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Finding the balance in your law school curriculum

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Juggling act

I graduated from law school this past May, took the bar in July, and was fortunate to land a job as a federal judicial law clerk that started in September.  What this really means: I’m no expert on law school curriculum. I do, however, have some sage advice to give on what I would do differently if I had to go back and do it over again.

First, (and probably most surprising) those big bar classes which all schools preach that you should take did not really help me study for the bar, I think.  Don’t get me wrong – while it was nice to know some things about wills as I went into studying for the Uniform Bar Exam, your bar course will teach you everything you need to know, in the format you need to know it.  Trust me.

More on the bar later.  My advice here, fill your schedule with things that interest you, things that develop your practical skills, and don’t feel committed to a rigid curriculum where you have to take Criminal Procedure.  You can pass the bar without taking every bar class, as plenty of my peers did.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t balance your schedule with some bar classes and some practical skills classes, but rather just means that you don’t have to check all the boxes if an International Arbitration or Human Rights classes comes up in your last semester.

Second, take a practical skills class, do an extern/internship, participate in a clinic, or all three.  In law school I packed my classes with practical skills courses because I knew that during the semester I would have more required of me – weekly negotiation practices or prep for the semester-end trial, but at the end of the semester the load would be a little lighter.

Read: there’s usually no final exam in these classes.

That said, I also participated in four internships while in law school and participated in a clinic where I represented clients to arbitration agencies where a lot was asked of me during the time when most of my friends were in class.  These opportunities helped me as I entered practice.

While it is great that I know how to properly IRAC for the opinions that I write, it is more important that I know how to call attorneys when make scheduling changes, can talk to pro se plaintiffs, and that I can manage my time between different activities.  These are the practical skills I earned in class, in unpaid internships, and in my clinic, they’re not something you can learn by reading from your textbook.

Third, a little secret I picked up in law school was taking the same professor (if I liked their teaching style) for another course.  It becomes a known entity once you do this.  For example, I took the same professor for Contracts and Corporations.  I even waited until the Spring of my 2L year (most of my peers had taken it during the fall) just to take her class.  I knew what I was getting.  A bit of pressure was taken off because I knew the teaching methods and what would be expected of me.

This obviously doesn’t work if you don’t like a professor’s teaching style, can’t learn from them, or otherwise are unhappy with the end result.

Fourth, take care of yourself.  I overloaded on classes on semester in law school.  I’m talking six courses comprising 17 credits, four of which were for a clinic.  This was also at the time that I was working at a paid and an unpaid internship, representing the ABA as a national officer, and was in a long distance relationship.

All I remember thinking was, just get to December.

Did I make it through that semester and live to tell the tale?  Obviously.  Was it the smartest decision I’ve ever made?  Probably not.  Would I do it again?  Perhaps.

What I mean by this bit of advice is, make sure you are making strategic choices.  When you build your academic schedule, make sure you look at it on a sheet of paper or in Excel and plug in your other responsibilities too.  There is a such thing as a healthy balance between academics, work, and outside activities.  For some of you that will look like the schedule I had during the fall of my third year of law school, for others of you it will mean taking four classes a semester and focusing solely on hitting the books a bit extra.  Both are okay, but only if that works for you.

It’s better to say no upfront then disappointing people by having to circle back on shirked responsibilities.  Only take on what you can, take care of yourself along the way.

Fifth, set a networking goal.  As much of what you learn in the classroom, you learn by talking to attorneys.  Go to one networking event per month or set up an informational coffee.  If you are interested in a certain aspect of the legal profession, talk to professors at your school and see what recent alumni they can set you up with.  Then talk to those alumni about their path and how they got to where they are.

It seems straightforward, but all too often law students are afraid of the rejection factor and skip out on these opportunities.  No one is going to hand you an internship, much less a job, so get out there, put your boots on the ground and your knowledge and tenacity to work.

I regret not heeding some of this advice in law school.  I regret taking classes that I thought would be GPA boosters because of the content and for not trying harder in some of my classes.

What I don’t regret?  The path that I took in law school.  I set my eyes on the prize (graduation) and worked and worked until I was there.  Law school isn’t easy, you’re going to have to make some really tough decisions academically, but trust in me on this, you’re going to be okay.

You are not the grades you receive or the internships you participate in.  You are the person that you grow and become into.  Take what you learn in the classroom and shine it out to the world that is how you survive and thrive as a lawyer.

Josephine Bahn Josephine Bahn graduated from New York Law School in May 2016 and passed the New York Bar Examination the following July. Currently, she is a member of the 2016-2017 Emerging Leaders class for the ABA Young Lawyers' Division and is serving as an ABA Presidential Appointment to the Legal Opportunity Scholarship. While in law school, she served as the Law Student on the Council of the ABA’s Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar and two terms as Vice Chair in the ABA Law Student Division. She is clerking for a federal judge who sits in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.