal clinic, part time at a small law firm, or clerking for a judge—will help in practice. My two summer-associate positions, one at a small firm and one at a large firm, gave me an opportunity to see court cases and depositions and, most importantly, to know what to expect on the job.
Many of my colleagues believe law schools should offer classes on marketing, trust accounting, business development, starting a law firm, and client relations. Certainly, if you have an opportunity to attend a lecture or two on these subjects, by all means do so. But I question the value of these skills classes, taught out of context—plus, in all truth, they are not that difficult to figure out on the job.
To be honest, none of my substantive law courses were very helpful in practice beyond providing a general understanding of how to read and analyze a case and a general comprehension of legal principles. Perhaps the most useful skills classes are those taught by adjunct professors on cutting-edge topics like e-discovery, social media and the law, employment law trends, and the like, where you learn about timely issues and, presumably, would retain the knowledge for use when you graduate.—Carolyn Elefant
What do you like most about your job? Least?
I started out in the corporate and securities department of a large law firm, but left to start an immigration practice after four years. I liked the large firm and worked with a number of very nice people, but the work wasn’t interesting to me and not fulfilling. In fact, had I not moved out to start an immigration practice, I probably would have gone back to school to pursue a PhD and gone into teaching. As for what I like about my job, here are a few things:
I’m able to provide life-changing help to my clients. There are other areas of law where a win for you means a loss for someone else. But when I win, I’m often helping someone through one of the most arduous legal processes they’ll ever face and achieve their dream of making their home in America.
I love politics and have always been fascinated by the legislative process. In my work, I’ve been able to get involved writing legislation, advocating for pro-immigration policies in Congress, publishing op-ed columns in newspapers, etc.
I love writing and my work is heavily oriented in that direction. I’ve been able to write four books and hundreds of articles and book chapters over the years. And writing has helped to establish me in my field and make my practice more successful.
I get to work with a number of fascinating people in the arts, academia, medicine, sports, and so on.
Immigration is one of the most political areas of law and it’s constantly changing, which keeps my practice interesting.
As with most immigration firms, we bill almost every case on a flat-fee basis rather than on an hourly one. And that has freed us up from the shackles of the billable hour. We’re judged by efficiency and results and clients tend not to argue about their bills because they’re informed from day one what to expect to pay.
There aren’t many downsides, but I can mention a few:
It took me many years before I was at a point where I was making the kind of money that I would have made if I stayed in corporate law. The last few years have actually exceeded what I’d likely be making if I hadn’t moved, but it was definitely a financial sacrifice for a period of time.
I deal on a daily basis with government agencies that are not consistently administering the law and often have examiners who are under-trained. It can be frustrating dealing with a system that is so unpredictable.
I’m in a smaller city with very few immigration law firms. When we’ve had to hire paralegals or attorneys, finding people with experience has been difficult and getting someone to relocate is challenging. So we’ve been reluctant to hire because training can be so time consuming and it’s really tough to predict whether someone will work out well with no history working in the field.
Like many other practices, we’re sensitive to the economy. We’ve been lucky that some of the industries we work in have been insulated from the recession and have even grown in the last few years, but others have cut back on hiring and that’s contributed to a decline in the demand for immigration work.
Though I like this practice because of its political nature, I’ve also been frustrated by the paralysis in Congress that has meant that many parts of the immigration system are still dysfunctional. There are many cases where I just can’t provide solutions to clients despite the fact that there is widespread recognition that repairs to the system are needed.—Greg Siskind
Do you see a bias against people who attend law school later in life?
Simply put, I do not. In fact, I believe the opposite is often true, both at the law school level but, more importantly, once law school is over and new graduates are looking for employment. Students and graduates seeking a career in the law after being in the work sector for an extended period have certain advantages over their fellow students who went directly from high school to college and then law school: real-world experience and “know-how.”
Being a lawyer is not just about learning the law and problem solving. It is about understanding clients’ objectives, both personally and in a business setting. From there, lawyers can develop strategies for addressing those objectives, through a proper legal analysis, but always keeping in mind the clients’ costs, time requirements, and overall business and/or personal strategies. In short, knowing and applying the law, while unbelievably important to any lawyer’s success, is just one component of what a lawyer does. And, candidly, lawyers who have prior experience in the workforce, prior real-life experience, or maturity in terms of life lessons are usually more equipped to immediately grasp the larger picture of what it is to be a lawyer.
In fact, no book, no professor, and no mock trial can actually be a substitute for life experience. Something as simple as learning how to work in an office or learning how to work and interact with other people is, without question, “on-the-job” training. Having that basic “know-how” gives later-in-life students a distinct advantage in many ways over their younger classmates. Indeed, one of the first things a career student (one who has gone straight through) will need to learn is how to work in an office environment. The learning curve for that basic skill can be steep and take a long time. The later-in-life graduates do not share that same struggle and are prepared to work from day one.
In short, yes, later-in-life students can sometimes feel a bit out of place with the younger crowd. But they also have a distinct advantage that most of the straight-through students do not—a little more life in the rear-view mirror. That experience will assist from day one in law school. Professors will often rely on and seek out those students to draw on that knowledge and the student’s established work ethic. Then, when a law firm reviews a résumé from the later-in-life student, it will have immediate confidence the graduate is prepared beyond the scholarly world and ready to add immediate value to the firm and its clients. So go forth and conquer, no matter what time in life you decided to make your way into this honorable profession.—Dax R. Watson
Questions from 2Ls
If you feel in your gut that practicing law (in any capacity—firm, public interest, clerking, in-house, solo practitioner, legislator, etc.) is not what you want to do with your life after a year and a half of law school, you know you regret coming to law school, and you have a small scholarship that only covers about 25 percent of the cost of law school (at a $50,000-per-year school), would you stick with it anyway and graduate or would you cut your losses, quit, and try something else?
