What to Do in Law School to Actually Prepare To Be a Lawyer
Many legal scholars and law school professors like to say that law school is not a trade school. That is, law school may shape the way you to think about the law, but it’s not really preparing you to practice. So what should prospective lawyers be doing while in law school to actually get ready to be a lawyer?
We asked lawyers working in top-ranked firms to tell us what it’s like to actually work in their practice area in our Practice Perspectives Guide. While the entire guide is an essential resource to learn about various practice areas and what its like to work in each one, there is one question that I believe is most instructive to law students. We asked the top lawyers profiled in the guide, “What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone hoping to enter your practice area?” Below are some of their answers.
Josh Yount, Partner, Appellate Litigation, Mayer Brown: “A clerkship for an appellate judge is the best training for appellate work. It allows you to see many examples of effective (and ineffective) appellate advocacy. Civil procedure, federal courts, and constitutional law are probably the only essential law school classes for appellate practice.”
Amy Caton, Partner, Corporate Restructuring and Bankruptcy, Kramer Levin: “Read Deal Book in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Take secured credit, corporate bankruptcy, corporate finance, and—if you are lucky enough to find it—a seminar that allows you to actually practice a corporate restructuring. I would also highly recommend a mediation class. And don’t forget your litigation basics.”
Jennifer Kennedy Park, Partner, Commercial Litigation, Cleary Gottlieb: “Practice public speaking. Every stage of a litigation or investigation requires being comfortable speaking confidently and spontaneously in front of other people.”
LeAnn Johnson Koch, Partner, Environment, Energy & Resources, Perkins Coie: “I would suggest taking administrative law (I wish I had) and environmental law while in law school. Some of the more technical issues will require on-the-job training and experience. I still find myself learning new things all the time. Of course, you may find it beneficial to work in a state or federal environmental regulatory agency—but it’s not a prerequisite.”
Megan C. Johnson, Partner, Financial Services, Dechert: “A genuine interest in finance, financial markets, and investing would be beneficial to lawyers interested in a financial services practice, even those without prior financial experience. To that end, regular exposure to financial journalism and books about markets, investment theories, and similar subjects are also helpful for developing a broad understanding of issues facing financial services clients. Law school classes that focus on the legal structure of investment products and financial services companies, such as business organizations, and on the financial services regulatory structure, such as securities regulation, banking regulation, or investment company regulation are also helpful. Administrative law can also be helpful to understanding the agency rulemaking process.”
Philip H. Oettinger, Partner, Corporate, Wilson Sonsini: “I recommend a steady diet of securities law and business classes: securities regulation, corporate law, tax, business associations, accounting, etc. If the law school that you are attending has a small business or start-up clinic then I would recommend you participate in it to get some real world experience with clients starting businesses. Becoming proficient in Excel also helps with constructing capitalization tables, creating payout spreadsheets, and calculating IPO related tables.”
Jeannine Acevedo, Partner, International Project Finance, White & Case: “I would recommend secured transactions and corporations. For students who lack a business background, corporate finance or accounting may be helpful. Anyone wishing to work on projects outside of the US should also try to take comparative law and coursework covering cross-border business transactions. Although not essential, language proficiency (in my case, Spanish) is also very helpful.”
Lauren Nowierski, Associate, Intellectual Property, Desmarais: “For anyone who is interested in patent law, I recommend course work or practice in a scientific discipline. Although it isn’t required to practice patent litigation, it is always helpful to have some degree of scientific training. In law school, an introductory course in patent law is helpful to familiarize yourself with the concepts involved in the practice. Otherwise, any opportunities you can find to develop your written and oral advocacy skills would be useful for any type of litigation.”
Keith Watts, Equity Shareholder, Labor & Employment, Ogletree Deakins: “What I would say is observe everything and everyone around you and take note of why people do things the way that they do. As someone who practices advice and counsel, you will be called upon to analyze and assess situations that may be highly charged with emotion and drama. You have to be a leader. I might say you need to be the adult in the room or the captain who steers the ship through rough seas. Above all else, train yourself to really listen to what people are saying and telling you. You should not be the one who’s doing most of the talking. Last but not least, it doesn’t hurt to be humble. Humility is probably one of the greatest assets of a successful attorney.”
Harold Birnbaum, Partner—Mergers & Acquisitions, Davis Polk: “Having a basic understanding of financial statements and some familiarity with accounting is helpful, given the typical M&A client base and the transactions you are likely to work on. In terms of law school classes, I would recommend securities law/regulation. If your school offers an M&A class, that is a good way to get some exposure to the kinds of issues we deal with in M&A. And if you have the opportunity, take a contractual drafting course—it is an eminently teachable skill and quite a bit different than the focus of typical legal writing classes, which is more litigation-oriented. On a personal level, I worked in management consulting before law school, and found prior work experience to be beneficial. That is not specific to M&A, but real world experience just helps you hit the ground running. It’s definitely not a prerequisite, but is something to think about before you begin law school.”
You can check out the full guide—which includes Q&As with more than 75 attorneys in 24 practice areas—here: Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.