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)