It’s no secret that I wasn’t the biggest fan of my law school experience. However, contrary to what you might assume, this is not going to be a law school bashing post.
As the 3.5 years come to an end (on Friday!!!), I thought it would be appropriate to look back and reflect upon what I’ve learned.
How did I end up in law school? I blame this pesky Puttylike trait…
The first thing you must understand is that I never wanted to be a lawyer. In fact, my reasons for going to law school were directly related to my propensity to jump on new random ideas that interest me.
It was pretty simple. I took a communications law class in undergrad, became fascinated by this new discipline that I had never once considered studying before, and applied.
Well, lets just say that the magic faded quickly… Yet, I do not regret my decision. Although I don’t plan on being a lawyer, here are 10 things I learned that I feel will be useful going forward.
1. If you want to win arguments, isolate your issues
One of the things they drill into your head in law school is the importance of identifying and isolating distinct issues in a particular dilemma. This means extracting the ‘legal issue’ from the icky life mess. It also means distinguishing between different arguments and addressing them separately.
About a year into law school, I started noticing that non-law people don’t typically think this way. Most people tend to mush all their arguments up together. If you can go in there and be like “well hang on, there are 3 separate things going on here… ” and lay them out, you come off sounding a lot more calm and rational. You can also reach solutions much faster when you deal with one issue at a time.
2. Don’t be intimidated by big-talkers
It’s funny thinking back to first year and remembering how intimidated I was by my classmates. Everyone around me seemed so intelligent and accomplished. People would raise their hands and spout out words that made no sense to me. They spoke about political theory and macroeconomics and who knows what else (really, I have no clue). This led me to falsely assume that I was surrounded by geniuses.
What I wish I had realized sooner is that most of what my classmates were saying meant nothing. If you were to deconstruct their sentences, you’d find that they’re often circular and entirely meaningless.
People love hearing themselves speak and they love sounding smart. A lot of people are more interested in impressing others than communicating ideas. In fact, an over-reliance on big showy language is a good indication that a person has no clue what they’re talking about.
I’m not saying you need to completely dumb down your speech, but you can use rich language without being convoluted.
3. Be confident, not arrogant
On a related note, I remember these horrible ‘getting to know you’ circles that would form during orientation, where we’d all gather in clusters and essentially list off our accomplishments to one another. We’d talk about our academic background, that year we spent volunteering in Africa (which someone I know fondly refers to as ‘Africa-wanks’) and our deep passion for constitutional law or human rights.
These conversations could have been so much more productive but they often just turned into bragging sessions. This was probably just due to the mutual intimidation and fear of a scary new environment but it’s something to be conscious of whenever you’re meeting someone new.
It’s great to be proud of your accomplishments, but don’t boast- at least not if you want to establish a genuine connection with someone.
4. You don’t need to make friends with everyone, just a few well-connected people
We have these things in law school called summaries. They’re basically overviews of the entire course: every case, article and relevant legislative provision summarized, along with class notes and compiled in one massive word document that you can bring into the exam. Usually summaries already exist and are passed down by those who have taken the course before.
But other times law students will get into groups, split up the readings for the whole semester, and create their own summary. As a result, many of the students involved will naturally feel protective over their creation. Why should anybody else benefit from their hard work? I’m not going to get into the sharing vs not sharing debate here.
But here’s the thing I realized: There’s always a weak link.
It’s not so much a particular person as it is friendship. We don’t like denying our friends something that could help them when they’re struggling. I’ve often scored some incredible summaries by being friends with just one person in the group who secretly emailed me a copy.
What can we learn from this? Well, you don’t need to fully participate or ‘network’ with everyone, but making friends with a couple well-connected people is a very good idea.
5. There’s sometimes little correlation between the number of hours you work and how successful you are
In first year you work ridiculous hours and have no life outside of law school, but very quickly you learn that you can work your ass off and get a B or you can completely slack off, cram right before the exam and still get a B. (The range is more like B- to B+, but still)… Now this might not be true at every law school, but it certainly was at mine.
It’s the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. What’s important isn’t the number of hours you put in, but how intelligently you work.
6. Personalize the experience
Law school has the reputation of being a pretty mainstream place. Lets just say that my interests didn’t exactly line up with the majority of the courses and clubs offered at the faculty.
I survived largely by finding my niche, which was intellectual property/copyright policy, and getting involved in every way I could. I started an IP policy club with a friend of mine and we brought some creativity to the faculty by organizing things like a talk on the IP implications of graffiti art, the facebook privacy complaint and a karaoke party. Basically I did everything I could to personalize the experience.
If you ever find yourself in an uninspiring situation, see if there’s a way you can inject your own skills and interests into it. If nothing exists, create something new.
7. Avoid sharks and score free sushi
My law school holds these networking events that are sponsored by law firms. This means two things: free food/drinks and awkward conversations with lawyers. It’s essentially about recruitment. Lawyers come out, (some) law students dress up and everyone schmoozes.
Like I’ve mentioned a dozen times, I had no interest in working at a firm. However, I absolutely had an interest in free food/drinks!
What my buddy and I would do is we’d view these events kind of like video games. Every time you score free food, you get a point and every time you get stuck in an awful conversation with a lawyer, you lose a point. The whole thing became about maneuvering your way through the crowd to grab as much free sushi and wine as possible without getting trapped by someone in a suit… It was actually quite fun. :)
There’s a lesson in this somewhere. Oh yeah:
Maximize the time you spend doing things you love and minimize the time you spend doing things you do not love.
Viewing life as a video game or experiment makes it way more fun!
8. Trust your instincts and the path will reveal itself
I ended up taking a music policy class in my last year. The final project involved coming up with an idea and business plan for a business related to the music industry.
Long story short, this class/project is what sparked my interest in entrepreneurship. Had I not gone to law school and chosen my courses based on my interests, who knows whether I would have ended up here.
Things tend to work out if you trust your instincts.
9. Great friendships can be built upon a mutual hatred of something
Although I didn’t socialize much in the law school scene, I did meet a handful of really incredible people, one of whom became a really close buddy. In fact, this one friendship alone was well-worth the 3.5 years.
And guess what? she hated law school too! In fact, we had some fantastic times complaining about having to learn unjust enrichment thirty thousand times or suppressing laughter when a teacher would inadvertently say something that could be misconstrued in an…immature fashion. heh… Great memories.
Sometimes the greatest bonding happens over a common unpleasant experience.
10. Always ask why
In third year, most of my classmates were stressed out of their minds, applying for positions at law firms and going through the interview process. I elected not to even bother.
I could have easily gone along with my cohort and done what everybody else was doing. But I would have been doing it for the wrong reasons. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted then, but I certainly knew what I didn’t want.
I think law students (and many non-law students too) tend to forget that even though you are headed down a path, you can always change course. Other options are still available to you.
When you make a decision, you should always ask yourself why. If the answer (in Chris Guillebeau’s words) is “Because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” then it’s time to stop and think long and hard about what you want.
On a personal note, I know my blog tends to be a little ‘anti-status quo’ sometimes, but I don’t mean to follow blindly along with the nonconformist ideology either.
My main goal with this is to encourage people to question their motives. If you want to be a lawyer, that’s great, as long as it’s something you want to be and not something you think you should be.
And that’s the main reason I don’t regret going to law school; I went for me.
What do you think? If you are/were a law student, what are some life lessons you learned? Everybody else is of course free to comment as well. I’m sure that no matter what your background is, there’s stuff here you can relate to.
Oh good god, I had better get back to studying…