Why practical experience is important for law students
When studying for a vocational degree, it is vital that students have insight and knowledge of the line of work they are studying to launch their career in. With so much time and effort spent on coursework, it is also beneficial to research the specific area they wish to find work in, so they can enhance their practical skills and knowledge.
Most employers want to see evidence of both theoretical and practical skills during job interviews, and a blend of both can give job seekers a head start when it comes to starting or adapting to a new career.
From first year to third year
Students who are planning on studying law can access a range of programs to fit their career ambitions as well as their schedule, and most law schools have a similar approach to the curriculum and study in the first year. In the second and third years, there will be opportunities for judicial clerkships, specialized programs, legal internships, participation in clinical programs, and moot court as well as many other ways to expand knowledge and experience.
First year curriculums can cover a range of subjects, and often include civil procedure, which is the process of adjudication in the US ranging from motions and pleadings, jurisdiction and standing to sue, as well as the structure of a lawsuit. Constitutional law is also often studied and covers legislative powers of federal and state governments plus questions of civil liberties and constitutional history. Additionally, students may also focus on contracts, criminal law and procedure, legal method, legal writing, property law, and torts.
Outside of class, it may be a requirement to participate in a moot court exercise, in which students argue a hypothetical court case.
After the first year, there are opportunities to select from a range of courses, including foundation courses in civil litigation, administrative law, commercial law, family law, and trusts. Each law school also supplements the basic curriculum with other courses such as environmental law, international law, and labor law, and additionally, most include experiential opportunities.
Alongside studying academically for law qualifications, it is also important to develop other skills including problem solving, writing and editing, critical reading, and oral communication and listening. Other soft skills for anyone working within the legal profession include research, organization and management, relationship-building, and collaboration.
Skills to develop before studying law
Prior to attending law school, there are values, knowledge, and experience that can provide a sound foundation for an education within the legal profession. Finding opportunities to engage in critical thinking about important issues will help to challenge individual beliefs and improve resilience against uncertainty and criticism. Any education or career within a legal framework will expect the evaluation and structuring of arguments for and against propositions. According to the American Bar Association, although a good legal education will teach students to “think like a lawyer,” the analytic and problem solving skills required of lawyers are not fundamentally different from those employed by other professions. The experience in law school is designed to refine and develop those skills but it is important to enter school with a well-developed set of abilities and a desire to improve them.
It is also helpful to develop close reading skills and critical analysis of complex textual material. Much of what is done as a law student and lawyer will involve careful reading and understanding of judicial opinions, documents, statutes and other written materials.
Furthermore, legal education will provide students with training in writing and the specific techniques required within law. However, fundamental writing skills can be refined prior to study, and it’s a good idea for students to seek experiences that require rigorous and analytical writing. The ability to speak clearly and persuasively is another essential skill to cultivate in law school, and excellent listening skills are crucial to understand clients and other professionals. Before attending law school, it is helpful to find ways to improve these skills, such as participating in debates, making formal presentations in class, or seeking opportunities for public speaking.
An ability to research is vital to anyone within the legal world, and there are many sources and techniques specific to that. However, it can be useful for students to undertake a research project before attending college that requires a significant amount of research and analysis of large amounts of information. This will develop skills and show course leaders their capabilities.
It is also helpful for students to gain an awareness of basic areas of knowledge related to a legal education, such as developing a broad understanding of history including factors such as the social, political, economic and cultural factors that have influenced the development of society. It is also important to understand the contemporary American political system and ongoing world events.
Finally, gaining a realistic view of the practice of law before entering law school is vital. It is a good idea for students to take advantage of opportunities to shadow, network, or be mentored by practicing lawyers.
Opportunities for practical experience while studying
There are all sorts of opportunities available to students to gain practical experience while studying law. For example, mentorships are a great way to gain insight and knowledge. Learning from a legal mentor can help to streamline and strengthen a student’s personal professional development. A legal mentor is an experienced lawyer who guides their mentees, passing on their experience and advice, helping them to learn new skills, set effective goals, and build confidence.
Law students can often find mentors within their existing networks and affiliations, using relevant student clubs, law school resources, and the faculty.
Another way of building experience and knowledge is to work as a legal intern, which is a recognized way to build connections and open doors for potential employment opportunities as well as gaining valuable experience working within the field. Interns have a unique opportunity to receive mentorship from experienced attorneys with many years of experience of guiding people through the many complexities of law. Intern students can learn to do basic skills from how to address a judge or draft documents to understanding how to develop professional relationships and manage stress.
Another benefit of internships is the opportunity to get used to rigor required to complete specific tasks. By engaging in research and litigation duties, valuable insights will be gained into many aspects of being a lawyer such as document review and time management. Furthermore, internships provide an inside look into courtroom procedures and proceedings such as hearings, trials, and motions, and an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of presenting evidence, arguing a case from an attorney’s perspective, and cross-examining witnesses.
Another benefit of embarking on a legal internship is the chance to obtain references and endorsements as well as valuable contacts. All of this will show future employers that a candidate has the capabilities they are seeking.
Internships are seen by employers in many sectors as an important bridge from studies to career and provide avenues to increased skills, expanded networks, and enhanced social capital. They can provide direct pathways to job offers and are used widely by companies in the US. They are also regarded as one of the most effective recruiting tools for employers, and experience as an intern is often a deciding factor when employers are evaluating two otherwise equal candidates for a job.
