You are going to be a lawyer.
You’re not one yet but you will be soon.
When you are not in class, studying, [or crying in the shower because of the reading and hypos you need to get through], you should be networking to land yourself a job. Because you’re going to be an oral advocate. And you will become one sooner than you think.
Time flies. Law school is over in the blink of an eye. I’m pretty sure yesterday I was sitting in Torts, wondering what I’d done to land myself a spot in the class. Now, I’m expected to know so much about so many things (and feeling pretty positive that I know nothing) and I’m constantly feeling like everything is on fire. Like, all the time.
It’s important for me to always be real with you, reader. Law school is hard, and the work you put in is – usually – a direct result of the grades you earn. However, sometimes you do everything you can and trudge through the reading, hypos, and practice questions from supplements and still manage to fall flat on your face.
The only cure for feeling inept in class, in my experience, is actually applying the knowledge you do have in practice. Get out there and land a job!
Last summer, I worked both sides of the Federal aisle. My positions with the Federal Public Defender’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s office were phenomenal opportunities that solidified my love of the law, because, for the sake of full transparency, sometimes the classwork feels so disjointed from the actual practice of law. Researching, writing, speaking to clients, and interacting with attorneys and judges was exactly what I needed to understand the weight of being a lawyer.
When I interviewed for the positions, I doubted whether I was skilled enough to fill the role. Worse, I had no clue what to do to prepare myself for working in Federal court. I reached out to a Federal clerk, and school alum, for advice. His words of encouragement and suggestions, along with my learning experience, is what I now offer you.
- Keep an OPEN MIND.
At this point in your fledgling career, it is perfectly acceptable to have zero clarity on your future career plans. Let me repeat – you do not need to know EXACTLY what you want to practice upon graduation and receiving your Bar card. That said, take advantage of the wide variety of cases you may encounter during your clerkship/externship/internship. I strongly advise against being the person that says “oh, I don’t plan on practicing in [that] area, so I think you should put me on a different case.”
The open mind notion also applies to the umbrella of cases you will likely see in the area you want to practice within. Case in point – I am considering a role in criminal defense work. Which means I will likely work with people accused of committing crimes (much to my and Elle Woods chagrin, we will not always have innocent clients). I will not get to pick and choose which crimes I am willing to work on, though there is some leeway. Most supervisors are not going to let me cherry-pick cases. So, when I was tasked with working on cases of any kind, I accepted the opportunity. [Now, if you are wholly and vehemently against working on a client’s case due to a moral issue, then you should bring that up. There’s a rule in the code of ethics for such occasion, but keep in mind that your decision to *refuse to defend a client* may not be the best move for a budding attorney].
TLDR; Don’t turn away an assignment because, at the end of the day, you need experience.
- Effort Is Everything.
Show up, work hard, and get your damn work done. This really is just common sense. Don’t take weeks to research an assignment. These are real cases, and they need answers, fast. If you can’t find an answer, let your supervising attorney know. It pays to be the person who, after thorough research, pipes up to say there is not relevant law on the issue.
- Dress Appropriately.
I did not think this would need mentioning, but then some brilliant woman showed up in fishnet stockings and a miniskirt on her first day in the courtroom. The Marshal in the courtroom promptly walked up to her and asked her to leave and return in professional clothing. I’ve got nothing against the fishnets, or the high heels. This post is not to say what a person should wear in the courtroom/boardroom/firm. Simply put – know your workplace. If they’re lax, then dress casually. If your judge expects you in slacks and heels, well – then get yourself several power suits.
- Network with Non-Lawyers.
Some of the best advice I received this past summer came from the court reporters, office managers, investigators, and paralegals. Be sure to interact with everyone you come in contact with, even if it means going a bit out of your way to do so. In both offices this summer, the attorneys were difficult to reach out to because their offices were spread across the main floor. I opted to bring in breakfast a few times throughout the summer and had people drop into my office for tamales, kolaches, and doughnuts. It was an easy (and yummy) way to meet people with various interests and backgrounds.
[A smile and a snack go a long way, folks.]
- Learn the lingo.
Working in Federal Court this summer meant I had to learn about the Sentencing Guidelines. This is the book that many judges follow to the letter during their sentencing procedures. It used to be mandatory sentencing lengths, but now it’s just a set of “go-bys.” I had no clue what this was before my clerkship.
Thankfully, my supervising attorney went over the categorical approach, means versus elements, and how the guidelines are used. Our campus, much like many other law schools, does not offer a course specifically over guidelines. I recommend that you thumb through this one (or an earlier version) and be ready to ask questions.
As for the categorical approach – this is basically how the court will determine whether an offense fits within a given definition.
Means are how a crime was committed. These are not necessarily taken into account as what the prosecution must prove, but they can present evidence on it.
Elements lay out the pieces of the crime the prosecution must establish to prove the alleged crime.
I think this document is quite helpful (and short). It’s likely not important for you to know all the guidelines (I did not meet a single person who knew them all), but I feel it is important to at least know what they are and why the manual is a useful resource. At the very least this information will help prepare you for practice in Federal court.
- Proper Courtroom Etiquette Is Important.
Take a notepad. Everywhere. Write down things you find interesting about the proceedings, questions you have for the attorneys, or even oddities you noticed about jurors and opposing counsel. There is too much going on for you to simply take it all in, so you need to write it down.
Some courtrooms will have a Marshal manning the door. If so, they will let you in at a time when there is a lull. This way, your entering is not a distraction. If there is not a Marshal, then you simply need to enter quietly. Take a seat and pay attention!
- Teamwork. Teamwork. Teamwork!
I can’t stress this enough. Learn to work with your fellow clerks. They may be able to teach you aspects of the law you don’t have a grasp on. Or, they may have insight on research for a case that you need and they can help shorten your own research time. I needed information on Shepard documents for a case, which I did not have quite understand – nor did I have the time to start from scratch – and my friend (and fellow clerk) was able to shoot over her own research. Plus, she was able to give me a run-down of what I needed to know to pass along to my supervising attorney.
We may live in different states now, but we still keep in touch. I enjoy hearing about her experiences over virtual coffee meetings and catch-ups. Working together is one key to making it in this field. Be kind, work hard, help others.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of do’s and don’ts, but it’s what I found most important to share.
Be awesome & do great work!