Students walk out of law school, for the most part, in a similarly privileged position: with one of the most respected degrees and earning potential beyond what most of the country could dream. We do not all walk into law school so privileged. At Seton Hall, I know just as many students whose parents are attorneys as students whose parents never received a Bachelor’s degree (a group which I am included in). Accordingly, the journey through law school looks different for each student: some enjoy the ability to work non-paid internships, while others work weekends at coffee shops and restaurants.
Me, I’m somewhere in between. I was fortunate enough to be picky about where I sought employment, and found myself at a respectable civil litigation firm the summer after my second year. Because I enjoyed working there, and because making money is better than not making money, I decided to stay with the firm throughout my third and final year of law school. Doing so was more difficult than I anticipated (to be honest) and it’s those difficulties (and benefits, too) I wanted to share.
First, I have to acknowledge that working for free, or for credit, is no walk in the park. The work is demanding and the time commitment sometimes underestimated. But being paid for your work will increase the expectation your supervisors have for you. Accordingly, working for money while attending law school full time is a much different endeavor than externing at the local AG’s office 10 hours a week.
There are two general lessons I have learned working at my firm while maintaining a heavy credit load: First, working while going to law school full-time is hard; second, it is worth it.
It is hard.
However difficult law school is (and it is difficult), it does not compare to working in the legal field. Further, coupling school and work presents unique issues because of the disjunctive skills and tasks required to succeed at each.
The first issue I found was with time management. Though most employers will understand that “school comes first” when you are a student, balancing between work and school is a difficult task. For the most part, unless you have a paper due for a writing course, the vast majority of “due dates” in law school come at the end of the semester (usually in the form of a final); any other responsibility is usually shifted to accommodate your schedule.
At work, however, that is not the case. Work has deadlines, and those deadlines have significant consequences if missed. The additional stress of only being available “part-time” for your employer creates obvious issues. Work does not slow down (at least at my firm) simply because I am only available a few days a week. Accordingly, working quickly and efficiently is probably the number one trait a student will need to possess when they decide to add part-time employment to their already-full schedule.
Next, law school and legal work focus on somewhat different disciplines. In law school, generally, focus is placed on theory and hypotheticals that play with facts and law in ways that are interesting to only the type of people who go to law school (we are a rare breed). The law school class is a shelter where students are free to explore ideas, even bad ones, as we come to an understanding of the material. Ultimately, there are no consequences (perhaps aside from a poor grade) for coming down one way or another on any legal issue.
Outside the classroom, however, attorneys are required to be much more pragmatic. Whether or not to take a case, for instance, has much more to do with whether the case is likely to make money for the client or firm than whether a prima facie case for (fill in the blank) can be established. That’s not to say that the theory of law school is unhelpful, or the pragmatism of work is jaded. But they are very different and balancing between the two approaches is difficult.
It is worth it.
Though there are difficulties with working while in law school full-time, I must stress how rewarding and gratifying it is. The lessons learned are valuable, and the insight profitable. First, working while in law school gives insight into the most important question of all: “Do I really want to be a lawyer?” You see, you didn’t go to law school to be a law student; you went to be a lawyer. And because law school is so different from the practice of law, getting out and working is the only way you will know whether it’s something you want to do.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, you will have the opportunity to interact with your soon-to-be peers and colleagues. Some of the best lessons I have ever received came from an attorney outside the classroom. I still remember sitting down with a supervising attorney as I expressed my thoughts and concerns about a particular motion he had assigned to me. After I explained why I felt I was making a losing argument (and how much that troubled me), he leaned across the desk and said:
“When you’re strong on the law, you pound on the law.
When you’re strong on the facts, you pound on the facts.
When you’re not strong on the law, and not strong on the facts, pound on the table.
Sometimes you just need to make an argument.”
I remember another gem, from a different attorney (also helping me understand that sometimes you just have a bad case): “You can’t shine a turd.”
These lessons echo in my mind much more clearly than the hours of lectures I have sat through. These lawyers, some now mentors, have more directly shaped the attorney I will become than any professor or dean could (though not for lack of trying). In short, time spent with attorneys, before you become one, is invaluable. Hearing their stories, asking questions about the “who, what, where, why, and how” of practicing law makes the stress of time management and negotiating skill sets all worth it.
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