Law school will teach you how to think like a lawyer, but it won’t teach you how to practice law.

Even though law schools are providing more skills-based classes, nothing beats getting practical insight from a mentor.

Learn things you won’t learn in law school

Law school teaches you lots of great things. Mostly, it teaches you how to think, talk, and act like a lawyer. Although law school curriculums are starting to include more practical skill classes (which I recommend), the majority of classes are substantive, not skills-based.

That’s why having a mentor is so important. Instead of doing a mock deposition with your classmates, you can watch a practicing attorney take or defend one. Even better, you can pick their brain before and after to see how they prepare and how they thought it went.

A good mentor should give tell you how to succeed in law school, how to move past bad law school grades, and how to make the most of your law school experience. Perhaps most importantly, they will pass on little bits of knowledge that can’t be described or categorized—but they are pieces of wisdom you will rely on for your entire career.

Learn how things (don’t) work

Not only is it important to watch lawyers do things the right way, it’s perhaps more valuable to watch them do it the wrong way. I’m not suggesting you find yourself a terrible mentor, and I’m not suggesting that most attorneys are incompetent.

I am suggesting, however, that even the best attorneys second-guess themselves and wish they could do ____ differently during a case. Watching them make those decisions and then analyze what went right (and wrong) is invaluable. One, you will benefit from their mistake and will hopefully not make the same decision when you are an attorney. Two, you will learn why it’s called the practice of law, not the perfection of law.

When you realize that even the best attorneys make mistakes, that should make you even more wary and protect against making those same mistakes.

Your mentor will not give you a job, but their colleague might

You should never approach a networking opportunity (like a mentor relationship) as a networking opportunity. The second you give off a whiff of “I don’t care about anything you say, I’m just trying to get a job” you are a dead duck. Most people, especially attorneys, will pick up on that.

Your goals should be to learn stuff, ask real questions, and prove that you have what it takes to be a lawyer. You can do that without begging or hinting for a job. Just like lawyers pick up on someone digging for a job, they also pick up on someone who is genuinely interested in learning, working hard, and making themselves a better lawyer.

There’s always a chance your mentor will hire you, but don’t assume that. What you should assume, however, is that they will tell all their lawyer friends about how great/lousy/annoying/schmarmy/hard-working you were. Make the most of that potential for good PR.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/neilio/246141039/)