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Elective Directive: Be Selective

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A funny thing happened on the way to Dustin Saiidi’s planned career in intellectual property law. He loaded up on patent and IP electives in law school—and didn’t like them.

“I studied electrical engineering in college and thought I’d like patent law,” says the 2010 University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law grad who now handles personal injury cases in Los Angeles. “It was only after I took those courses that I decided I didn’t want to be a patent attorney.

“I ended up deciding what I wanted to do wasn’t based on the topics but the lifestyles and what you’re required to do every day,” adds Saiidi, author of The 7 Steps to Bar Exam Success. “Patent law is very specific. Every word matters, and it’s technically heavy. I didn’t realize I wouldn’t like that. You’re also dealing with a lot of corporate lawyers, and I thought I’d like corporate law. But I realized the culture wasn’t something I’d want. Now I work for a personal injury firm where we have no billable hours because the work is project based, and we’re not required to show up at 8 a.m. if we’re where we need to be on all our cases.”

Taking courses that will give you an edge in your (so-far) chosen specialty is just one smart way to choose electives. Here, we reveal eight other ways to use your electives wisely. But first, we explain why landing on the right electives is so critical today.

These are serious times Perhaps you’re thinking: “What’s the big deal? They’re electives. I’m entitled to pick whatever I want!”

That’s true to a point. But in today’s competitive marketplace, it may be shortsighted. “More than ever, legal employers don’t have the time or inclination for training,” says Jonathan I. Ezor, assistant professor of law and director of the Institute for Business, Law, and Technology at the Touro Law Center in Central Islip, New York. “Employers want lawyers who can be lawyers at a first-year level right out of law school.”

Keith Lee agrees, invoking the actor Steve Martin’s answer to the question of how to become successful: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

“This is your career, and if you want success, that’s my answer,” explains Lee, founder of the Associate’s Mind blog and the Hamer Law Group in Birmingham, Alabama. “The legal industry is as volatile as it’s ever been,” said Lee. “According to the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, 56 percent of 2012 graduates were employed in jobs requiring bar passage nine months after graduating, and an additional 9.5 percent were employed in jobs for which a law degree is preferred. That’s rough. There’s no getting around it. The profession is too competitive, and you have to differentiate yourself from day one.”

In sum, it’s generally okay to choose an elective for fun. “But it should be strategic fun,” Ezor contends. “If you’re interested in entertainment law, take an IP course, which has more broad applicability. The same is true for sports law because so much of it has to do with licensing revenue and endorsements, and those are IP issues. Or take a course in negotiating and drafting contracts, and if you can choose a subject for an assignment, make it an athlete’s agreement or record company contract. Courses like entertainment or sports law sound [like] and are fun. But I’m not sure they’re career enhancing. Students who don’t have the luxury of a guaranteed position after law school, which are most, need to be more specific when choosing electives.”

Put electives to the test

How can you be thoughtful in choosing how to fill your “free” course time? Here are eight suggestions:

1. Think about your interests.

“My first questions to students asking for advice are, ‘What are you interested in? And what do you like?’” says Aaron Gershonowitz, a partner at Forchelli, Curto, Deegan, Schwartz, Mineo & Terrana in Uniondale, New York, and a coach, advisor, and tutor at www.LawStudentCoach.com. “Students tend to do better with what they’re interested in and things they like.

“Also use electives to test your interests outside your planned specialty,” he adds. “To say, ‘This is the type of practice I want to do’ is really a stretch. Unless you’re from a family of lawyers, most students enter law school not really familiar with the practice.”

2. Bulk up on substantive law.

Russ Ferguson, a 2009 Georgetown University Law Center grad and litigator at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Charlotte, North Carolina, recalls not knowing what type of law he wanted to practice, which made it tricky to pick electives. In hindsight, he wishes he’d taken more courses on substantive law.

“Even if you don’t think it’s going to be helpful, the more substantive law you know, the better,” says Ferguson. “I’ve found many of those have come to fruition in my work, and they can give you hints as you practice. Sometimes, I think of a concept I learned in, say, family law and wonder if it works in my current situation.”

Ferguson’s number-one example is employment law. “I didn’t take it, but I wish I had,” he says. “It seems like a sub-specialty, but it consumes everything. For example, a large amount of litigation is employment litigation. In addition, a chief concern in mergers is employment agreements. And it certainly gives you an edge applying for in-house positions because every company has employment issues. I’ve spent a lot of time ramping up on employment law.”

