It wouldn’t surprise anybody if most law students come into their first year dreading the specter of a cold call in a contracts lecture. That imagery of the Socratic method is seared into the history of the legal profession and the schoolwork that prepares us for that profession. But times change. And as the world changes, so does the legal profession (albeit at a much slower pace). Your professor who has been teaching contracts for 1,000 years may be an expert in the development of the common law of the statute of frauds. But will she know whether a text message counts as a “signed writing” in small-claims court in the city where you live for the purpose of overcoming the statute of frauds? That’s not quite as likely.
The best way for you to learn how to really be a lawyer in the 21st century is to do the job before you actually have the job. You can do this by taking a class with a practical or hands-on component. Here are a few reasons why hands-on classes like clinics, practicums, externships, etc. should definitely be on your list for next year.
1. Hands-On Classes Teach you How to do the Nitty-Gritty of Lawyering
Imagine that you are an expert civil procedure student. You aced the class your 1L year. You worked for your former civ pro professor as a 2L and 3L. You get to your first job at a fancy law firm after graduation and the partner asks you to write a 12(b)(6) motion. You do a glorious job and the partner loves it. No edits. Then she asks you to file it with the court and serve it on plaintiff’s counsel . . . . Do you have any idea how to do that? Probably not.
Regular doctrinal classes teach you how to reason. They teach you the rules of law that you need to know. But they don’t teach you how to actually practice. Something simple like filing a motion or serving that motion on plaintiff’s counsel is something that you have to learn by doing. You can learn by doing at the firm, likely with the partner’s exasperated sigh ringing in your ear as she explains how to do this mundane task. Or, you can learn by doing it in law school with a professor who understands that this is the first time you’re filing something. There seems to be an obvious choice that is much softer on the ego.
The point is that the practice of law is filled with a lot of practical tasks that lawyers have to do every day, regardless of your area of practice. You can learn how to do those things in law school and come into your first job ahead of the curve.
2. Hands-On Classes Teach you to Talk to Other Lawyers
There’s a difference between finding comfort talking in class and finding comfort calling a prosecutor on the phone to negotiate a plea deal. You can get a head start on your ability to communicate like a lawyer by tackling those conversations in a practical law school course. Or, you can have those conversations when you start your job and potentially not have any idea what the other lawyer is saying. For example, when I first started working for the DOJ, I did a six-month detail at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. I spoke with a defense lawyer on my first day in court who said, “This case is going to ‘dwip’ if you don’t offer the DSA.” I had no clue what that meant. So I said, “ok great,” and walked away. Turns out ‘dwip’ was shorthand for Dismissed for Want of Prosecution and ‘DSA’ was shorthand for Deferred Sentencing Agreement. If I had done a prosecutor clinic or externship in law school, I might have known that already and been able to have a more professional conversation with someone from the defense bar.
Talking to other lawyers is a skill you will have to use regardless of your area of practice. It’s worth getting over the nerves and hiccups, learning the terminology, and getting practice at having those conversations while still in the comfort of your learning environment with your professor there to moot and practice those conversations with you.
3. Hands-On Classes are just more Fun
You went to law school for a reason. Likely, it wasn’t because you love sitting in a classroom and taking notes. You want to be a lawyer! So go do it! There aren’t a lot of good or interesting stories that come out of sitting in an administrative law lecture. But there are a lot of stories that can come from a clinic or a practicum. For many of you, this will be your last time in school for the rest of your life. Make the most of it. Try something that you’ll remember forever. Try something that could really make a difference in a person’s life. Try something that will push you to be a better lawyer when you’ve finally walked across that stage. Hands-on classes are a must for those who want to be the best lawyers they can be.
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