What I Know Now I Wish I Learned in Law School
As a practicing family law attorney, I often look back, now with a different perspective at the daily law lessons and growth I had endured during law school. I graduated from John F. Kennedy University College of Law in 2015 and while that seems like forever ago, my law school journey ended with a blink of an eye. Although my law school classmates and I have the battle scars to prove the difficult transition from law school, the bar exam, and into the workforce, we have each found success as practicing attorneys in the areas of personal injury, estate planning, trust and estate litigation, family law, real estate, and employment law. In hindsight, without some valuable lessons we all wish we had learned in law school, getting to where we are would not have been so unnerving.
For this article and with the supportive help from my JFK classmate panel of attorneys, I have compiled some valuable lessons I wish were included during our time in law school. If given the chance for a law school “re-do”, these lessons would have been beneficial towards our future practice of law.
I Wish I Learned “Lawyering”
If you graduated law school and passed the bar exam, congratulations! You may be ready for your next challenge of becoming a first-year practicing attorney. Or maybe not.
I realized after graduation that law school did not teach me how to be a lawyer. Law school taught me how to think like one. The path to become a lawyer was a second career for me. I left my profession in the real estate industry as an Escrow Officer to pursue a new career in the legal field. Given the descriptions in the required courses for our entire tenure at law school, I became aware that four years of law school then being able to apply all the knowledge gained from the classroom into a practical setting was something that was not described in the requirements and I thought would be highly vital.
Unlike most of my panel of classmate attorneys, I took advantage of an opportunity offered at my school for law office help. When I was a 2L, I answered an email from the school office sent from a local family law office that needed an intern to help relieve some of the daily duties of their legal assistant taking time off to study and take the bar exam. Despite the fact I spent less than four hours per week unpaid (but earned hours of school credit) answering phones, ordering supplies, mailing letters and filing documents into case files, I gained such a wealth of basic knowledge by being in an operating law office. While it was overwhelming at times to learn and experience new things, I found myself sitting on a gold mine advantage that would be very useful for me after I passed the bar.
Had my classmate attorneys obtained some valuable practical skills during law school, some of the stress and frustrations they experienced during their transition from law student to an associate could have been avoided. Law schools may now see the importance of practical skills. For example, JFKU College of Law now requires students to complete 60 hours of work in a public interest internship.
Immerse Yourself in a Law Office. During law school, take advantage of the internships or part-time job opportunities offered to get involved in the inner workings of a law office and client relations. I feel it is really important to see what the actual practice of law looks and feels like, even if it’s a position that includes answering the phone in the job description. Once entering a law practice as an attorney without a little exposure, you may find yourself lacking in law office day-to-day basics such as court filings/submissions, following the local rules of court, propounding and responding to discovery, office management and client relations. It may seem like the paralegals of the office are one step ahead of you, just transitioning out of school with no prior law office experience. Also, attempt to pay attention to how the attorneys deal with their clients and opposing counsels. They all come in different shapes, sizes, stories, and attitudes so it may be a good idea to sit in attorney-client meetings to learn how to prepare and handle various situations.
Examine Different Areas of Law. Research the areas of law you may want to pursue after law school. Start to conceptualize what is contained in each area to see if you can balance multiple practice areas or just concentrate on one area of law. Exploring the different law sections of the Contra Costa County Bar Association and meeting attorneys of the sections is a wonderful place to start!
More Persuasion in Your Legal Writing. In practice, you are an advocate for your client. In law school, professors most likely suggested that you, “argue both sides” in your essay analysis portion of your final exams. I learned in practice you do not write legal arguments for your client AND opposing party. Let the opposing side raise their oppositions, do not do it for them!
Up your Legal Research. Do not forget what they teach in you in your first-year legal methods/research course. I was told by a majority of my classmate panel of attorneys to mention that this is the name of the game. It seemed this skill sort of diminished after our first year. Continue to hone the skill of legal research in law school to have effective arguments in your law practice.
I Wish I Learned Mindfulness and Self-Care
After graduating law school, I apparently hopped on an emotional roller coaster transition to where I am today. The bar exam was my first major emotional hurdle and transitioning to an associate in a law firm was another. While a part of me is a little thankful for working through these hard times, these experiences would have been less discouraging and difficult if I had some of these few words of advice to help me prepare mentally.
Manage your Emotions. We are constantly in a conflict management position and learning how to work with difficult situations or people is significantly important as a lawyer. I wish I had known to add a moment of pause before responding to opposing counsel’s nasty email, letter or client declaration on a Request for Order. Taking a deep breath and cooling down rather than immediately sending back a nasty message in response will result in more thoughtful, reasonable communications which would yield respect and appropriate use of client’s attorney resources.
Mistakes are Ok. Becoming a first-year practicing attorney will bear some trial and error. You are not expected to be perfect out of law school. You will make mistakes and mistakes are fine. The wealth of knowledge in the practice of law will also come from learning while on the job. Mistakes are avoidable and I wish I had learned early on how to respond to them by using each mistake as a learning tool.
Self Care. Taking care of yourself allows you to re-charge when you have hit empty so you can continue to be a good lawyer. I have seen some attorneys will place their clients above their own well-being which results in stress, anxiety, depression, substance/alcohol abuse, and the worst of all, even death, because they failed to recognize the demise of their own well being. Be conscious of taking care of yourself.
Be Mindful. While it only takes just a few minutes of your day, studies suggest that mindfulness and meditation helps reduce stress, depression and anxiety while it also increases focus, concentration and self-regulation. Mindfulness and meditation may not be for everyone, but I wish I learned these valuable tools in law school. With the abundance of pressure that comes with the transition from law school to law practice, this lesson would have been helpful to learn and develop over time.