While you may be skeptical of any addition to your already burdensome schedule in law school, adding just a few extracurricular activities beginning as early as 1L year can be very valuable to your education and future.
If you have any interest in doing public interest work, engaging in as many extracurricular activities in your field during the school year is essential to landing the best summer internships and eventually finding a job after graduation. Even if your heart is set on working for a private law firm, however, extracurricular activities can motivate you to immerse yourself in your studies by reminding you of why you went to law school in the first place (I assume it wasn’t to learn about a replevin for a cow), while giving you early practice experience that will help you be a better lawyer. These experiences can ultimately help you do better in law school and succeed afterward.
So what should you be doing apart from your law school studies? Your first opportunity to use your legal knowledge outside the classroom will probably be as a volunteer for a few hours on an individual project during your 1L year. These opportunities are great because they don’t require any particular legal experience but often have you working with practicing attorneys. Sometimes you may receive emails about such opportunities. For instance, when I was in law school I can recall hearing about opportunities to assist individuals with their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) paperwork and to represent victims of domestic violence in family court.
Other great resources are student groups because they often maintain an active relationship with community organizations that need volunteers for introductory legal work under the supervision of an attorney. Finally, your school’s private sector or public interest career office may also be aware of pro bono activities. In fact, many law schools specify a minimum number of pro bono hours that you have to complete in order to graduate and can assist you in identifying ways to satisfy the requirement. If you want to be licensed in New York, you will actually have to demonstrate that you have fulfilled a 50-hour pro bono requirement.
TAs and Research Assistants
If you’ve done really well in a particular class, another great way to get out of class-outline-test routine in law school is to serve as a teaching or research assistant for one of your former professors. It should go without saying that if your goal is to teach at a law school, this is the best way that you can spend your free time, however, working with a professor in an area of interest to you can be beneficial to any career track by giving you a greater breadth or depth of knowledge in a particular area of law that you can demonstrate on your resume. Additionally, professors often have great contacts outside the law school, so they can help point you towards a clerkship or a permanent job after graduation.
The best way to gain actual practice experience is to identify an office and go work for them during the school year. Now academic year internships are not for the faint of heart: you’ll likely find that most offices will want you to devote a substantial time commitment (usually 10-15 hours per week) in order to make having you around worth their while, but having even just a couple of these positions under your belt can really help you learn about the practice of law and set yourself apart from others when applying to jobs. Some internships can even lead directly to jobs.
Not all internships are treated equally, however. You want to avoid interning at places that are unaccustomed to having interns and may not know how to integrate you into their work. When choosing an internship, some of the most important questions to explore are: how much will you actually be allowed to do (e.g. writing, researching, speaking, etc.), does the office have an intern program, has the office had academic year interns before, whether you will be assigned to a particular attorney, and whether there is a system in place for distributing work to interns to keep you from having to scrounge for work around the office yourself. Your goal should be to do the same type of work that a practicing attorney in the office does. This should be possible provided an attorney reviews your work and takes ownership of it.
The point is there are extracurricular activities in law school for everyone. You can choose your level of commitment, from the occasional volunteer activity to interning a couple days a week in a law office. You can choose your area of focus, from public interest law, to academia, or even private practice. So get out there and start working!
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