Law Students: Experience is as Important as Grades

A few weeks ago, I started teaching a skills-based class to first-year law students. So far, I have been impressed with their interest in developing practical skills that are critical to success as a practicing attorney.

At the same time, the number of questions I get about grades is on par with the number of questions about the simulations we run. I can remember feeling the crush of first-year grades, but law students also need to realize the importance of acquiring practical skills and practical experience during law school; law school success can be defined in many different ways.

Why experience matters

If you think that every law student with good grades gets a job at a big firm, you are dead wrong. The number of law students who get big firm jobs based solely on first-year grades is a relatively modest number that continues to shrink.

Grades are important, whether you apply at a big firm, for a clerkship, or want to work for a solo attorney. But as you move away from big firms and high profile clerkships, employers are increasingly looking for recent grads who can step in and help sooner rather than later. Writing briefs and arguing substantive law is an important skill for a lawyer. So is interacting with clients and knowing how to establish strong rapports with them.

For many employers, if it comes down to two candidates, the applicant with more practical experience will get the job offer.

Experience can land you an interview or a job offer

If you have clerked somewhere during law school, there is a chance they will offer you a job after graduation. Chances are, you will have the leg up over any external candidates. Even if you are not an internal candidate for a job, having experience and practical skills can make you a more attractive applicant.

Of course, always keep your head on a swivel. Some firms exploit law clerks for cheap labor and use a potential job as an incentive to keep students working there. If you do some investigating, you can usually get information on the firm’s reputation, and whether you should be working with one eye on the door or find another clerkship altogether.

Experience can jump start your career

Congratulations if you wrote the best exam in Property I. Pat yourself on the back and move on—lawyering is about more than writing a great exam. For many attorneys, the majority of their day is spent talking to potential clients, meeting with current clients, dealing with opposing counsel, and doing other things that do not involve writing legal analysis.

Depending on where you work, those practical skills can jump start your career. You might get sent to court to argue a motion earlier than someone else. You might be given the reigns on a case earlier in your career because of how quickly you developed a rapport with the client. Those skills are acquired through experience, not reading a book.

Another time commitment can make you a more efficient student

Between class, studying, sleeping, and free time, you might think you are too busy to work part-time or volunteer during the school year. You will be amazed at how adding another commitment to your schedule will make you more efficient with your time and might even result in higher grades.

Think about it. When you have all night to read 40 pages, you probably spend 10 minutes reading, 20 minutes on Facebook, 10 minutes reading, send some e-mails, etc.

If you have a clerkship for 4-8 hours a week, that will eat into your study time. It also means that you will focus more and study more efficiently—you do not have the luxury of screwing around during study time. Trust me, I know from personal experience.

It can be tricky to get experience during law school, but it is time well spent, and will pay off in the long run.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/atomicbartbeans/366499457)

Law School

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  • JenniferGumbel

    I can second that. Rural employers, in particular, need to know that you can be responsible for files. Practical experience will make you more attractive and, in many cases, more attractive than a candidate with a higher GPA and less experience.

    • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

      Agreed. I think you more you move away from big firms and high profile clerkships, employers want to know that you be useful right away.

  • http://bunkerlawgroup.com/ Ben Bunker

    I couldn’t agree more on this. While grades are important, they aren’t as important as law school students may think. I spent my two summers in law school trying to gain some practical experience (as an extern for a judge and then working in the community mediation center on campus). Additionally, my elective choices were more practically oriented classes.

    However, my best experience was my clerk position after law school for a solo practitioner. He’d been practicing for 30 years, so he knew a thing or two. That was the best education I received. I learned how to deal with clients and organize a practice. As a solo, he let me do everything I could short of making appearances or signing pleadings. The little tidbits he offered up were invaluable. I should have been paying him instead of the other way around.

    That practical experience became valuable to me as I began interviewing for my first job (and subsequently). Just the basic experience of timekeeping was impressive to my potential employers. Getting experience can only help a law student in the short and long term.

    • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

      Working with a solo practitioner is great experience because, as you note, you get to do almost everything.

  • Staci Zaretsky

    I completely agree that law students should be focused on getting practical experience while in law school. I actually had about 8 jobs during law school, all in the area that I would like to practice. I really thought that it would be helpful in the future to know what I was doing. But, as someone who graduated less than a year ago, I’m not so sure that it actually was.

    I do have a permanent job and I am happy, but in this kind of an economy, I don’t know that law students can count on their experience, or their grades, for that matter, to land them a job after graduation. It’s a bit of a sad predicament.

  • aj

    HTF am I supposed to get experience when I can’t get a job!

    • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

      There are plenty of ways to get experience without getting a paid job. Most law schools have externship programs with attorneys and judges. You can also hit the pavement and start networking with attorneys at small firms or solo practitioners–many times they will hire a law student for a specific project.

      • MJC

        Randall, try answering the question without assuming the person is still a law student.

        • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder
          • aj

            So bother the people I already know–and since I already know them I know they’re not hiring. And volunteer at the places that are jam packed with volunteers since no one is hiring.

            Wow, you guys are so fucking out of touch.

  • ChihchinWang

    Great points.
    I did not develop enough practice-ready skills back in law school, and thus, I had to land my first job by volunteering first. My internship back in law school was unfortunately the kind this article suggests to avoid. At least I learn what not to do to my future intern students, so I thought.
    Now I am in the position offering law students internship opportunities, but my colleague and I often find ourselves spending more time tacking down missing info, fixing the clerical mistakes, or even redoing the case. I had a student telling me that he does not want to do any groundwork, but he couldn’t even handle phone conversations properly. At the end of semester, I often wonder to what extend the internship served its purpose.

  • Shaun Jamison

    I clerked for a small firm and was drafting complaints my first day. I also interned for a prosecutor and tried cases including a felony jury trial. It helped my confidence as a new lawyer immensely.

    The other skill lawyers need is networking. I’m surprised how rarely law students come to bar section meetings. I know it takes time, but you’ll have practiced networking AND have a network built by graduation.

    • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

      That sounds like an awesome experience as a law student.

      Networking is incredibly important as well—here is one of my more recent posts on the topic: http://lawyerist.com/law-students-become-networkers/

  • http://www.oceanlawusa.com/ Scott

    It sounds overly simple, but good and constant client communication and feedback is probably the most important legal skill you can possess.

  • evrenseven

    Absolutely wrong. All law firms care about are your grades. I have 5 years of experience and I can’t sniff a new job (even though I’m currently employed!) because of my 3.0 GPA. They won’t even entertain the idea of me sending one of 12 or 15 issued patents I’ve written for clients, for which they’ve paid me actual money. They seem more concerned with my awful grades in torts or wills and trusts. For my next trick, I’m just going to leave the J.D. off and apply for new jobs as a patent agent.

    • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

      Completely depends on what firms you are applying to. Big firms tend to care more about grades (as noted in the post). Smaller firms tend to place more emphasis on experience.

  • Rodney Splash

    I’m going from the bottom half the the class at the bottom half of the first tier to the top half of the AmLaw 100.

    How? Have substantial and translatable experience. Talk to every lawyer you can in every setting you can–ask lots of questions and tell them how much you love the law. Have other things to show for your time in law school other than grades (leadership, projects, publications…).

    Also, be fun. People can get past a lot of transcript blemishes once they’ve realized that your company would make a 90-hour week go by a little easier.

    And a little luck never hurt, either. Good luck!

  • reall?!

    This is terrible advice. Grades, grades, grades.

    • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

      Grades are important—there is no question about that. Depending on the job, however, experience might be just as important.

  • Dan

    Of course, if you just get good grades, you can get a job at biglaw firm or a clerkship. This advice only applies if you want to work for a smaller firm.

    • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

      Possibly. As noted in the post, the more you move away from big firms and clerkships, the more experience matters.