As a student, I asked myself similar questions about halfway through my tenure in law school. As a career services dean, I am asked variations of it on a fairly regular basis, and I have always found it necessary to probe further before dispensing advice (while never stating what I thought the student ought to do).
On what basis does the student have this “gut” feeling? Has she worked in a practical legal setting of any sort yet? Has she had an opportunity to speak with attorneys who work in various practice settings about their work—what they enjoy; what they dislike; what the demands, perks, and costs are? How does she “know” she regrets coming to law school? (Is she miserable in her classes? Does she dislike her classmates or professors? Does she see the student-loan debt climbing and sense employment prospects descending?) How strong is her “good idea” concerning her alternative, and would a law degree be potentially helpful or relevant to that pursuit?
I recommend the student quickly acquire as much information as she reasonably can to better inform her ultimate decision. She has invested $56,250 into her studies at this point and another $56,250 hangs on her ultimate decision; so does her career (and life) satisfaction—hefty consequences deserving careful-yet-speedy deliberations.
First, she should seek out a trusted counselor at her law school’s career services office to discuss honestly and thoroughly her dilemma. I recommend she seek:
Information regarding all the different “traditional” practice contexts where law school graduates pursue their careers. The “etc.” cited in the question covers a considerable amount of ground, and there may be settings she’s unaware of or lacks knowledge about that would be a good fit for her interests and personality; those settings may be worthy of exploring through an upcoming part-time internship during the school year and/or a summer position.
Feedback on whether her “something else” might be a career whose short- or long-term pursuit would be aided by the acquisition of a law degree and the direct and ancillary skills it confers.
Contact information of alumni who can provide further insights into the first two issues.
She should follow up with the alumni as soon as possible, perhaps requesting an informational meeting or their courtesy in responding to her question via e-mail, noting that the law school provided their contact information and suggested she contact them. If her contact is limited to e-mail correspondence, she should be as specific as possible (setting out, for instance, what her contemplated “something else” is) to elicit the best, most helpful responses.
In addition, she should locate professionals who are currently engaged in the sort of career to which she’s considering transitioning and solicit their feedback. Family, friends, and her undergraduate alumni office or career services office should be able to provide her with a number of relevant connections. I would duplicate the approach suggested above involving law school alumni.
Finally, I would visit with the appropriate dean within her law school to explore the possibility of taking a leave of absence. It is possible she could test the waters of the nonlegal career she is considering while maintaining the ability to return to law school with her earned credit hours intact. Each law school has rules about taking leaves of absence, as well as the means—and consequences—of returning. And American Bar Association rules mandate that students complete their legal studies within seven years. This possibility merits meticulous evaluation, and I would be inclined to request that the dean state in writing the precise parameters under which she would be granted a leave and return.
I cannot and would not say categorically whether I would stick with law school or quit and pursue another career were I in her shoes. Faced with similar questions, I decided to stick it out and am thrilled I did. Others have not experienced the same happy outcome. Either way, scientia potential est.“Knowledge is power,” as the saying goes, and this student needs to access as much of it as she can as expeditiously as she can. In my view, the strong gut instinct professed should be guided by as much information as possible to increase the likelihood that the decision is sound and results in long-term career satisfaction.—Tim Swensen
I am outgoing and have lots of friends. However, I run into trouble when asked for professional references, and many of my friends cannot help me get a job or help me do my job better. How do I develop professional relationships more effectively?
I knew I wanted to own my own practice while I was in law school, so I did not spend much, if any, time job hunting while there. However, I did get in touch with alumni to find out about their journeys. And since starting my own practice, I have been on the receiving end of students and new lawyers reaching out to me to develop their networks. These are some of the things I have learned.
Start with people who have already said yes. Most schools have a listing of alumni who have signed up to be a contact for students looking to network or talk about their practice. Start with these people since they have already said “yes,” in a sense, to meeting with you. I have never once turned down a student or new lawyer who wanted to meet or talk about my practice area or the job market.
These one-on-one meetings are a good way to learn about what is out there, practice meeting with new people without the pressure of an interview, and get a few names of their colleagues who might be willing to meet with you, too. You can also find out about local networking groups, both legal and nonlegal, that might be good to attend. Sometimes, job or internship leads can come from the meetings, which is always nice for both the student and the attorney.
Get to know your professors. After the first year of large classes, you will probably find yourself in smaller classes that give you a better chance to get to know your professors and that give them the chance to get to know you. If you have to write a paper for these classes or give a presentation, all the better. This type of professor will generally be in a better position to give feedback on your work and provide a professional reference for you as well.
Get a job. As an employer, I generally like to see that someone has work experience of any kind, in addition to good grades and interesting school activities. That shows a person can show up for the job, get along well enough with others, and do the drudgery that comes with most jobs, no matter how exciting they are otherwise. Whether you were a camp counselor, a barista at your local coffee shop, an emergency medical technician, or a bank teller, you developed skills at your jobs that will help you in the future. Do not be afraid to use nonlegal work as a reference. And definitely do some sort of work or internship while in law school.—Leanna Hamill
What is the most effective way to get a job?
Though it is not as easy as it was five or six years ago before the economic downturn, finding a job in the legal market has improved significantly in the past two years.
To land your first job out of law school, you must first decide what type of job you hope to secure. If you plan to join one of the AmLaw 100 firms or work in the public sector, the best strategy is to participate in your law school’s on-campus interview program, which literally brings law firms and government entities right to your door and allow you to learn about and apply for a variety of opportunities. Check with your school to see which firms and public-sector agencies participate in the program.
If the on-campus interview program does not meet your needs (it often benefits only students in the top 10 percent or 20 percent of their class), do not fret. There are many other ways to find your dream job.
