What You Don’t Learn In Law School: A Primer
Learning in law school and actual practice of law are two different experiences.
It is often felt that there is a gulf between what is taught in law school(s) and what is needed to navigate in the early stages of a career in law. Law schools train to “think like a lawyer” by developing skills for identifying issues, legal research, drafting documents, and framing legal arguments. But there are many practical aspects which are not adequately addressed during the years spent in the law school. Ironically, they are the foundational tools which budding legal professionals need to build their careers. While some facets of what lies ahead are complex like the art of skillful negotiation and how to handle/manage conflict, some are as basic as what exactly a career in law entails. Even as law schools attempt to scale up practical training in their curricula, fresh law graduates rarely start their careers as “practice ready.” As experts say, “When law school ends, the next phase of legal education begins.” The making of a lawyer involves not just knowledge of substantive law, but also an orientation in several soft skills like communication skills, client etiquette and expectations, management, to name a few.
Making of a lawyer
How to think (and write) like a lawyer is an integral part of legal education. Reading endless pages of case law(s) and condensing the same into a crisp piece is a valuable skill that helps a lawyer at every stage of legal career. But despite being a critical skill set, it does not help in grasping other aspects of the practice of law. Typically, law schools do not focus on familiarizing students with what working in different practice areas of law involves. To cite an example, students gain in-depth knowledge of a particular area like contracts/agreements (usually taught for more than one semester) without actually drafting one; or learn how to advise clients without actually meeting a single one. In the midst of lectures, tutorials, assessments, exams; law schools fail to emphasise that every case that is studied in the class room and every tutorial problem that is solved is in fact a reality for someone else. In the mind of a law student, these are simply exam problems. Unless one is actively involved in a variety of activities like legal clinics, mock trials/moot courts, research and presentations, and take up worthwhile internships, chances are that most facets of legal work will be learnt on the job. In this context making the right choices of elective subjects also becomes vital, another aspect whose importance is not sufficiently empahsized to law students. Whether pursuing a 5 year LLB, or a 3 year LLB, nearly half of the subjects in the LLB programme are compulsory common law courses which are critical for legal practice. Nevertheless, a good balance between compulsory and elective subjects needs to be struck. Those who want to pursue litigation or work for a law firm are more likely to choose practical elective subjects such as corporate law, labour law, intellectual property etc. Others may choose subjects out of sheer interest in them or owing to their applicability to other streams; for instance, media law, human rights law, international law, to name a few. It is ultimately upon students to do their research and make viable and relevant choices by reaching out to their professors and/or legal professionals who are working in the particular area of law.
The importance of communication skills for lawyers and legal professionals cannot be over-emphasized. Although the popular perception is that only litigating lawyers need be to good communicators, all lawyers in any area of law must be able to communicate effectively in all kinds of circumstances. While it appears self-explanatory, communication skills (in particular client counseling, listening skills, relationship-building skills) are not “taught” in a classroom and need to be worked on through personal endeavours.
Negotiation Skills and Interpersonal Skills
While activities like mock trials and legal clinics help in developing advocacy skills, new lawyers also need exposure to mediation and negotiation techniques. It can also be particularly challenging for new lawyers to learn interpersonal skills on the job, both in dealing with senior lawyers and managing client relationships. This is an area where mandatory workshops/clinics can go a long way in fresh law graduates being “practice ready”.
Being prepared for transactional practice
There is a concern that law schools focus on litigation/advocacy at the cost of transactional practice. It is being suggested that the law curriculum should be widened to provide a stronger base for the underlying aspects of transactional law like drafting transactional/corporate documents, research on regulatory issues and structuring deal(s). Opportunities to understand transactional practice in a more concrete way would give the new lawyers a greater clarity on transactional law.
Law students learn the law and how that law applies in hypothetical situations. Professionalism and accountability are, however, learnt only in the early years of the profession. So while law schools teach how to think like a lawyer, exposure to real world experience is needed in order to learn how to “work” like a lawyer. A prior hands-on experience is invaluable when starting out in the legal career. It’s a given that no amount of course work in a law school prepares you to understand and appreciate the stakes involved in what you are working on and that it all depends on how well you do it.
Law schools rarely teach ways of engaging in conflict in a constructive and healthy manner without jeopardizing civil relationships. Merely talking about civility as an abstract concept is not enough. The understanding that the budding lawyers will be part of the larger legal community, and that today’s opposing counsel could well be tomorrow’s judge/ co-counsel/ colleague is vital. Valuing emotional intelligence, tact and grace over aggression is important for handling or managing conflicts. While there are different conflict styles, one needs to develop and be familiar with one’s own conflict style together with the understanding that conflict can also be used as an opportunity to grow and strengthen a relationship.
Career in law vis-à-vis alternative career paths
Career decisions are some of the hardest to make and should, therefore, not be rushed. To increase the odds of being content in the long-run, deciding which option suits/works the best for an individual, temperamentally and intellectually, is the key. Clearly, this decision needs to be made before graduating from law school. While some law schools do a good job of implementing career education, many schools typically fail to focus on it. Career centers/help desks can provide with valuable one-on-one guidance, yet these departments are often neglected and underfunded as a result of which students make the mistake of ignoring them. In a bid to chasing high percentages/grades for landing a high-paying job, little or no time is devoted to self-exploration and introspection before graduating from the law school. Not surprisingly, many students do not focus on possible career options until law firms or other organizations visit for campus selection/recruitment. For those whose experience with campus selections is not successful, it is common to wait until they graduate and then think about it. That situation can be avoided if students make optimal and timely use of the career services/support staff within the college/law school. For those who are doubtful if a career in law is the right choice- it is not the end of the world, and completing the degree could well be the best choice for future career. The subject of law also opens up doors to a wide range of careers in judiciary, civil services, management, even economics.
The buzz in most law school campuses centers around obtaining high grades to get the best jobs in the top law firms/organisations. There is, however, another reality which gets overshadowed- that there are many who are willing to apply their legal knowledge to alternative career paths. While most will advise you not to attend law school if you don’t want to be a lawyer in the first place, some may decide -upon graduating from law school – that they want to pursue alternative paths rather than being unhappy in law practice. It is important to keep all options open. Legal education trains students in research, analysis, communication, problem-solving and engaging in wide ranging discussions- all of which are useful in a variety of professions. In a competitive employment market, a degree in law is a strong qualification which can give you an edge.
As someone who has recently graduated from law school, be aware of the many variations of practice of law. If you do not end up liking the chosen area of law, consider switching to a different practice area, for that might be a better fit. If you are not inclined to be part of a highly competitive law firm culture, consider those alternatives which offer a degree of work-life balance- NGOs, LPOs, Think-tanks, legal publishing, legal journalism, legal start-ups, academics etc. It is now being increasingly felt that if law schools encourage the belief that it is tenable to opt for an alternative or related career path, there would be fewer unhappy/unsatisfied legal professionals. For many law graduates, law degrees will not be a burden if they are aware of the alternatives.
Marketing Legal Skills
Legal education can help in developing a range of skills viz, drafting, investigation, identifying or spotting issues, suggesting solutions, persuasion etc. Not all employers will be in a position to ascertain the individual skill sets. Identifying and presenting those skills appropriately is upto the individual. Persuasively articulating individual skills which make you the right candidate for a particular job description, is not something that is taught in law schools. Before embarking on a legal career, the ability to articulate your skills -both on paper and in person- has to be honed.
Importance of Internships
Since all practical legal skills are rooted in “tacit knowledge” -the type of knowledge that cannot be transferred through traditional ways of writing down or verbalizing- experience the practice of law to acquire the practical skills. Clearly, a legal internship is the most viable and accessible route to gain those skills. The extent to which practical skills can be acquired during an internship may vary dramatically depending on the workload. To optimize the internship experience, meeting the workplace demands and focussing on investing in your own learning simultaneously go a long way.
Mastering the subject of law requires not just an intuitive mind, but also time. In law, any degree of specialization comes with professional exposure to a variety of legal issues, which takes time to develop. The learning gathered in the initial stages of a legal career is critical because the practice of law is not just substantive, but also stylistic. And developing an individual style of lawyering that is authentically yours comes with time and practice.
In law, it also helps to cultivate mentors. While your superior might be an expert on the subject at hand, your colleague could be an expert on drafting, and your subordinate may be highly tech savvy. Ultimately, it is about learning from whoever is the best teacher and this realization –importance of being open to learning from everyone- comes only on the job.
While looking for the first job, or trying to build a client base, or for connecting with other like-minded professionals, being active in law school alumni associations, bar associations, legal community groups helps. But merely having name on a membership roster is not enough. For building a network, get involved, attend the meetings, volunteer, and contribute to the organization’s work. Law school does not teach how to network, but not stepping out may result in lost opportunities. Limiting network to only lawyers may not be the best approach, for opportunities and learning grow exponentially with the more diverse set of people that one meets. Having said that, networking styles may vary and different approaches work for different people. It is a skill which is developed over a period of time and students may well start honing it while still in law school.
Attitude is Everything
At every place of work, there will be people who others want to be around and there will be people they would want to avoid. In the end, attitude is everything. One may choose to be positive or negative at work; but bear in mind that colleagues and seniors can sense the difference. Someone who is genuinely enthusiastic regardless of the nature of work/assignment is always valued.
Being an Ambassador
Lawyers tend to take their “zealous advocate” role too far and place client loyalty above all else, including important values like respect for truth and justice. Be mindful that every lawyer is akin to an ambassador for his or her employer. The individual people behind a firm or a senior lawyer are the ones who “create” the public impression. Despite the opinion that lawyers are held in low regard, there is an implicit respect for the subject of law, and every lawyer plays a part in reinforcing that positive notion.
Nurturing and Collaborating
The practice of law and the people who are drawn to it are highly competitive. And yet in the course of the legal career, there will be people who will seek your assistance as also help out or recommend you. If you get the opportunity to attend or speak at an event, reach out to the coordinator (who might be a lawyer too). If you are invited to write an article and are unable to do it, suggest someone who could do it. If someone forwards a worthwhile résumé, assist the candidate. Such gestures are not only appreciated, but also reinforce goodwill and eventually help in one’s own overtures to others being well-received. Regardless of whether law schools attract students who are competitive, or law schools train them to become so, understand that even in adversarial situations, cooperation is often critical in moving towards a resolution.
Interestingly, law schools impart a brand of training that is invaluable even if one decides against a career as a lawyer. The ability to think analytically, to write logically and cogently, as also to speak confidently, are all factored in the learning process that takes place in a law school. All these skills play an equally important role as the substantive subjects which are taught. Given the many challenges facing the new lawyers, law schools could do with continuing to update and recast the law curriculum through condensing coursework, offering innovative hands-on learning and adding intensive on-the-job training.
Richa has over 10 years of experience in legal writing and editing. She completed her Masters (LL M) in Commercial Laws from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is a qualified Solicitor in England and Wales. Richa started her career with SNG & Partners, an established pan India banking law firm. She went on to pursue her keen interest in legal research and writing as the Senior Legal Editor with LexisNexis India Her subsequent stint as the Consulting Editor of Lex Witness, India’s first Magazine on Legal and Corporate Affairs, honed her analytical understanding of legal subjects. She was also involved with setting up of Live Law. A mother of two young children, Richa is currently based with her family in Singapore.