When I went to law school with the goal of working in the music business, I was excited to learn how to be a lawyer. Little did I know that 1) Law school wouldn't teach me that; and 2) I'd never practice law.
Fortunately, the law degree served me well in the music industry and my second career as a legal recruiter. But the things they don't teach in law school continue to amaze me. For the benefit of the new law students kicking off their three-year journey towards the Bar Exam, I'd like to point out five things they don't teach you in law school.
1) How to be a lawyer
Law school teaches you how to think, read and write like a lawyer. This is a valuable and versatile skill set that can help you throughout your life and career. However, developing these skills means spending most of law school reading case law: countless pages of appellate court decisions that could each be boiled down into two sentences. Although reading case law helps you think like a lawyer, it won't help you know what to do once you step into the real world. Unless you get involved in extracurricular activities like trial teams and legal clinics, you'll have to learn just about everything on the job.
2) Career planning
To increase your odds of being a happy lawyer, you want to figure out who you are and what career options best fit you well before graduation. Consider how frustrated you get when you start driving to a meal before you've decided the type of food you want to eat!
Although some law schools are finally starting to make career education mandatory, curricula typically fail to include it. School career centers are often staffed with helpful people who want to provide you with one-on-one guidance, yet these centers are typically underfunded and overburdened, and students often ignore them.
Perhaps you're busy tackling large amounts of homework and chasing a high GPA to help land a high-paying job. If you're like most I talk to, you probably didn't do any self-exploration or research before choosing to go to law school. All of this leaves students avoiding thoughts about the C-word until firms visit for on campus Interviewing. When that goes sour, it's common to wait until graduation to worry about it. That's a path to future therapy -- so make friends with your career services office!
3) Legal career paths
By putting so much focus on reading case law, law school doesn't show you what it's really like to work in different legal practice areas. If you went to med school, you would spend your third and fourth years rotating through a wide variety of clinical clerkships that would give you real life work experience in the major medical practice areas. Contrast this with law school, where you're likely to take a semester or two of contracts classes without drafting or revising one contract!
Solution? Find people who do the types of work that interests you and request meetings so you can ask them questions (aka "informational interviewing").
4) Alternative careers for lawyers
At most law schools, you'll hear the buzz that you need to get the best grades so you can get the best jobs at the best private practice law firms. This buzz ignores the reality that countless law grads apply their skills from law school to alternative careers in the real estate, insurance and banking industries, or in finance, advocacy or legal services like e-discovery.
It's probably not the best investment these days to go to law school if you know you don't want to be a lawyer, but some, like myself, conclude before graduation that they want alternative paths; others find themselves unhappy in law practice and decide to change careers.
If the buzz around law schools was that that there is nothing wrong with choosing an alternative path, there would be more happy lawyers. Law students would pursue a wider variety of career options at graduation, and practicing lawyers wouldn't feel stuck or that they're wasting their degree by leaving law. Until that happens, I advise thinking outside the box when arranging informational interviews.
5) How to sell your legal skills to employers
Learning to identify and articulate the skills you develop in law school is essential. I'm not talking about bow hunting and computer hacking. The law school experience helps you develop skills in areas that are selling points in a wide variety of career paths and to a wide variety of employers. These include writing, listening, investigating, issue-spotting, problem-solving, counseling, persuading, project management and more.
Since the general public tends to misunderstand lawyers and not see them as professionals with the above skill sets, it puts more burden on you when looking for a law-related or alternative legal career to spin your degree by articulating your skills on paper and in person. Employers may think you'll want too much money or that you're just killing time until your fancy "lawyer" job comes along. You'll want to persuasively articulate why your skills help make you the best candidate to tackle the needs listed in their job description.
Good luck in law school! To discover the career stuff that they don't teach in law school, visit JD Careers Out There.