One of the first things you need to do is to start networking. Many students think networking translates into being a pest or bothering busy lawyers. The truth is that students who are proactive and network well land great jobs. Do not know where to start? One of the best places to begin is your own school. Reach out to your law school professors and ask for help. They are usually well-connected in the legal community and can direct you to people in specific law firms and industries. Interested in corporate law? Seek advice from your corporations course professor. You may be surprised by professors’ willingness to help. And do not hesitate to arrange informational interviews with firms, companies, and individuals who interest you.
Also ask your career services department about potential internships. There are a wide variety of internships these days, and it is not uncommon to see these morph into full-time positions. Even if your internship does not turn into a full-time job, you are now networked with the lawyers from that internship, many of whom will be happy to help you find a full-time position and can provide references that speak directly to your aptitude.
Be sure to attend your law school’s alumni events. Networking with graduates from your own school is extremely effective since most lawyers love to help junior lawyers from their alma mater.
It is also a good idea to join your local bar association. Students may be able to join for a discounted price, and membership provides entry to a variety of programs, including speaker panels and networking events. The bar association is a great resource for finding potential job leads, meeting other lawyers, and learning more about the legal industry.
It is very important to convey enthusiasm and passion during the job-hunting and networking process. The most common feedback I hear from employers, to explain their rejection of certain candidates, is that the lawyer did not show enough enthusiasm for the job. Lawyers are typically quite passionate about their careers and respond well to others who show the same drive and excitement.
So keep all this in mind, enjoy the process (you will learn a lot along the way), and good luck with your search!—Barbara Kott
I am interested in hearing about an attorney who is married and/or has children and how such an attorney manages work and family at the same time. What are the experiences of an attorney who is married to a non-attorney?
Managing time between career and family is incredibly varied from person to person, even within the same firm because of different personalities and realities within individual families. For that reason, it is almost impossible to provide an answer beyond my own experience.
To find balance between life and career, it is important to have a big-picture view. Life will almost never seem balanced if you are taking snapshots hourly, daily, or even weekly because it is difficult to focus on family and work simultaneously. A lawyer cannot write a motion while volunteering in a classroom and cannot take a deposition while reading a bedtime story. But it is possible to be an excellent attorney and an excellent parent at the same time, if you take certain steps.
Determine how much time you are able to and want to devote to family. There is a different answer for everyone, and no answer is wrong. Some attorneys are the sole- or majority-income provider, and therefore those attorneys may have fewer options to change or reduce their hours. Other attorneys are able to stay home full time but feel they better serve their families by advancing their careers. There is a very wide spectrum of options—from full-time, partnership-track attorney to stay-at-home parent, and everything in between. The key is to figure out what will work best for you, which you may not know until you start your family. For that reason, it is even more important to do whatever possible to plan for options.
I was not sure how I would handle parenthood while working full time at a full-service law firm. My income was the secondary income at the time, and my husband’s career was busier than mine. I was committed to staying full time at least long enough to give it an honest chance, which I did until my oldest child was three years old and my youngest was one year old.
At that point, my husband (a non-lawyer) and I decided that our collective lack of sleep and lack of time for anything other than work was not something we were willing to sustain indefinitely. Because my income was secondary and it was financially feasible, we decided I would resign from the firm (after shifting to a part-time schedule for approximately eight months).
I was hesitant to stop working entirely because I wanted to use the skills I had worked to develop, so I started a freelance legal practice. My hours vary, and I have flexibility to work an average of six hours per day, plus volunteer in classrooms, monitor homework, and cook healthy meals daily, all of which are priorities for me.
Carefully choose your employer, or have other options in mind. We are fortunate to practice law in a time when part-time and flex-time schedules are legitimate options in many large law firms. But every firm is different, and it is important to know what will work for your employer. If there are no part-time or flex-time attorneys in a firm, it will probably be more difficult to set the precedent. But if there are several attorneys with part-time or flex-time schedules in a firm, you not only have an established framework but potential mentors. Be aware that part-time and flex-time arrangements may be more difficult in smaller firms, government positions, or while working for in-house legal departments.
My law firm was receptive to accommodating my requests for flex time and a reduced-hour schedule. When I returned from my first maternity leave, a few proactive partners shifted my caseload to allow me more time at the office and with more possibilities to work from home. When I returned from my second maternity leave, my firm readily accepted my part-time proposal. If my family situation had been different, I am confident a part-time schedule would have worked for at least several years.
As you plan your career, try to plan for different scenarios, and take steps to make them possible by building strong professional relationships.
Build strong professional relationships. Strong relationships with employers, colleagues, and classmates lead to opportunities and career flexibility. If you are responsible, reliable, trustworthy, and do excellent substantive work, your employer will take steps to keep you on board and recommend you to others.—Erin Giglia
Do most lawyers work 50-plus hours per week? I am a hard worker and dedicated to my career. However, it appears that most lawyers struggle to have a life outside of the office.
Do you really have to drive yourself into the ground the first few years of practice to make it?
Working 50-plus hours per week consistently is relatively unusual. However, sometimes you will probably need to burn a little midnight oil. There will be times when you simply cannot get the job done by working a standard 9-to-5 work day, and no responsible professional is going to drop the ball in the middle of a due diligence review for a multibillion-dollar deal or walk out of the office the weekend before a major trial starts.
The practice of law is a competitive undertaking. You will be charged with representing your clients’ interest zealously, and so will the other side. Whether it is a litigation or transactional matter, often there are client-driven, market-based, or competitive time pressures and deadlines that will dictate the amount of time you will need to spend getting the job done. And trust me, you will not do well unless you rise to the occasion and meet the demands imposed by either these factors or the behavior of your opposition.
Moreover, because you will usually be working with a team of other attorneys, you will not want to let your team down. We lawyers are ethically and professionally bound to zealously represent our clients’ interests within the bounds of the law. When you undertake the representation of any matter large or small, the relevant concerns really do not revolve solely around your schedule—your clients’ interests (and the reputation of your firm) will be a priority.
