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Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know

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Remember that scene in “Jerry Maguire,” at the beginning, where he’s frantically typing his “mission statement,” and words and ideas that he didn’t know he even had just came pouring out of him? Well, that was me a few years back, writing in response to an email sent out by my law school’s new dean, soliciting advice about ways to improve the school.  I just kept typing and typing… and then there was the time…and how about this… why didn’t I know….

I’ll never know what, if anything, was done with my suggestions, but I’ve never felt like it was quite enough. Years later, I still feel a strong desire to let as many people as possible in on this information in the hope that at least a few students might not make some of the preventable mistakes I made.

So, here we go…

When I was a 1L in August of 2002, it was pre-everything: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, IPhones, etc. The “cool” thing was still instant messenger. People weren’t blogging about the law school experience.

So, pretend you were me. Pretend you were an English major with no pre-law classes who didn’t know a single lawyer when you matriculated. Pretend that the first day of classes was the first contact of any kind you had with the law or a law school setting, and that you were going in completely blind. Pretend all that, and hear me out.

In no particular order, this is my advice to you (or to me, circa 2002):

  • Get some lawyer mentors. Find recent grads, those about 10-15 years out, and those nearing the end of their careers, and just ask them questions.  You don’t even need to ask anything specific. Just – is there anything I should knowIs there anything you know now that you wish you knew then?
  • Don’t sweat the bar exam. I took the Virginia Bar. Virginia tested any of 20 subjects on its essay section, so I spent my second two years of school taking as many of the classes in those subjects as I could. What I didn’t know was how awesome the BarBri/PMBR prep would be. It was like a punch in the gut on that first day of bar review when I realized that I had basically wasted 4 credits and a few tenths of my GPA on Federal Income Taxation. And even worse, I took that class and others at the expense of a practical skills curriculum. Which leads me to my next point …
  • Take as many practical classes as you can. Contract drafting and negotiation, oral advocacy classes, advanced legal research/writing classes, etc. Do clinics to get real world experience.  Participate in moot court for both the oral advocacy and the brief-writing practice. Don’t do what I did. When your school sponsors an entry-level, 1L competition for those who eventually want to participate in moot court, don’t be one of only two people that don’t participate because you’re so “sure” that you don’t want to be a litigator. Just don’t.
  • Get on law review or a journal. I know, I know. Who doesn’t know that?!  Well, this kid right here didn’t. When we filled out the forms to accompany our law review submissions, there were boxes for the journals at the school (health law and communications, I believe), and you could choose whether you just wanted to be considered for law review, or everything. Well, I wasn’t interested in health law or communications, so I naturally only checked the “law review” box. Had NO IDEA that every job to which I would apply would ask, do you have law review/journal experience? Yup, they often just lump them together.
  • Change schools, if necessary. Employers love a fancy school. If you don’t get into a top-tier or top 50 (or 30 or 10) school right off the bat, circumstances/expenses permitting, don’t be afraid (or too lazy, like I was) to change schools. I did great the second half of my 1L year (at a top tier, but not top 30 school) and really think I could have traded up. But applications are such a pain, am I right? I am gainfully employed now, but there have been times when the lack of a big name school really hurt me – especially when searching out of the geographic location of my alma mater.
  • Network, network, and then, oh – what was I going to say, oh yeah, that’s right: NETWORK! Due to all these things above, and despite having good grades, I had a hard time finding employment immediately after graduation. I didn’t personally know any lawyers aside from professors, and the places where I had worked my summers weren’t hiring. Meanwhile, every time I talked to my grandma, she would mention the son of her old friend that owned her local furniture shop, who was a lawyer in my city. This was just too much of a stretch for me, and I ignored the connection for months. FINALLY, I gave in and called this guy. Long story short – I had a job two months later due to my networking with him. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention groups such as the ABA, SBA, and your local bar associations. I’m currently a member of the Military Spouse JD Network, a bar association for military spouse attorneys, and I know firsthand how invaluable groups like these really are.
  • Last but not least, just pay attention. I can remember the flyers I would get in my little folder for different school events – whether it was a networking event, some informational sessions …whatever. I didn’t live near the school, so if attending said event would put me in rush hour traffic, I just didn’t go. Dumb move. I am reasonably sure that the vast majority of these sessions would have been enormously helpful, and I shamefully acknowledge that suffering through DC traffic might have been a better choice than battling 11 years of “what ifs.”

Even though everything eventually worked out reasonably well for me, I will say that some of this stuff still haunts me a little. Having a few years of solid work experience definitely obviates the need for some things, but others are just as relevant today as they were then. If I want to try a new practice area or switch jobs, potential employers will still look at where I went to school and check to see if I were on law review/journal. If I am switching from my transactional job to something in litigation, you’d better believe I will still feel the sting of not participating in moot court or taking oral advocacy courses. And given the niche field I am in, I regularly find myself regretting not having more experience dealing with contract drafting/negotiation – a skill that would make me much more marketable and well-rounded.

But, fear not.  Now that you’ve read this, you don’t have to make these silly mistakes.  I know full well that many of you are much savvier than I was, but if I can save just one person from unnecessarily taking Federal Income Taxation or Commercial Transactions, I will consider my post a success.

Alicia Cobb Alicia Cobb lives in Arlington, Va., and currently works for the federal government as an energy attorney. She is a military spouse and has two daughters. She is a member of the Virginia Bar, the District of Columbia Bar (inactive), and the Military Spouse JD Network. Alicia has done volunteer work with the legal assistance office on Naval Station Rota, Spain, and in her children’s school. During law school, she completed internships with the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Department of Justice.