Law school can feel like a pressure cooker. From grappling with the Socratic Method to studying for the bar exam, every law student experiences actual stress over those three years. However, one of the reassuring things about being a law student is that there is an obvious key to finding your first job in legal practice.
Academics Are Key
We all understand this. Consequently, we spend hours reading case law, preparing outlines, and mentally preparing for exam season.
I don’t mean to belittle the importance of law school grades (particularly 1L grades). Nearly every employer relies on them—along with the reputation of your law school—as a proxy for your abilities as a practicing lawyer. The natural competitiveness of law students, the curve-like nature of law school grades, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars of tuition at stake mean that you should invest the time to perform as best as you can.
But Grades Aren’t Everything
They almost certainly aren’t the most critical thing in the long run. Instead, personal relationships will offer the most enticing opportunities—both after graduation and later in our legal careers. In effect, personal relationships offer some free optionality that can lead to massive dividends in the future.
Most of the best long-term relationships may come from the people around you right now.
The Power of Optionality
In finance, an option gives holders the right, but not the obligation, to purchase some underlying asset. Investors typically need to pay a premium to purchase an option. After paying that premium, however, those investors have the right to participate in the upside of that asset. While options holders can lose their entire premium, the potential upside can be substantial.
To be clear, you shouldn’t treat your classmates and professors like financial assets. Being this clinical and calculated will do more harm than good.
At the same time, investing time and attention into building relationships with your classmates and professors, rather than keeping your head in your textbooks, is a cheap premium to pay for a lifetime of upside.
I saw plenty of examples of the power of personal relationships when writing Reversed in Part: 15 Law School Grads on Pursuing Non-Traditional Careers. While all 15 individuals thrived in law school, they also relied on personal relationships to create stellar careers outside of day-to-day legal practice.
For instance, David Hornik is a well-known venture capitalist who has funded startups like Splunk, Fastly, Ebates, and more. Before becoming a venture capitalist, however, David was a corporate litigator. He was searching for a new practicing role on the West Coast when he had a conversation with his law school roommate. That roommate suggested that David join his firm (Venture Law Group). David accepted, and through his work at the firm, he gained the skills, experience, and contacts to later begin a career in venture capital.
Those opportunities can also come from your law school and college professors. Richard Hsu is a legal recruiter for Major, Lindsey & Africa. Before achieving significant success as a legal recruiter and corporate lawyer, Richard was starting to build his career out of Columbia Law School. After spending some time practicing at an IP law firm, Richard found a general counsel position at a company called Cyrano Sciences. While he initially heard of the opportunity from a recruiter, one of the company’s founders was one of Richard’s professors in college.
It wasn’t like David and Richard had some decades-long plan to leverage their connections and find these specific positions. It was much more organic than that. They didn’t hesitate to canvass their networks and quickly act when they were looking for opportunities.
Making Personal Relationships a Priority
All of this may be self-evident. Of course, personal relationships can supercharge our careers.
But at the same time, it’s easy to direct our attention to other pressing tasks. Instead of that coffee meeting with a professor, you may want to catch up on some reading. Rather than joining a club that may interest you, you may find it more important to spend that time preparing an outline.
Your courses matter. But at the same time, don’t underestimate the quality of your law school network. Over three years, you repeatedly get the chance to create strong, lifelong relationships with intelligent, driven, and talented people. By putting in the work, you create extremely strong optionality better than any networking event you’ll attend in your professional life.
You’ll quickly discover this once you are out of law school. Sure, after graduation, your professional network will likely grow. From your colleagues in your office to other lawyers you meet at bar association events, you’ll meet skilled and intelligent lawyers. However, it takes time and energy to build and maintain these relationships. Time demands become all too real, whether those demands come from your job or your family.