There are significant benefits for putting in a hard day’s work, though. You will experience a great deal of professional pride and a sense of accomplishment for a job well done. This sense of professional development will grow and flourish as your skills become more refined. Indeed, being in law school you have already run and overcome a gauntlet of challenges, so you already have a sense of what success feels like. That sense will grow when you are representing real clients with real matters that have real-world implications. That is why it is called the “practice” of law. Additionally, most of you will be compensated at the market rate for the time commitments you will need to make, which in today’s economy is a relatively handsome sum.
So while you will not need to necessarily “drive yourself into the ground” to make it, you will be involved in a competitive process and will want to develop a reputation as a go-to associate who is typically willing to buck up and pitch in when necessary. In this profession, success breeds success. The more you are perceived to be a “team player,” the more others will want to work with you and seek your services. This will help build a demand for your services within your firm’s internal market. That is, other partners and associates looking to build a team will want you on it. For associates, it is crucial to develop this internal demand because it will help you build the foundation for your career and reputation.
That being said, there is truth in the old adage “work hard, play hard.” I always tell our associates to manage their “triangle of life.” That is, they should try to achieve a balance between work, rest, and play. There will be times when the work leg of this equation predominates. But when those pressures are over, take time to recharge. Go on a ski trip. Go read a book by the beach. Spend time with your family. Or just relax for a while. In the 29 years I have been practicing law, I have never heard of a firm that does not recognize the need to let its associates relax and recharge after going through a long, hard slough.
At our firm, one of the things we look for during the recruiting process is students who are both smart and willing to work hard to satisfy our clients’ challenging and unpredictable needs. However, we also recognize that to be a happy and productive lawyer, you need to have things in your life outside work. Whether it is friends, family, education, hobbies, or all of the above, there is no reason a lawyer cannot have a healthy, thriving existence outside of the office while providing high-quality service to our clients.
In fact, there is every reason they should. Having interests and responsibilities outside the office make you a better-rounded individual, and that is something we value. Our lawyers spend many hours outside the office on things they are passionate about, including but not limited to pro bono or community service projects, research and article writing, nonprofit board memberships, and sporting endeavors. While all those activities help make our lawyers’ lives more fulfilling, they also make us a more diverse workforce that is better able to satisfy the needs and demands of our very diverse client base.
While the practice of law may make it difficult to enroll in a class that meets at 6 p.m. every Thursday for six months, it does provide the flexibility to be outside the office when things come up—even during the middle of the work day—as long as your work is ultimately getting done.
During a recent visit to the University of Chicago (where he once taught), Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stressed the importance of work-life balance in the legal profession, urging students to find a practice that “enables a human existence” and allows for “time to attend to your other responsibilities, to your family, to your church or synagogue, to your community. All of those are real responsibilities,” he said. Indeed, Justice Scalia recounted his own experience as a young lawyer at Jones Day in Cleveland, “where he never felt pressure to work every weekend.”
Although I cannot speak for other firms, none of our associates (junior or senior) are evaluated exclusively on the number of hours they work. In fact, corporate clients are becoming increasingly sensitive to billing concerns. If you want to ensure your success as a lawyer, ask yourself whether you are succeeding in meeting your clients’ needs. As a partner or a senior associate, your client is likely the actual client that is paying for your law firm’s services. As a new associate, your client may be the senior associate or partner for whom you are working. Regardless of whom your client is, the best way to become a valuable and indispensible part of your organization is to make sure your client is happy. It is not about the number of hours you spend in the office. Rather, it is about the quality of work you do while there. Make sure you are providing the best services you can possibly provide. Sometimes that may mean a very long day or a weekend in the office. Other times, however, that means a reasonable day followed by dinner with your family or friends.
We are very proud of our efforts to enable lawyers and staff to balance their professional and personal lives; those efforts help us retain the excellent people we recruit and develop. For instance, our firm was one of the first large firms in the country to offer a part-time policy. We believe exceptional client service is measured not by the number of hours worked but by attention to the client’s needs. Our “one firm” culture, in which every client is a client of the firm rather than of individual lawyers, as well as our method of staffing matters to meet a client’s particular needs, results in a collaborative approach that supports lawyers’ working reduced hours.—Kevyn Orr
Was there anything you wished you would have done differently in law school that you did not realize until you started to practice?
I went to law school about five years after I graduated from college, so I had been out in the work force for some time. I had a full-time job at a health insurance company and went to law school at night. There are a couple of things I wish I had done differently, and a couple of things I am glad I did.
I wish I had worked at a law firm, even for a semester. It is very difficult to go from a full-time, salaried job to a low-paying law clerk job. But I wish I had, even for a short time. Since I opened my own practice fairly soon after being admitted to the bar, it would have been nice to get some experience on the business/practical side of things. Even things as simple as how to set up a client file, the best way to bill, and how to delegate work to employees would have been nice to learn in advance instead of on the fly.
I wish I had dealt with my discomfort over talking to people about, and asking them for, money. It was very uncomfortable when I first opened my practice to talk to clients about money and ask them write me a rather large check. I had read Jay Foonberg’s book, How to Start and Build a Law Practice, which had great tips on dealing with this aspect of practice. However, I wish I had worked with a money coach (or even done role playing with friends) to get over my discomfort of saying, “The retainer in this matter is X, and I cannot start work without it.” If you do nothing else, practice saying this until it feels like second nature.
I am glad I did not buy commercial outlines until after the first semester. I am glad I struggled through the arcane language of the cases to figure out the procedural history and facts and had to spot the issues on my own. Yes, I probably would have had more sleep and less quiet crying in my cubicle at work, but training my brain to figure those things out was a definite benefit later on. After my first-semester grades came in, I was satisfied my case-reading skills were fine, and I bought some commercial outlines to help me. When I read cases now, there are no commercial outlines, and I do just fine without them.
I am glad I did not compare my study habits to those of my friends. I have always been a solitary studier. When it came time to study for the bar exam, I kept up my habits but was hearing from friends who were at the law school library with a study group from open to close. I wondered if my 10 a.m.–4 p.m. schedule at my local library was going to cause me to fail the bar, so I ventured down to the law library one day. I found that those people may have been “at the library” all day, but they were certainly not studying all day. I realized the study skills that got me through law school would get me through the bar and returned to my own habits I knew worked for me.
The same thing applies to my practice. My office is open only four days a week, and I do not see clients in the evenings or on weekends. My schedule may not look like everyone else’s, but it works for me and my clients. Find what works for you, and do not be afraid to stick with it, even if it is not what everyone else is doing.—Leanna Hamill
Questions from 3Ls
I have been working at a small firm since June and would love to stay here and become an associate after taking the bar. The partners seem to be pleased with my work. When and how do I ask whether I will be hired? Should I also ask the firm to pick up the tab for my bar-study program?
Be proactive. The sooner you speak with the managing attorney (or partner in charge of hiring), the better! The job market for first-year associates can be competitive, so if things do not work out with this firm, you want to have as much time as possible to send out your resume and secure your first full-time position elsewhere. Also, assertiveness, confidence, and the ability to express your goals are important qualities for employers hiring young associates. So use this as an opportunity to showcase those attributes to this firm by taking the bull by the horns and outwardly expressing your interest in a full-time position.
To approach the subject of your potential employment, tell the managing attorney that you would like to schedule a meeting to discuss your future with the firm, and schedule the meeting for a week or two after you have this conversation. Setting the meeting for a date in the future will give the partners some time to determine their staffing needs as they relate to you, if they have not already. When you have your meeting, just be honest. Tell the partner how much you enjoy working for the firm and that you would like to become a full-time attorney there. And be sure to highlight all the invaluable skills you have acquired while working for the firm.
If the firm is unable to offer you a full-time position, all is not lost. Ask whether any of the firm’s attorneys have contacts at other firms to whom they can reach out on your behalf. Also be sure to ask the partners to serve as references on your behalf—a glowing reference can go a long way. You may also want to consider offering to work for the firm on a part-time basis with the understanding that you will be looking for full-time employment with other firms.
With respect to asking the firm to pay your fees related to your bar preparation course, many employers do pay for such expenses. It would be best to ask your colleagues at the firm about the firm’s past practices with other law students. If you are the first 3L to be offered a full-time position, there is nothing wrong with asking the managing attorney about the firm’s procedure for the payment of expenses related to bar study.
It seems you have positioned yourself well at this firm. I hope your hard work will serve to land you your first job as an attorney with them. Good luck!––Jaimee L. Nardiello
How do you find what kind of law you want to practice?
That’s a tough question. Some people come to law school and a particular class, like tax, or an activity, like moot court, excites them enough to take them in the direction of tax law or appellate practice. Others come to law school with a passion like First Amendment work, securities law, or criminal defense and follow a path that takes them there. Still others are very strategic about their practice choices. I have known some lawyers who choose to focus on trusts and estates matters because it was a less popular area and would provide a clearer track to partnership.
But honestly, I have found that many people, including those who are highly successful in their respective practice areas, quite simply fell into them almost by default. One of my law school friends had always assumed she would be a litigator but had a poor experience at the firms where she practiced. She went in-house at an insurance defense company and now handles coverage issues, which she enjoys and is really good at. Other friends who wanted to litigate did so and wound up in a practice area like construction law because they wanted to work with a particular partner or handling intellectual property because they experienced early success with those cases.
In my own situation, I vaguely wanted to handle litigation and appeals of environmental issues. I did not want to return to the large firm where I had worked during my second-year summer and decided to look for government jobs in Washington, D.C. But by that time, most of the plum positions at the US Department of Justice or the US Environmental Protection Agency were taken. So I wound up at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission working on hydroelectric matters.
I was OK with my practice area but had intended to delve into other areas when I started my firm. Yet I found it too hard to give up the revenue from energy law. However, at that point, the energy practice area changed, morphing from staid, dull regulation to exciting emerging renewables and the challenges of helping start-up companies deal with regulation. Even now, the practice area continues to change and has led me into dealing with social media issues and privacy in regulated industry.
What I am saying with this roundabout answer is that there is not necessarily any way to find a practice area. Assess your skills, what you are good at, and how you can stand out. Look at lawyer blogs and see which areas seem interesting. Then reach out to those lawyers and ask them about the pros and cons of what they do. Follow legal news to learn about cases that seem interesting. Make a best guess based on all of that, realizing that: The practice area you initially choose is not likely to be the one where you will wind up, and even more importantly, with the world changing so quickly, that the practice area you might eventually choose does not even exist yet.—Carolyn Elefant
What are the best ways to practice criminal defense? Is it possible to do it without working as a prosecutor first? What is the best way to get into a specialty of criminal law, such as white-collar or drug and narcotics defense?
While the criminal subject matter of the questions asked seems to focus on “actual practice,” the first question provides an opportunity to expound on my thoughts about a criminal defense practice and criminal defense practitioners.
My everyday experience in courtrooms causes me to be regularly reminded that lawyers must never lose sight of the fact that they are licensed professionals. They are by virtue of their license and profession expected to be “better” than others. I do not mean better in an elitist way; I mean we have to excel so as to justify our claim to the title “professional.” The Canons of Ethics and Rules of Professional Responsibility require that representation of those criminally investigated or accused require dedication to the best interest of the client, complete investigation of the facts for both prosecution and defense, meaningful consultation with the client, real research—not just headnote reading—and the keeping of confidences. When done well, this is representation by a professional.
