Are you making choices that will keep you competitive in the job market? Legal employers are calling for “practice-ready” graduates who can hit the ground running when it comes to performing on the job. The economics of practice disfavor past-used training structures where new attorneys tagged along to depositions, meetings, and court proceedings at a client’s expense. Clients no longer are inclined to pay for your training, and law firms aren’t excited to absorb the cost either. In government and public-interest sectors, hiring hasn’t kept pace with workload, so again, side-by-side training is minimized. Today’s preferred candidates are already on their way to being practice savvy.
Practical experience is irreplaceable, so be open-minded about opportunities. Don’t perseverate on perfect fit when considering the options immediately before you. Think globally in terms of your career. Courtroom confidence and poise are traits learned equally well in criminal and civil contexts, so the fact the externship is with the DA doesn’t preclude you from a future of civil trials.
Dismissing chances for skill development because the opportunity isn’t on-point with your right-now career goals is shortsighted and can stunt your professional growth. You really can’t know how your career will unfold. Veteran lawyers more often than not when talking about the trajectory of their careers reflect on how a decision early on to take a risk or pursue an opportunity they hadn’t before considered paved the way to a career that was hugely satisfying.
Your learning is in your control. Put yourself a step closer to being practice ready at graduation by gorging on curricular and training opportunities that equip you with skills.
Course selection. Enroll in courses with practical skills components. Advanced writing and research classes, contract drafting workshops, and pretrial and trial practice courses are great examples of classes that simulate practice through hands-on assignments. Negotiation and mediation workshops cultivate skills that invade nearly every corner of the profession.
In many instances these classes are instructed by adjunct professors. The residual benefits of having a teacher who still practices are many. Often class discussions encourage you to think about laws in the context of client objectives and outcomes and assignments are given with an emphasis on the present state of laws and procedures. “Best practices” are (hopefully) modeled and a conduit to a lawyer who knows you and your work is established.
Additional options for curricular choices that move you closer to being prepared to practice include courses that expose you to advanced civil and criminal procedures, evidentiary rules, and administrative law processes.
Legal clinics. Take advantage of volunteer opportunities at legal clinics run through your law schools, bar associations, and legal-service providers. These experiences usually offer what courses and many firm jobs don’t: meaningful client contact. Sitting across from and listening to clients, culling legally significant facts from stories, and problem-solving in the moment are terrific skills you can cultivate when volunteering. In most, you will work shoulder-to-shoulder with practicing attorneys, which is also a perk. You get to learn from their interactions with clients by observing communication styles, and you potentially gain a mentor and new networking contact—a win-win on every front.
Part-time legal work. Don’t limit your training to summer jobs. Many small firms and companies hire students for work during academic semesters. It’s with these employers that you can really muddy your hands in practice. Students commonly report back that they are managing early stages of litigation, drafting briefs that are filed without layers of lawyers editing their work, and drafting and editing policies and documents for execution. You don’t work these positions expecting a full-time offer as you might with a large law firm. You work them because there’s little insulation between you, the clients, and the courts. The learning opportunities are tremendous, and you may discover your interests are broader than expected.
Even if you have a summer set up with BigLaw or return to your third year with an offer in hand, don’t discount the value of continued training through a part-time job. Working throughout the academic term poises you to be the standout future associate.
Clinical placements and externships. In reaction to employers’ calls for practice-ready graduates, law schools are promoting law-in-action clinical placements and externships. Take advantage! Again, don’t focus on how or whether the specific placement intersects precisely with your interests. Transferring skills from practice areas and settings is easy, but you need to obtain the skills first. You’d be challenged to find any lawyer—transactional or litigation focused—who wouldn’t acknowledge the value of a semester spent in chambers with a trial or appellate court.
Some states grant provisional licenses to students that permit them to practice before the courts while placed in an externship. Seek out these placements if available. Clinical supervisors tend to be way more forgiving of early errors than actual employers, so arguing your first motion in court when the goal is for you to learn is ideal.
Worries about whether an employer will question your sincerity for business law if you spend too much time volunteering and enrolled in externships with nonprofit and government entities are misplaced. You can use elective courses, continuing-education seminars and conferences, and journal and blog publications to promote and substantiate your primary interests to future employers.
Extracurriculars. Law school is loaded with obligations that compete for your time. It’s easy to dismiss some of the skill-focused extracurricular activities, but you shouldn’t. Law review and moot court aren’t the only worthwhile activities. There are other chances to develop skills outside of these exclusive clubs. Look to your school’s other journals and publications in order to refine writing, editing, and citation skills. Join mock trial teams. Be active on a client skills board if your school offers the chance. The point is that you need to be a doer even when you’re short on time. One skill that every employer values in candidates is time management. A great way to evidence your penchant for keeping the proverbial balls in the air is to actually do so throughout law school.
The responsibility of law schools to prepare students for day-to-day practice through significant shifts in pedagogical approaches and curriculum is being debated. Regardless of your opinion on the state of legal education, the here-and-now reality is that employers favor hiring students who can demonstrate efficiencies in core skill areas. It’s in your best interest to execute a plan throughout your law school tenure that exposes you to practice and clients as much as possible.
The ABA Law Student Division offers many practical education opportunities. Visit abaforlawstudents.com for more information.
By Erin Binns
Erin Binns is director of career planning at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee.