Three lawyers from around the country share tips and lessons from their experience attending law school and practicing law.* [Part 2 of a series on learning to practice law. Read Part 1.]
A Time and a Place
About the Author
Ben A. Snipes is a partner and shareholder with Kovacich Snipes Johnson, P.C., a law firm in Great Falls, Montana. Nationally recognized as a top trial advocate, Mr. Snipes practices primarily on plaintiff injury claims involving construction injuries and trucking accidents. He has unique experience in toxic tort cases, such as asbestos and mesothelioma cases, and work-related injuries. In addition, he maintains an active docket of workers’ compensation and qui tam/false claims act whistleblower claims.
Law school is a grind. That fact is unavoidable. But, with the right approach, it need not be torture. When first thrown into 1L core classes, it can take a while to get your bearings and find a rhythm for your studies. The following strategies worked for me and may help you along your journey.
Treat the Reading Like a Job
The coursework reading assignments can be daunting. It’s easy to fall behind if you don’t schedule your day appropriately. I quickly learned that I could accomplish nearly all of the reading if I treated it like a job. Focusing and working in the law school from 8 am to 5 pm would largely take care of the reading assignments. I would also devote a specific time on the weekends to go to the law school and read. Reading in the library provided the best location to avoid unnecessary distractions and temptations to divert your focus. Scheduling the time and finding the location where you can focus on the required reading will make an immediate impact on your law school experience.
Form a Study Group
A sure way to make law school more difficult is to go at it alone. The adage “many hands make light work” certainly applies to legal studies. Likewise, the company you keep can make all the difference. When forming a study group, remember your goals and align yourself with study partners on the same track. Diversity is one consideration. Law students have different strengths. Finding study partners who complement each other’s academic strengths (and weaknesses) will ensure the workload is appropriately distributed and everyone gets a meaningful benefit from the endeavor.
Use Competition Wisely
Law school is a naturally competitive environment. Each student is there because of past academic success and practical achievement. Only one can finish at the top of the class. While it plays a factor, finishing at the top does not ensure professional success. Each student should be motivated by the competition and strive to do their best, but realize that the ultimate goal is to prepare yourself for your career after law school. Take time to get to know your classmates and other law students. Network and socialize outside of the law school. Be kind and realize that you are all in this venture together. This will make for a more enjoyable experience for all students.
About the Author
Karen Salter is a partner at the law firm Salter Ferguson, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. She is a Registered Nurse and a personal injury attorney who represents families in injury and wrongful death cases in Birmingham. Her primary practice areas are auto and motorcycle accidents, children’s injuries, hospital employee and nursing negligence, and defective products.
Be Bold and Courageous
Looking back at my time as a law student, I wish I had realized how essential excellent connections in the legal, medical and marketing community were. Those relationships are now strong and many, but having them while attending law school would have allowed me to explore a diverse range of career opportunities and profile my talents. Start building your network and referral base now.
It took me a few years after starting my law practice to come out of my mode of self-imposed isolation that enabled my constant studying for law school. But now, I’m very comfortable with new introductions and contacts. I can find common ground with just about anyone on any level. Always be open to establishing relationships with individuals that are members of a variety of occupations, not just lawyers. You must know who you are and be yourself. Also, be genuine and empathetic. If you are not naturally predisposed with these attributes, they cannot be taught.
Knowing who I am and being courageous in this field has helped me become comfortable and respected in my specialty practice. I’ve made many meaningful connections over the last twenty-three years, however, networking in law school would have made the journey smoother.
Every Course/Subject is Important
No one, especially me, wants to sit through a boring lecture of what you might consider “useless information.” You may have no intention of revisiting that distasteful subject again, except potentially on the bar exam. Therefore, you may not like this piece of law school advice, but it is valid.
When a student doubts that they will ever revisit a particular topic in their chosen law practice, they should think twice. As a personal injury and product liability attorney, I have found myself digging into my frontal lobe from time-to-time in order to discuss corporate structure, probate matters, taxation, marital assets, criminal charges. I may find these topics revolting, but there are many legal pearls among them.
As attorneys, we may think that we have found our niche by practicing in a specific area and will never need to revisit a contract or real estate conveyance issue, for example. However, it’s easy to appear under-educated or uninformed if you’re not at least acquainted with legal areas outside your own. The public doesn’t understand that you’re not prepared to discuss every specialty of law. They believe that you went to law school, therefore, you should know the law. That’s not to say that you need to demonstrate expertise in every area of the law at all times, but, you must keep up with a working knowledge of general legal principles. Once you’ve graduated, continue to read often and keep yourself informed.
You will no doubt find yourself in social and professional conversations that lead to questions from friends, the public, and your clients. I often respond with a disclaimer first: “I am a personal injury lawyer primarily, but…”. None of us can be proficient in every area of the law, so be prepared to answer complex inquiries with a professional referral. As a professor of mine once said: “When you are a lawyer, you wanna look smart even if you’re not.”
About the Author
Terry Dunken is the Managing Partner at The Dunken Law Firm based in Sugar Land, Texas. A civil litigation lawyer that handles mass tort cases, he specializes in cases in pharmaceutical, defective/dangerous products, and environmental torts. He has represented clients for more than 25 years, giving him a strong understanding of the law and how to maximize the value that his clients receive in their cases.
I always recall feeling excited but also extremely overwhelmed by the incredible volume of reading required with each successive year of law school. It didn’t help that the law school environment is hyper-competitive. This leaves many students of the law depleted, especially in their first year. Don’t focus on how the superstars are doing and release the need to always compete at the top. You’ve got a long journey ahead, and this mindset will make it harder.
Be Consistent, but Flexible
Make reviewing the most integral part of your overall study plan. Put all your energies toward creating a plan that works for you, for your skill level and learning style. For Torts, I did most of my reading and outlining of case briefs during the week and used my weekends for review. I switched this up a bit with my courses on legal research and writing. Be adaptable but know what works for you.
Make your own outlines for coursework, review all your case briefs before each class (no exceptions), and meet with your professors after exam grades are posted. I received the best feedback when going through my exams, and it helped my esteem and confidence to have a professor tell me what I was doing well. It’s these small boosts that are needed in a rigorous course of study. They help you power through on the days when nothing seems to go right.
Get to the law library and request practice exams. Take these often and review your answer against the sample answers. If answers aren’t available, let your professor know you’re taking practice exams and you’d like them to review some of your answers. Don’t wait until a day before the exam to do this!
Build practice exams into your study plan for every class, this will help you understand how to prepare and write for the exams. I had been out of undergrad for years before I went to law school, so I wasn’t as tempted to cram as some of the younger students were, but I did need to make some adjustments and create an environment where I was able to fully immerse myself in the coursework.
Breathe. You got into law school, and that’s an accomplishment. Stay the course, and you’ll earn an educational accolade that will serve you and others well over the course of your legal career.
* Note that not all of the suggestions and tips shared by these attorneys are applicable to Abraham Lincoln University, which is a distance learning law school.