Having done nothing but criminal defense work for 40 years, I can attest to the fact that you do not need to be a prosecutor first. I have never been, and several of my close friends and colleagues in the defense bar have never served as prosecutors. The real question is how you are first able to jump into the water. Few firms are looking for criminal defense expertise in their hiring decisions. The most likely initial venues are prosecutors’ and defenders’ offices.
Solo or small-firm defense practices can be very expensive from an overhead perspective. The benefit of government-supported entities as first stops on the road is that you can eat while developing your expertise. Unfortunately, however, both prosecutors’ and defenders’ offices are experiencing severe budget shortfalls, and the immediate future does not suggest either will receive large infusions of economic help. Nevertheless, a criminal defense practice remains, I think, an arena filled with satisfaction.
Specialization is a luxury few criminal defense lawyers experience. Aside from large-firm white collar litigation teams, a criminal defense practice generally requires a willingness to be involved in a wide range of cases. White-collar criminal defense is not a starting point; it is a specialty dependent upon broad experience, trial experience, and, most importantly, the ability to develop a clientele. A CEO generally speaking meets his or her criminal defense lawyer through a referral process dependent on the CEO’s business-lawyer advisors. CEOs are not surfing the web to find their lawyers. Consequently, I would suggest developing your skills, staying the course, and hoping a big firm spots you.
Controlled-substance violations account for a significant percentage of all cases prosecuted. This expands your ability to be involved in the defense of these cases. In the jurisdictions where I practice, controlled-substance violations are so plentiful that public defenders, lawyers who contract with the public defender’s office, and the private bar have more than enough cases to keep them occupied. Do not, however, let this accessibility cause you to treat any case as ordinary. In every prosecution, there is some detail that can be used to vindicate your client or distinguish your client from the pack.—Dennis Coffey
I would like to know successful recent lawyers’ bar study tips. How do you balance this level of study with a full-time job, family, and other necessities of life?
Most bar exam takers study harder for the bar exam than they have ever studied for anything in their lives. While there is no one quick secret to success on the bar exam, organization, preparedness, and dedication will go a long way to helping you pass. A successful bar exam taker will devote most of the day to preparing for the exam, both by taking a bar prep course and studying independently. Scheduling time for each activity throughout your day is vital to staying organized and on track.
Many test takers have responsibilities that do not disappear just because they happen to be studying for the bar exam. During this time, do not be afraid to ask for help. It will be a tremendous relief to delegate responsibilities to others whenever possible, and family and friends will be glad to do what they can to help contribute to your success. When the responsibilities simply cannot be delegated, be sure to budget your time accordingly so that your obligations fit into your daily schedule along with everything else you need to accomplish.
While it is not realistic for everyone, if you can manage to take a leave of absence from your job while studying for the bar exam, you should. If your job is in the legal field, most employers are very understanding of the need to take time off to study. If you have no choice but to work, schedule your time very carefully to ensure that you are spending the necessary time studying and resting.
Whether you are employed or not, be prepared to forgo having an active social life during this time. This is not to say that you should become a bar exam shut-in, but anything you do should be in moderation (very strict moderation). A good way to manage your social calendar is to identify upcoming events and limit your activities to those events that are truly a priority to you. If you properly schedule your time for studying and other obligations, you will know which social activities you have time for. It will benefit you to be up front with your family and friends about what to expect from you while you are studying. If they know from the outset that you will be relatively unavailable for the next few months, they are more likely to be understanding.
It is also really important that you schedule time for yourself. Whether you take an hour to hit the gym, read the newspaper, or catch your favorite television show, do something to take your mind off studying—at least for a little while. Good luck on the bar exam!—Jaimee L. Nardiello
Most of law school focuses on the law and law theory. However, a lawyer’s practical duties (e.g., writing a complaint, client intake interviews, etc.) seem absent in law school. Are young lawyers supposed to learn these skills on the job?
In this ever-competitive legal market, incoming lawyers must be increasingly prepared to tackle the practical aspects of the legal profession from the word go.
Unfortunately, law schools do not yet do an adequate job of teaching law students the practical aspects of the profession. That is not to say that legal theory and the critical thinking that accompanies its teaching are not important to the practice of law. Critical thinking is vital to the profession. Still, more must be done by law schools to empower the next generations of lawyers to immediately grasp and succeed at the practice of law.
For law students who want to gain practical experience with the law, there are a number of opportunities. First, budding lawyers should take a clinical course in trial advocacy, business transaction, or some other arena. Once in that course, do everything the clinical professor advises you to do—and then some. Also sign up for any and all writing or moot court competitions and in the course of those processes, seek out professional mentoring. Use those competitions as the chance to connect with and be mentored by practicing lawyers, and be open to their constructive criticism of your writing, advocacy, and overall strategy.
Most importantly, seek out employment or internship opportunities during both your first- and second-year summers that will expose you to the practice of law. It is a mistake to take your 1L summer off, especially in this legal market. Instead, take advantage of that first summer in law school to extend your learning to the courtroom or boardroom, even if on an unpaid basis. If played correctly, a first-year job or internship will not only give you invaluable practical experience, but it also greatly increases your odds of landing paid work during your 2L summer and after law school.
Also look for opportunities to work during the school year. Your goal should be to find a job that will allow for professional mentoring, especially in the arena of legal research and writing. It is less likely that a job during the school year will allow you courtroom or deposition experience, or significant transactional exposure, but those opportunities should not be ruled out.
While you should not feel pressured to identify a specialty in law school, doing so and in turn pursuing academic and job opportunities that dovetail with that specialty may not be a bad idea. I went to the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law in Tucson to study Indian law. In addition, I wrote my journal note about an Indian law topic and did a congressional internship focusing on federal Indian policy. By the time I graduated, my résumé made it abundantly clear that I was going to practice Indian law. I believe employers looked favorably on the passion for Indian law that was obvious from my résumé and experience.