Bankruptcy is another “wished he had” for Ferguson. “I have no desire to do bankruptcy work, but those issues come up quite a bit, especially in today’s economy,” he says. “I’ve run into creditor agreements and questions of how to get and collect on a judgment. I do wish I’d taken bankruptcy.”

3. Take courses to help you pass the bar exam.

“If students say, ‘I don’t know what I want to do when I get out of law school,’ I recommend they stay, at least in the second year, somewhat general,” says Gershonowitz. “There are a fair number of courses that will show up on every bar exam and are somewhat core courses, like business organizations or real estate. If you find you’re interested in them, you can take additional classes on them in your third year.”

Gershonowitz gives the same advice to students convinced they want to hang their own shingle. “Take the fundamental course in a broad number of areas because they might lead you to other courses that interest you,” he says. “And in your solo practice, you’ll encounter all sorts of issues, like federal jurisdiction and creditors’ rights.”

4. Take courses with broad application or in emerging areas of the law.

“Some courses have universal applicability,” says Ezor. “Classes in negotiating and drafting contracts, for example, will be helpful for transactional and litigation attorneys alike. Similarly, administrative law is a broadly helpful course given how often clients must navigate government bureaucracies.”

Lee agrees. “Most overspecialized electives are more than likely not worth your while,” he explains. “You could take Resolutions to Water Border Boundary Disputes, but guess what? All those resolutions are equitable remedies. If you instead took a course on equitable remedies, you could apply it to any niche you practice in. If you learn a narrow field, it’s a lot harder to reverse engineer that knowledge and apply it to a broader practice.”

Ezor also recommends electives in trending areas, such as digital privacy law. “I also suggest students take at least some international law courses, particularly those involving international trade or IP,” he adds. “Those issues are increasingly relevant for small and larger business clients.”

5. Take clinical courses wherever possible.

“In a clinic, students are acting as attorneys under supervision,” explains Ezor. “In an externship, students are doing real work for an attorney or judge but aren’t [facing clients]. Both are extremely valuable.”

6. Think twice about not-so-legal courses.

Ferguson is wary of courses with broad, vague themes. “They’re more like undergraduate classes, and their title generally ends with ‘and the Law,’” he explains. “They make you think and are fun, but I don’t think they’re going to help you much down the road.”

If you do take one of those courses, stand ready to “sell” it to employers. “If you’re asked about something like Law and Literature, your response shouldn’t be, ‘I really liked the book we read,’” explains Ezor. “A better response would be, ‘What struck me about X novel was how the legal case turned on the quality of the lawyer’s writing. It wasn’t simply a matter of charisma. The lawyer thought about the crafting of words, and that really showed me a lot about the writing skills necessary in the law.’”

7. Consider a strategic conversation starter.

“You must show not only that you’re employable but that you stand out in a crowd, and some electives are useful as conversation starters,” says Ezor. “Even if you’re not interested in entrepreneurship, taking a course on entrepreneurial law might stand out. I teach a lot of cyberlaw classes. That’s a conversation starter if you’re ready with an explanation of how those courses apply to real-world businesses: ‘You took cyberlaw? What was that all about?’ Answer: ‘There were really useful things about forensics that apply to e-discovery and the legal obligations companies face.’”

8. Throw in courses taught by the best professors.

“No matter what they teach, take classes from the most incredible teachers,” advises Ferguson. “You’ll retain a lot more knowledge, and they have this way of creating really good relationships with students. You never know how those relationships will help you. I had a fantastic teacher for Decedents’ Estates. I had no intention of doing that work. But I’d heard he was a great teacher and was looking for something a little more enjoyable for a summer course. I’m still in touch with him and have no qualms getting in touch to ask a question.”

Choosing electives is like playing chess, and different players rely on different strategies for success. Erin Gilmer, a 2008 graduate who’s now an Austin, Texas, solo specializing in health law, says the key is identifying what best suits you.

Gilmer combined conventional wisdom with forging her own path. She took courses in oil and gas law, wills and trusts, family law, and corporations as a foundation for the Texas bar exam, which she said turns out to be unnecessary. She also took all the health law courses she could cram into her schedule. Looking back, Gilmer now recommends trusting your gut.

“Target classes that will be meaningful to you, whether that means areas of the law you’re passionate about or that will help you in practice,” she says. “Follow what you’re meant to do.”

 

Vol. 42 No. 1

 

G.M. Filisko G.M. Filisko is the editor of Student Lawyer Magazine. She earned her law degree in 1998 from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She practiced civil litigation at two large Chicago firms until 2005, when she became a freelance writer and editor.