Participating in practical experiences such as moot courts are also useful. Moot courts simulate a real court environment to give law students an opportunity to put their learning into practice. They cover the appeal process rather than a trial, so they don’t include witnesses, evidence, or juries. Students are given a hypothetical case and will either take on the role of the appellant or respondent. Each side must prepare both written and verbal arguments which they will present to a judge or panel of judges, and then a ruling will be made based on these submissions. In addition to participating in moot courts, finding opportunities through mentorships, internships, or work experience to be part of a real court case will prove invaluable to all law students.
When identifying and interviewing candidates for jobs, law firm recruiters will be looking for basic competencies such as leadership, teamwork, communication, self-motivation, creativity, problem-solving, writing skills, and community involvement. Many firms will also value experience such as mooting and working on a law journal or review, for example. Job seekers should strive to show that their past experiences have given them the skills that recruiters and employers want.
According to an article in Chamber Associate, recruiters value work experience that is transferable to legal work, but it doesn’t have to be law-related. It could be something that illustrates an individual is a team player or can provide excellent client service. Experiences that show they can exercise good judgment in a previous work environment are also helpful, whether they are working in a coffee shop or as a paralegal.
Taking on part-time and summer jobs also show drive and commitment, and some recruiters value candidates who have had previous careers in different fields, although others prefer a past more closely linked to a legal career. Law firms in general are looking for people who are well-rounded and creative thinkers who have strong personalities and often look at extracurricular activities as an indication of that.
When embarking on a career in law, individuals are embarking on lifelong learning too. Deciding to develop skills with practical experience before and during studying for the correct qualifications is something that will remain important through their working life. Alongside this, it will be necessary to keep up to date with new regulations, work practices, and new developments, by going on courses, studying for more qualifications, and reading job-specific papers, websites and more general information.
Top professionals in all spheres are always learning because the world is constantly changing, and they know that they must keep up to ensure they can do their jobs effectively.
In the field of law, continuous learning is slightly different to Continuing Legal Education (CLE). This is to keep legal professionals informed about changes in the law, and some states require their attorneys to earn a minimum number of hours of CLE per year. Additionally, legal practitioners need to invest in training in technology, and other areas such as the business of law, wellness, and interpersonal skills.
During a degree or postgraduate qualification, students will focus on achieving their qualification, but as they progress through their career, that commitment to learning and development must continue. Therefore, time needs to be set aside for learning throughout a legal professional’s career. Simple things like listening to a podcast or reading a chapter of a relevant book is time well spent. As the practice of law becomes more complex, a helpful way to meet these challenges is to be open to learning new things. This mind-set, if developed during study by taking on opportunities for practical experience where possible, should pay dividends in the long run.
Job prospects for law graduates
Many law graduates will pursue a career as an attorney, but there are other career paths available to those with a degree in law such as compliance officer, judge, law clerk, law librarian, law professor, mediator, consultant, lobbyist, and paralegal.
Non-practicing law-related careers that require an understanding of complex regulations, negotiating abilities, and strong communication skills include investment banker, real estate agent, management consultant, human resources manager, and company director.
There are many avenues for employment available for those who have achieved a qualification in law. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of lawyers is projected to grow 8% during the years between 2022 to 2032. This is faster than the average for all occupations with around 39,000 openings projected each year, on average, over the decade.
Getting the right qualifications
Prospective lawyers must undertake a series of steps to practice law, including completion of undergraduate and graduate degrees, examinations and licensing processes. A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement for admission to law school, but it does not have to be in law, and students gain admission to law school from many areas of study, including political science, mathematics, English and economics.
Committing to law school is a big step, and candidates must pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). This assesses essential skills, rather than just knowledge, needed for success during the first year of law school. It is designed to determine a student’s readiness for law school, and before taking it, knowing how and what to study can help students to organize their work in advance. It is administered in two parts and generally takes three and a half hours to complete.
It is helpful for students to prepare for the test, the first of which is the multiple-choice questions element. LSAT logical reasoning is one of the key sections in this part, as is reading comprehension and analytical reasoning. Finding a course that teaches LSAT logical reasoning is vital, and it is particularly helpful to embark on a course of study that values and highlights classroom theory and experiential learning opportunities. The Online JD course at Cleveland State University is a perfect example. A Juris Doctor (JD) is a legal degree required for those who want to sit for the bar exam in their state. The course at Cleveland State University is ABA accredited and designed for affordability and access. It enables students to earn their degree part-time in three years and three months while maintaining their professional and personal life.
The program provides integrated experiential learning opportunities designed to put classroom theory into practice, and students are paired with an alumni mentor to connect them directly to the profession and guide their professional development. In live and simulated experiences, students will have the opportunity to interact with clients, counsel and prepare briefs, research client questions, and prepare legal arguments.
The application process for the course is simple, and enrolment advisors are available to help with any questions about tuition, admission requirements, experiential learning services and more.
The final step
Following completion of this step, most states require lawyers to graduate from an ABA-approved law school and pass the state bar examination before qualifying in that state. Each state sets its own testing guidelines, but generally the bar exam is a two-day process. The first day is spent completing the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE), and the second day focuses on writing examinations that cover a variety of legal matters. In addition to the bar examination, the state board of examiners also consider the candidate’s competence, educational background, character, and their ability to represent others in legal matters, before offering full legal licensure.