It is crucial to do one's homework when it comes to choosing any career, and this could not be truer than for someone who is considering law school and a legal career. So how can a college student, who is undecided about a legal career, go about doing that homework?
I, too, was undecided about law school during my senior year in college, and I applied for paralegal positions primarily in New York City. Although I did not get a job offer immediately, I was eventually offered a position at a large firm in Manhattan. I accepted even though my parents feared that if I entered the workforce right out of college I would find it more difficult to return to graduate school. Nevertheless, it was the best thing I could have done, because I was given a first-hand look at the profession and some elementary training before I even set foot in a law school classroom. The experience of working with talented attorneys in a fast-paced, often stressful work environment gave me the perspective on a wide range of subjects that I needed to make an informed choice about committing to three years of law school and pursuing a career as an attorney. And, having grown up in Tennessee in a family with no attorneys, I am glad that I took some time between college and law school to explore the location – the greater New York City area – and the work environment – a law firm – in which I now live and practice.
During law school, I had the good fortune to receive offers of employment in New York, the place where I wanted to practice at the time. During my 1L summer I worked as an unpaid intern for a federal Court of Appeals judge, and the following summer I took a summer associate position at the firm where I practiced for the first four-and-a-half years out of law school. Now that I am beginning my ninth year of practice in New Jersey and have witnessed quite a few new attorneys grow unhappy with their chosen profession, I am even more convinced that it is important to be well informed about the demands of not only the career you are considering but also those of the workforce in general before you apply to and incur the financial burden of graduate school. In fact, any work experience – whether related to the law or not – can help you decide where your interests lie. It can also be a huge asset in the law school application process, the job search, and later on for a practicing attorney. Moreover, in the current economy, many legal employers are cutting back on their hiring, especially of new law school graduates. Some work experience in an area in which you are interested may set you apart from your competitors.
For the college student who is uncertain about whether he or she wants to apply to law school, try to get as much practical information as you can. Learning laws themselves is a never-ending process and you should not devote your efforts at this stage of the game to memorizing the United States Constitution or every Supreme Court holding. Rather, consider contacting attorneys – especially W&L alumni — at different stages of their careers in the sector and geographical area where you think you would like to practice; the "Advanced Search" feature of www.martindale.com is a great resource for identifying attorneys by law school, region, etc. Ask these attorneys to give you a candid description of their day-to-day life. Ask them to speak to you as they would speak to a family member or friend, and seek answers to the questions that matter most to you. If you are not sure where or in which field or sector you might like to practice, a wonderful resource is the American Bar Association (http://www.americanbar.org). The ABA offers a discounted rate for an annual membership to college and university students. Sign up for the e-mail version of the ABA Journal Weekly Newsletter to read about the practical issues affecting attorneys. Another useful and often brutally honest source of information and perspectives is Above the Law (http://abovethelaw.com/).
Just as important as gathering information about the legal profession is to engage in some healthy introspection. Evaluate your own personality traits, interests and goals, and, in doing so, enlist the help of family, friends and professors who will be honest with you and whose judgment you trust. Ask yourself: Am I a good listener? Do I enjoy writing? Can I keep confidences? Am I persistent? Do I get stressed easily? Can I handle criticism – sometimes gentle, sometimes not? Can I successfully juggle several projects at a time and do I enjoy doing so? Am I patient with others and with myself? Am I intellectually curious? Am I comfortable admitting when I do not know the answer? Do I ask for help when I need it? Can I adapt quickly to changing circumstances? These questions touch on just a handful of the qualities – some of which are innate and some of which develop over time — that most good attorneys and, frankly, most good employees have.
Doing this kind of homework now will pay off and increase the likelihood that, should you choose the legal profession, you will not regret the decision.
A native of east Tennessee, Stephanie R. Wolfe majored in European History and German Language at W&L and graduated in 1999 (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa). In addition to serving as a resident assistant during her junior and senior years, she participated in such campus activities as University Chamber Singers, Freshman Orientation Committee, University Scholars, the Student Faculty Hearing Board, and Pi Beta Phi. She now practices in the commercial litigation, employment, and white collar groups of Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti LLP in Morristown, New Jersey and is President of the Northern New Jersey Chapter of the Washington and Lee University Alumni Association.
Please leave a comment! Alumni Perspectives from our Alumni Guides are designed to encourage dialogue. To continue the conversation on twitter use #wlunetwork. Interested in writing a Perspective? Please contact Ryan Catherwood, Asst. Director of Digital Communications and Social Media (email@example.com).