By the time law students graduate, they should have at least three or four, if not more, employment listings on their résumé that convey that they have excelled at the opportunities provided by law school. Accompanied by three or four solid references, and of course academic credentials as well, they are likely ready to tackle the profession’s challenges—or at least are people I would consider hiring.
If, after law school and bar admission, you are still without work—which I appreciate is too common these days—consider doing volunteer or pro bono work to gain practical experience as a lawyer. Seek out opportunities working in the public or private sector that will expose you to the “real world” practice of law. Nonprofits and government agencies are especially ripe for such opportunities, and if you do well, you could very well turn those into paying jobs.
All that said, there is no substitute for on-the-job training, and most practical experience will come only with that experience, if not through trial and error. Law students and new lawyers should not feel frustrated that they do not understand the practicalities of the profession right out of law school. But the more practical understanding new lawyers have as they enter the profession, the better off they will be.—Gabriel “Gabe” Galanda
Being a law student gets hard; sometimes I just want to give up and go home. Do you have any advice for times like these?
Being in law school can be overwhelming at times. So is the practice of law. Thus, learning how to deal with it now will benefit you later. Rather than giving up, look at it as an opportunity to learn yet another skill you will need to be a successful lawyer—it is not just about the case law and the rules of procedure.
When you start feeling this way, take a step back and think about what it is that is causing you to feel this way. Often, what stresses us out the most is the uncertainty of what has to get done. We all walk around trying to remember to do this or that. What I do when I feel like I have too much to do and too little time to do it is make lists of what has to be done, what should be done and what I want done. I then establish deadlines for each. That allows me to see what must be tackled first, what comes next, and what can wait. I check this list daily to keep myself on track.
You can do the same in law school. Step away for a moment and think about what is causing you to feel like giving up. I suspect that if you really look at what is bothering you and break it down into discreet, manageable tasks, you will be able to deal with it all. Plus, you will get the satisfaction of completing a discreet task, which gives you the motivation to tackle more.
Another coping mechanism is to make sure you have other things in your life besides law school. I know it is hard to imagine anything but law school, but you really need to have other interests—cooking, working out, reading, volunteering, etc. We all need something that takes us away from those things we must do—we all need things we want to do.
I, for example, compete in triathlons. My training gives me an escape from the daily grind. I cannot answer my phone or respond to e-mails when I am training, and it gives me a chance to recharge. Find something you like to do and do it. Even 30 minutes a day will make a huge difference. Give yourself the freedom to do something other than study. I guarantee you will be more effective after you have allowed yourself a break from class work.
Finally, keep in mind that this, too, shall pass. You are a 2L. You have one year left. Keep your eye on the prize. You have worked too hard to quit now. You are almost there!—Jamie Billotte Moses
How do you work hard and find time to spend with your family?
I remember that as a law student, I juggled my time with family, friends, and law school commitments very similarly to the way I do it today—by being purposeful in planning.
During my second year, I commuted approximately 1.5 hours to school daily and maintained a clerkship with a local firm. Though at the time my husband and I did not have a child, I was a newlywed with all the challenges of adjusting to sharing space and a life with someone. Yet I remained committed to my involvement in church and fun with friends and family. Everyone in my life knew the time commitment involved for school, so many were understanding of my efforts. Therefore, it is important to organize your team so everyone is aware of the expectations and rigors of law school.
I recall spending most of my Saturdays preparing for class and reading my class assignments a week in advance. Because I often needed to read the assignments twice, I would review my assignments and notes the night before class. I committed Saturday night and Sundays for family time. During those tough days, my best advice came from my daddy: “Keep the main thing, the main thing.” Establishing priorities is the key to success in law school and the profession, but most importantly to family. You must find your balance and the schedule that works best for your life—and simply stick to it! And, yes, write it down so you will be reminded to stick to it!
I am very committed to work, but most importantly I am committed to my faith and my family. My greatest satisfaction is picking up my four-year-old daughter, Amari, after a very hectic day and experiencing her excitement to see me. I will not say I have achieved the best balance, but as with every effort involving the law, it must be purposeful. Thus, I am purposeful in planning my time. Most of my day is spent managing my firm and my personal life, so I often list my personal commitments on my calendar as well. I am very strictly dedicated to the time designated for Amari, and not much interferes with that time.
I am an avid list person, so I chart my day and week on a legal pad to accomplish tasks. I figure if I can calendar a judge in my schedule and spend time solving others’ problems all day, I most certainly can ensure that my time with my family is protected. So I attend nearly all school events for my daughter, and we are the weekend traveling cheerleaders for my nieces, who are gymnasts.
In the quest to obtain fortune, to draft the best brief, to make the best argument, and so on, keep in mind that at the end of the day, some people may remember who you are. But your family will always know your character and invariably love you regardless.—Amanda Green Alexander
Is it worth it?
In an uncertain economy, and with the overwhelming sacrifice of time and money necessary to attend law school, it is natural to ask if it is worth it. In fact, I opted to take a one-year leave of absence from law school after my first year. Though my grades were satisfactory, I wanted to really consider the “is this really worth it?” question. After a brief sabbatical, I returned with a commitment to finish law school and become a lawyer.
Thus, I would say it has been worth it. I cannot imagine doing anything other than working in the legal profession. I recall my days as a law student, the struggles to simply find the time to breathe and keep up in class—with the dreaded final exam that would determine my grade for the semester looming in the distance.
But I also remember forging relationships with my classmates that have been pivotal to my career and personal life. In fact, my law partner and I became the best of friends. After combing through hours of civil procedure and trying to figure out the Erie doctrine, the rule of perpetuity, and fraudulent transfers, you will naturally develop a kinship in the struggles. Together we have a great law practice that focuses on many areas of law. But fortunately, none of those concepts have emerged—and I pray they never will! Of course, the greatest thing about post law school is that you can always call your former law professors and ask a specific question about your issues, and they will help you figure them out.
