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Six Skills Every Law Student Needs to Master

The Careerist

April 29, 2013


©WavebreakMediaMicro_FotoliaToday's guest blogger is Anna Ivey, former admissions dean at the University of Chicago Law School. A former lawyer, she's now an admissions consultant for college, law school, and MBA applicants.

Don’t get complacent just because you’re at a top law school and making good grades, or you just landed a coveted law firm or public interest job for the summer. To move up in the long run, you'll need something extra. Smarts and a fancy credential aren't enough anymore.

Ask yourself: “What's my plus?” How do you stand out when your profession is being commoditized, and being average is no longer an option?

You cannot afford to wait to work on the skills you need to succeed once you're in a job. There are some skills you need to acquire now. Here are the top six skills you need to learn in law school:

1. Improve your writing. Students moan about legal writing classes, but they may be the most valuable class in law school. Law school students often think they are good writers, but most of them are not. Just ask the writing instructors.

Solutions: Work on a journal (yes, it's scut work, but you will learn how to edit, and that will improve your writing); take classes that require longer papers; do moot court (for the oral argument and the extra practice in brief writing). And take those contract drafting classes.

Write, get feedback, and write some more. You  will get better, but it requires lots of guidance and practice and correction.

2. Talk like an adult. That means learning how to write a decent cover letter and sounding professional on the phone. It also means using grown-up speech patterns. Many law school students don't and won't, and it puts them at a disadvantage. (Reforming speech patterns is hard. I'm a product of my generation, too—Generation X—and I find myself slipping from time to time.) The client, boss, hiring partner, judge, etc., will be less inclined to listen to you if you sound like a high school babysitter.

3. Learn to read a financial statement. Whether you plan on being a transactional lawyer or a litigator or something else entirely, you need basic financial and accounting literacy. You shouldn't even be running a PTA meeting or a pug rescue league without knowing how to read a balance sheet. Take an introductory course to accounting in law school if it's totally unfamiliar to you, and then cross-register at the business school for real accounting classes that MBA students take.

4. Hang out with B-School students. While you're taking accounting with the MBAs, get to know them. Pay attention to how they talk and think. They'll be managing businesses down the road and will be your client-overlords and referral sources. If you want to make rain later, learn about their nonlegal needs.

No matter what your ultimate goal might be, broaden your contacts. Don't hang out only with other law school students—if only for the sake of your own sanity.

5. Always network in person. Blasting out emails to people you've never met, hoping that they'll give you something (time, money, advice, a job, a favor), is a horribly inefficient way to get ahead. Email is fine if you already have a preexisting connection, but in many cases, establishing relationship capital means getting off your laptop, heading out the front door, and talking to people in person.

Follow-up is key. You never know where an opportunity or a life-altering tip will come from. So-called weak ties—people in your orbit who aren't close friends or family—matter. The people who come to your school to talk are a great way to start developing your in-person network. Networking takes real-life practice and work, and you have to actually do it. Thinking about it doesn't count.

6. Think like a creative problem solver and a businessperson. You may have defaulted into law school because you are not attracted to the "business world" (law students have a fuzzy notion of what that means). But you need to start thinking like a businessperson—which is what many of you will turn out to be be: You might hang out your shingle, be an equity owner with other partners, or be part of senior management. So start thinking like one now.

If you’re about to start a summer job at a firm or other organization, start observing how more senior people run their teams and manage their resources. Watch how they generate business clients. Notice how they don't just issue-spot and identify problems (lawyers are great at this part), but also how they solve those problems creatively and cost-effectively (lawyers can be terrible at that part).

This doesn't have to be a scary prospect. While you're in school, start an internal mental shift: Think of yourself as someone who has to run a business and solve management problems. Law school rewards relentless analytical reasoning; it's also quite good at selecting for it (thank you, LSAT). But it doesn't effectively teach creativity and problem solving for management challenges, so you need to start paying attention to those skills on your own.

A version of this post previously appeared on Anna Ivey's blog.

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.


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My friend is studying law and should know this, am going to share this very useful tips.


Great point about improving your writing. Another idea I didn't see mentioned in that section is that you could maybe start a blog (unless by "journal", that includes a blog). It will also help edit your writing, etc.

Run - don't walk - to a computer, go to Amazon and order The Curmudgeon's Guide. Every word in it is true.

"know the difference between a pubic and a private company."

Also important to know the difference between "pubic" and "public".

For me, it's always best that the pubic not become public.

Just saying, take your humour where you may!

Don't forget about reminding newbies to treat their seasoned legal staff as a valued team--most often they will teach them a thing or three!

Brett: I'd suggest you subscribe and read Harvard Business Review. That'll contribute more to your problem-solving ability than any volume of law-related reading. On the business of law, one of the best resources is Bruce MacEwen's blog, http://www.adamsmithesq.com/

Back in the fall I wrote a piece for my firm's blog about advice upon reflecting on my first year as a lawyer. Much of what I found to be useful is what you have identified. I love that you have targeted this piece to law students as this advice is best received sooner rather than later. Cheers on a well written piece full of good advice.

All true. I'm a new attorney learning these lessons, and unfortunately, law schools are hideously bad at helping lawyers-to-be with numbers 3-6. Specifically with regard to #6, thinking creatively/like a business person, does anyone have any recommendations for books/blogs/other resources that might be useful in this endeavor? Thanks!

Along with knowing how to read a financial statement - know the difference between a pubic and a private company. I'm glad someone brought up the subject of talking like an adult. I am sick of getting e-mails addressing questions to "you guys" and please read those e-mails to make sure they make sense. Sounds like basic office practice but you'd be surprised.

Very solid, practical advice - particularly about writing. I assign papers in almost all of my law classes at Duke and the quality of the writing - as you have seen at UChicago - is quite uneven. Well done guest blog (from a sometimes guest blogger here!).

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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