Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tell Me About Law School

A blogger friend asked me the question above.

I kinda like the response I crafted. So I'm repurposing it as a post, with redactions to protect identities and to delete one blatant fabrication I included in my original answer for comic effect:

Dear [Redacted]:

It very much depends on the law school. [redacted], the law school at [redacted], I'm told, has much to recommend it.

I hated law school, for purely idiosyncratic reasons:

1) I'd gone to The George Washington University as an undergrad, back when its undergrad program was way less highly ranked than its law school. My law school classmates looked down on the rest of the University, and I had a chip on my shoulder about that.

2) I knew when I went to law school that I wanted to train to be a poverty lawyer; I hoped never to send a client a bill in my life. I figured the Exxons and the Mobils of the world had plenty of representation; I wanted to represent people who, but for me, would find themselves in a courtroom alone.

This was not a common motivation among my law school colleagues. Few of us shared the same value system. One went so far as to tell me, after hearing that I'd done a summer law clerkship at a place called Community Law Offices, that I couldn't take such a job upon graduation or I would bring down the class average starting salary. [Blatant fabrication, told for comic effect, redacted.]

My last eight credits of law school were earned working at the Legal Aid Society of DC --- six for the hours I put in there and two for a paper I wrote. The paper was a very long "how-to" manual for young lawyers at big firms who took a pro bono case defending an indigent person from eviction.

They had the resources and knew how to write a brief and make a noise like a lawyer (i.e. "Objection, your honor, the question calls for speculation outside of the witness' expertise", or "Objection, your honor, immaterial," or the ever-popular "res ipsa loquitor").

But they had no idea what legal defenses one might proffer in a non-payment of rent case (i.e. breach of the warranty of habitability, violation of the rent control statute, failure to properly serve a summons on the defendant(s), or the ever-effective "failure to serve a proper Notice to Vacate in Spanish" --- even where no party to the transaction spoke Spanish.)

That last one was sneaky and unjust, but thoroughly legal in DC and, more than once kept a roof over the head of some innocent children who had the misfortune to have spendthrift idiots for parents. At least until winter ended, the spring thaw came, and the wronged landlord put a crowbar in his wallet and hired a lawyer to do the lawsuit by the books.

I put in all of this prefatory material just to warn you that my views may not reflect those of the typical law student. (Also 'cause I sometimes suffer from logorrhea.)
[Redacted area of law] is a growing field, and desperately needs trained lawyers who understand [redacted technical subject]. The D.C. Bar has 21 Sections, and one of the largest is the [redacted area of law] Section. Some of the most interesting people I deal with are from the [redacted area of law] Section.

If you're thinking about law school, do your research. Some schools (including G.W.) have strong [redacted area of law] faculties. You want to go to such a place.

However, don't expect most of your classes to be in [redacted area of law]. Even the most specialized law schools have a primarily generalist curriculum. First year is spent on very basic, broad topics --- typically Torts, Contracts, Criminal Law and Procedure, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law and Legal Writing. The goal is to get you a basic grounding in how the common law was developed, how it is developed, and how legal analysis works. It's a very specialized, not-necessarily-intuitive, way of thinking.

In your second and third years you have more opportunity to specialize, but you still must take a lot of classes that won't be about [redacted area of law]. At least not directly.

But you'll take Administrative Law, because most [redacted area of law] litigation starts out in administrative agencies like the [redacted federal agency] or [another redacted federal agency]. You'll take Federal Jurisdiction, because the disputes that aren't resolved at the administrative level then wind up in a Federal Court. You'll take International Law because, more and more, these issues stretch across borders and cannot be resolved in only one jurisdiction.

And, if you're smart (a given here), you'll take at least some credits in your school's clinical program. You'll wind up representing poor people in disputes far afield from [redacted area of law]. This is not just because I think it's the moral way to proceed. Much more than that, it's the only way to see praxis, instead of theory. Many freshly-minted lawyers have never seen the inside of a courtroom or a hearing room, have never drafted a Complaint or an Answer to a Complaint, and haven't the foggiest idea of how to translate laweyerese into language a client can possibly understand.

In all these areas, you'll stand in much better stead than your peers if you've done these things. (And maybe pick up a bit of good karma on the side.)

If you go to law school, you will have one big advantage over the drones who march in lockstep from a poli sci major to law school without any intervening time in the real world. You'll have valuable perspective to help keep you grounded. I saw a number of folks go literally and certifiably nuts because they had no experience in the real world and were confronting, for the first time in their lives, a room full of people who were as high-achievers as they were. It freaked them out.

I have a lot of trouble picturing you freaking out over your first C grade or over a professor who fancies himself the second coming of Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman) in "The Paper Chase".

There's an adage about law school that says "The first year they scare you to death, the second year they work you to death, and the third year they bore you to death." There's some truth in it.

The sheer volume of reading you have to do as a 1L is daunting, even to a promiscuous reader like you or me. I found little time to read the newspaper, let alone the fiction and biographies I normally thrive on, as a 1L. And I have to admit, the competition and high level braininess in some of my classrooms was scary.

But the fact that I was comfortable in Foggy Bottom after my undergraduate years there, and the fact that I'd taken a year off between undergrad and law school, helped with perspective on the scariness. [Redacted personal detail because my mom sometimes reads this blog].

In the second year, I had to read EVEN MORE than in the first year, but you get used to it and develop strategies for note-taking and outlining that, while the work is even more intensive than as a 1L (typically you're taking one or two more classes as a 2L) make year two more work than fear.

By the third year, you just want to get it out of the way, take the Bar exam and start your professional life. Typically, you've clerked during your second summer, and if you're lucky (and good --- a combination I suspect is innate for you), you have a pretty good shot at a job where you clerked after 3L is over.

Also, this is where taking some credits in your school's clinic comes in. The real life problems of real life clients are rarely boring.

Whoo-boy, I've pontificated at length here, and have only scratched the surface a bit. Of course your question was a mite open-ended.

Please follow up with any further questions you might have.

A law education is a good idea for you. If nothing else, it'll keep you from getting screwed when you develop the next [redacted product or service] and need to make sure you're the one who gets paid for it.




Churlita said...

You are the kind of guy who gives lawyers a GOOD name for once.

dmarks said...

Yes, true. I did a post about bad lawyers recently. I need to do one about good lawyers, and there are plenty of them.

David in DC said...

Churl: Thanks. I can always count on you for a boost. And in case I haven't mentioned it lately, I always read and appreciate your posts, and I looooooove their titles.

Dmarks: Yes, I recall posting a defense of the McDonalds Coffee suit and a semi-defense (or at least a semi-explanation), of Roy Pearson, the $56 million dry cleaner suit guy in response to your post.

But rest assured, I fully believe that at least 3/4 of my law school class got elementary school report cards that said "does not play well with others".

laura b. said...

I would always, always want someone like you on MY side.

David in DC said...

Laura: I already am :)

Val said...

Ditto what Laura said... that was QUITE some answer. (typical lawyer-ese! :-P)

David in DC said...

Val: Only a lawyer would write a 187-page document, replete with a table of contents, a table of cases cited, an executive summary and full of footnotes --- and then call it a "brief"