I remember the hardship I experienced trying to find a job post graduation. I opted to keep those numerous rejection letters, as they have reminded me of my triumphs in the profession. Many of those prospective employers now serve on committees with me that I often chair. I think to myself, “I am very glad you did not hire me; it taught me a lesson in overcoming hardship.” Of course, at the time, I did not view that as a lesson. But life is a gentle teacher, and once you “get it (the lesson),” you have it!
Many students will seek to become solo practitioners due to market stresses. For those students, my best advice is to find a mentor or someone who practices in the area in which you are interested and broker a deal whereby you can exchange office space for working on the mentor’s projects at a reduced rate. This will build your clientele, and when the mentor receives a major project, you will be the first to be considered to be hired on a contract or permanent basis. In this market, it will be a great deal for both of you. Besides, you will have an opportunity to ask questions, learn from a great mentor, bounce ideas off someone, and still have a meeting space for your clients.
Additionally, I would encourage students to take advantage of all the free professional memberships available and attend the related networking luncheons and membership meetings. The general nature of people is to help those they know. So if you establish relationships, people will remember you when an employment opportunity becomes available.—Amanda Green Alexander
I see a lot of people getting engaged and then married during law school. As a woman, is it a good idea to get married and start a family before your career has been established?
It is a good idea to get married during law school if that is what works for you. Do not put your life on hold for the sake of a career. Make your life, your relationships, and your family first, and the rest will fall into place. But remember that to have the most career options, you will have to spend at least several years working full time to learn how to practice law.—Erin Giglia
Is it realistic to hang a shingle? I am hearing a lot of my fellow students talk about hanging a shingle. This terrifies me because it seems I would need two things I do not currently have: money and the ability to actually practice law. I have had significant success in law school in terms of grades and extra-curricular activities, have clerked for a prestigious firm, and am currently learning actual practitioner skills in clinic. Am I just being a coward? Can a person who has family responsibilities (single mother, actually), very little cash, and at best a shaky grip on real-world skills open her own firm and be successful?
I can speak as a lawyer who started my practice 18 years ago with little in the way of savings, a social worker spouse, and no ready clientele. It is scary, but with good planning and mentoring, it can be done.
I was actually a graduate of a top law school and working at an excellent firm. But I wanted to practice immigration law in a small city where there were no jobs available in the field. I realized that if I wanted to practice immigration law, it would have to be on my own. I think the key for me was keeping my costs down and sticking to a plan to develop a particular niche practice (physician immigration law) that was in short supply nationally as opposed to competing for the same types of cases many other lawyers are seeking.
There are a lot of resources available for new solo lawyers. Jay Foonberg’s classic How to Start and Build a Law Practice, published by the ABA, is a must read. It helped me enormously. The ABA’s Law Practice Management Section has a wealth of resources as well, including books, seminars, and articles on finance, management, and technology.—Greg Siskind
Amanda Green Alexander is a share-holder of Alexander & Watson PA in Jackson, Mississippi. She represents self-insured employers and insurance companies in workers’ compensation and labor and employment cases. She serves as an adjunct professor at Jackson State University in the School of Public Health and is a graduate of Mississippi College School of Law.
Dennis Coffey practices at Mawicke & Goisman SC in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and concentrates his practice on the defense of criminal cases. Coffey has used his extensive trial experience to help individuals and business entities with complex criminal and civil matters before state and federal agencies and courts at all levels.
Carolyn Elefant operates the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Washington, D.C., where she focuses on energy issues, emerging renewables, social media in regulated industries, eminent domain, and appeals. Elefant is the author of MyShingle.com, the longest-running blog on solo and small-firm practice, and Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be.
Gabriel “Gabe” Galanda is a partner in the Seattle office of Galanda Broadman PLLC. Galanda handles all varieties of litigation, controversy, and transaction for tribal governments, businesses, or members. Galanda is an enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Mendocino County, California.
Erin Giglia is an owner of Montage Legal Group, a network of freelance attorneys in Irvine, California. Giglia graduated with honors from Wellesley College and the University of San Diego School of Law in California. She has been practicing law in Orange County, California, since 2001 and is currently of counsel with Hewitt Wolensky LLP.
Leanna Hamill owns an estate planning and elder law practice in Hingham, Massachusetts. She is also the director of the www.wanss.org, an educational and networking group for solo and small firm attorneys.
Barbara Kott is a managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa, a global legal search firm. Prior to joining MLA, Kott was an associate with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Palo Alto and San Francisco, California.
Jamie Billotte Moses is a shareholder at Fisher, Rushmer in Orlando, Florida. She practices appellate law and professional liability defense. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles and Notre Dame Law School.
Jaimee L. Nardiello is an associate principal with Zetlin & De Chiara LLP, a boutique construction law firm in New York City. Nardiello is also coauthor of The Bar Exam Survival Guide and was named a 2011 New York Rising Star by Super Lawyers Magazine.
Kevyn Orr is the firmwide hiring and diversity partner at Jones Day in Washington, D.C. He has practiced in the areas of business restructuring, financial institution regulation, and commercial litigation since his graduation from The University of Michigan Law School in 1984. He has handled all aspects of complex and precedent-setting matters and successfully tried numerous jury trials to verdict.
Greg Siskind is the founder of Siskind Susser in Memphis, Tennessee, one of the largest immigration practices in the country. Siskind was ranked the sixth-best immigration lawyer in the world in the ABA International Section’s Who’s Who in Corporate Immigration Law. He is the co-author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet.
Tim Swensen is assistant dean and director of the career services office at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio. Prior to his tenure there, he practiced commercial litigation in Kansas City, Missouri, for Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin (now Husch Blackwell Sanders).
Dax R. Watson is an owner and partner in Mack Drucker & Watson, a professional liability defense firm in Phoenix, Arizona. Watson is a 1999 graduate of Arizona State University—Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in Tempe, Arizona.