  • Iron Jackson

    As a 2L it’s good to hear this, but at the same time I wished this post actually said that law jobs are on the horizon and debt forgiveness programs are better than ever. Freakin’ FTC, why don’t you get on law school tuition: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/02/10/new-ftc-regulations-for-debt-relief-companies/

  • ipftw

    Completely agree with this. I am a 2L at a top 10 law school, and my grades put me in the bottom 25% of my class and I didn’t make law review. I ended up with 8 offers at 160k biglaw firms. Given I have a technical background, extensive work experience as well as the technical background seemed to let me overcome my grades.

  • Jill

    I don’t think any of the students at the law school you teach at think the course isn’t important or worth the time commitment. Their concerns are more based upon grading a course on a normal that lacks objective variables. Do you grade based on effort or performance?

    • David

      This is exactly right. A first-year skills course aims to be a “sandbox” permitting students to make mistakes and get their failures out of the way now, instead of waiting to make mistakes in practice as an attorney later. It is concerning, then, that students receive a poor grade for making these mistakes, thereby making them less attractive candidates for having a “C” on their transcript, in a first-year skills-based course, no less.

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

        Jill, Tony, and David-

        I find it strangely ironic that the three of you are using a post about job searching to complain about the grading of your professionalism class at the University of Minnesota.

        You do realize that your future employers read this site, don’t you?

  • Tony

    I don’t think anyone disagrees with the assertion that practical experience is important. The problem is when 1Ls are graded on a curve for legal simulations where there is no guidance or instruction beforehand, and the goals of the simulations are purely subjective. Having anything other than an “A” in professionalism will make finding a job, or even finding an internship or volunteer opportunity, that much more difficult.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

      Tony,

      Are you under the impression that the grading in your other courses isn’t also arbitrary and subjective? Are 1L grades really an objective measure of anything other than an exam-taker’s ability to take the exam?

      • David

        I think the concern might be better considered in light of the structure of a class. In most first-year law school courses, most or all of the grade comes from a final exam, which is entered into after an entire semester of preparation, and usually all of the exams for a single class are taken by all of the students at the same time and graded by a single professor. These are the justifications for a grade on a strict curve. A course which begins grading students in the second week and relies on grading criteria set by 25 separate professors does not justify a curve enforced against all 25 professors’ students as a unified group.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

          Protesting the grading of your Professionalism class is one of the lesser-professional things I have seen.

          You’ll be a lawyer (and this post will continue to exist) for many more years than you are in law school.

      • Jasmine Jonell

        Not only is grading arbitrary, wait until you get to the “real” world and court. Every judge’s ruling is subjective. This is a sad reality that my high school mock trial students learned this year through the judging of their trials. It sucks, but it is reality. I agree that grades are important, but I think experience is far more important. I never had a desire to work for a big firm, but I have never been asked about my grades in any interview I have had. They all wanted to know what experience I had. In the beginning it can be a catch 22 because employers don’t want to hire you if you don’t have experience, and with that being said, how do you go about getting experience. VOLUNTEER! I was licensed and applied for a work study position just to get experience. They told me they couldn’t hire me because I wasn’t work study eligible, but they would gladly take me if I wanted to volunteer. Of course, I jumped at the chance as this was at a county attorneys office which was what I originally wanted to do. I just recently met with a legal recruiter who told me that if he had an immediate job opening he would have hired me solely on the fact that as a licensed attorney I took a volunteer position.

  • Meg

    To clarify the grading structure of the 1L course being discussed– the curve is not applied across the entire 1L class, but within each of the five sections. About 2/3 of the points are graded by a single professor who heads a given section. The remaining 1/3 are graded by five adjunct professors (that head each subsection). The adjunct professors are expected to reward points based on standardized grading criteria.

  • Teunis Wyers

    The only problem is that state bars usually don’t give a rip about experience.

    • http://feeds2.feedburner.com/caveatemptorblog/rss Randall Ryder

      Can you clarify your point?