How to Graduate Law School with Practical Lawyering Skills (Yes, It Is Possible!)

Posted by Rob Barnett on 7/8/15 1:00 PM

People often say that going to law school won’t prepare you for the real-life work of being a lawyer.  For the most part -- they’re right!  Although a changing legal market has inspired law schools to invest more heavily in practical legal education as of late, the traditional model in place at most schools today continues to emphasize scholarly analysis of the law over practical application.  What law professors really do, unsurprisingly, is train their students to become law professors, who are skilled in theorizing about the law but not necessarily in advocating with it.  Which is great if you want to be a law professor…

… but what if you don’t?  What if you want to be an actual lawyer, filing motions and advocating for clients and appearing in court?  Well, fear not.  The law-professor training may be part of your legal education, but there are ways to spend your time in law school acquiring real, practical, hands-on legal training -- training that can really prepare you for a future career as a lawyer.  Not to mention the interview process!  Competitive as the job market may be nowadays, it’s hard to see legal employers turning away candidates with real, meaningful experience in their chosen fields.



When I started law school at Harvard 4 years ago,  I had no idea what I was doing, career-wise.  Yet, by the end of law school, I had represented incarcerated clients in disciplinary and parole proceedings, negotiated with Boston Public Schools to give a child the special-education services to which he was entitled, mediated several cases in small-claims court, written a legal argument (in Portuguese, which I didn’t speak) advocating for prison reform in Brazil, and argued a case in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston.  This doesn’t even include summer -- and winter -- internships I spent advocating for indigenous peoples’ rights in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington state!

Ironically, all these experiences convinced me I didn’t even want to be a lawyer; I’m now a high-school math teacher, which I love.  But I felt confident making that decision because I had experienced so many fields of law in my three short years at Harvard.  And, if I had wanted to be a lawyer, I’d have known exactly what type of law to practice!  Follow these steps, and you will too:


1) Look for supervised practice

Law is being practiced -- in the truest sense of the word! -- in law school, but you won’t find that in the classroom.  Most law schools today are full of Student Practice Organizations (SPOs) that will let you do legal work, under supervision of a trained and licensed attorney, from the moment you step foot on campus.  (They are especially interested in getting eager 1L volunteers!)  SPOs at Harvard represent prisoners, start-ups, immigrants, tenants, you name it… and the supervising attorneys love molding law students.  There’s no better way to practice law than by practicing law!

Law students in the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, hard at work!


2) Seek out (specific) advice

If you’ve been admitted to law school, chances are that you’ve already been given more advice than you want.  Lots of people know lawyers, and lawyers love to talk.  Your parents’ friend might not know exactly which SPO you should join (see above), but chances are good that she can tell you what courses are most important for her field of law.  The 2L you meet at orientation might not know what’s on the bar exam -- yet -- but chances are that he has friends who did all kinds of summer internships, and would be happy to connect you with the most interesting ones.  Talk to enough people, and you’ll be an authority on different fields of law before your first exam.


Lawyers love giving advice.  Get some!

3) Beware the beaten path

You’ll probably see, as soon as you start law school, that there are things every 1L seems to be doing: joining a law journal, for instance.  Don’t get me wrong, this can be a great thing to do: I have several friends who loved their journal experiences and use those skills as clerks or legal researchers.  But, for other students, these are experiences which sound good and offer little; in fact, it might take your time from doing valuable other things you might really want to do!  So, be critical about what’s being offered.  Will you like it, or will it help you to what you want to do?  If so, go for it!  If not, look elsewhere.  There’s more than enough opportunity to go around, which leads me to…


4) Be open to opportunity

This is probably the most important piece of advice, even though it might be the most vague.  Law school is crawling with interesting students, professors, and even alumni.  If you keep an open ear and mind, you may hear about things you’d never have imagined or expected.  For me, a chance conversation with a visiting professor led to a summer internship at his law school in Seattle; an offer to help an alumnus’s law practice with some research culminated in my arguing one of his cases before a panel of 3 federal judges.  I got those unique (and, in my own opinion, impressive) experiences merely because I was open to them, and they defined my time in law school.


So, there you have it: your path to a practical law school education!  Now go out, build your resume, get some personal and professional insight and experience, and maybe even do some good in the process.  Please reach out if you ever need advice… I’m excited to hear how it goes!


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