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Preparing for Law School? Check out these do’s and don’ts.

This post was written by Mackenzie Koppenhofer, a 2019 Ms. JD Fellow. 

The year before beginning law school is a difficult one: you have a lot of fears and doubts based on rumors and articles about the difficulties of law school, you don’t quite know what to expect, and trying to juggle the application process alongside your other responsibilities can be overwhelming.

All of these things definitely bogged me down during my application process: I was working full time as a restaurant manager, had just graduated from undergrad, and no one in my family had ever gone to law school. While my family was supportive of me while applying, I had no idea how to best research schools, prepare for the heavy coursework, and get ready to quit my job and move to a new city by myself. I kept obsessively reading articles on websites like Above the Law about how I shouldn’t bother going to law school if I didn’t have at least a partial scholarship to a Top-14 law school while downing cups of coffee at work.

As it turned out, neither of these things were helpful: reading the articles convinced me that I was doomed to fail, and drinking too much coffee began the law-school-coffee-addiction problem 6 months too early for me. But now that I’m almost done with law school, and ready to graduate in May, I’ve realized that there are a few things that I’m glad I did to prepare myself for law school:

1) Took a prelaw class in college

My undergraduate school did not offer a “prelaw” major. So instead, I took the one class they offered on the subject, which was a general overview of each of the general courses offered 1L year at law schools over the course of the semester. While the class was of course nothing like 1L year of law school, just hearing some of the legal vocabulary and getting my feet wet in performing legal analysis was helpful in ensuring that I actually wanted to attend law school. It also helped me narrow down which areas of law I was interested in – our brief three weeks focusing on contract law was enough to convince me to steer away from contracts for the rest of my life. So if your college offers a prelaw course or major – take it. Especially if you aren’t absolutely sure you’re interested in a career in law.

2) Participated in activities that would prepare me for public speaking

Even if you don’t want to be a trial attorney, you’re going to have to get used to public speaking to succeed in law school. The Socratic Method can be brutal, and you’ll have to speak on unfamiliar subjects, using unfamiliar jargon, in front of unfamiliar people for your entire first year of law school. Getting a bit of experience with public speaking was beneficial to me, as it helped me gain confidence and develop better communication skills. For me, I found this experience in the form of participating as student counsel for my college’s Honor Code proceedings. In that role, I was able to represent students accused of school honor code violations, make arguments before the Honor Board, and make sanction recommendations for cases where the student was found responsible.

So if you have the opportunity to learn to public speak in an academic setting, take the opportunity. Whether it is Honor Code counsel, mock trial, moot court, or even something entirely unrelated to the law, like theater or improv classes, getting used to speaking in front of others really helped me feel more comfortable in my 1L year classes.

On the other hand, there are some things I wish I had done that I had no idea I should be doing. For instance:

1) Researched law schools, but not just for rank, employment rates, and scholarships/tuition

While those things are very important considerations when applying to law school, there are also important considerations that I didn’t know I should be researching. For instance, a school’s course offerings and clinic opportunities. A law school clinic is an opportunity to practice in a specific area of law with the guidance and instruction of an experienced law professor. It’s a valuable experience, and legal employers look favorably upon participation in a clinic.

I just happened to luck into a school with a fantastic public defense clinic, which is what I want to do. But not all schools offer all kinds of clinics: for instance, I have a friend who chose my school on the basis that it had an entertainment law clinic. The clinics offered at a school aren’t necessarily intuitive – he chose our school, in rural Pennsylvania, over a law school in Los Angeles, because the LA school didn’t have an entertainment law clinic at all, despite being mere miles from Hollywood. So research the clinics and courses offered by the schools you are applying to, and make sure your dream school offers opportunities for your chosen area of law.

2) Asked current students about the student body and culture of the law school

Another thing I wish I had done was contact actual students and asked them questions about what it was like to go to school there. Again, I got lucky and wound up at a school that suits me: I appreciate the laid-back vibe of my school, as I was afraid of going to a cutthroat school without opportunities to make friends. The student body and the culture of a school can make or break your experience there. So call the admissions office of schools you’re applying to, and ask if they have any student representatives who would be willing to answer your questions about the school. Are the professors harsh or helpful? Are there fun things to do on the weekends? What kinds of clubs and societies are active at the school? Do people study together, or do people mostly study alone? What is the cost of living like?

Having a student answer these questions for you can help you avoid the pitfalls of taking advice from a school’s glossy brochure that doesn’t mention the negatives of a school.

3) Learned how to write a good cover letter and resume

Unlike a lot of my classmates, I had never had a job prior to law school that required me to wear a suit to work. Though I had worked throughout my time at undergrad, all of my jobs were in restaurants, and didn’t really help me figure out how to write a stellar resume or cover letter. These are skills that are essentially to the already-difficult process of applying for summer internships and postgraduate jobs. Because of this, my first attempts at writing a cover letter and resume were essentially trial and error. So before it came to crunch time, and I was applying to jobs as quickly as I could during my 1L winter break, I wish I had learned how to write an effective cover letter and resume.

This requires a little bit of research, and help from others. If your school is offering a resume-writing class, take it. Have others critique your resume. Look up guides on websites, and use tried-and-true formats. And learn how to play to your strengths: though I had never had an office job, I learned how to phrase my responsibilities for my bartending and restaurant management positions in ways that were applicable to my legal jobs (having customer service experience prepared me to deal with people from all walks of life, work independently and as a team, and multi-task).

Finally, there was one thing I wish I hadn’t done before law school:

1) Worried so much

You will have plenty of time to worry while you’re in law school. Instead, enjoy your time before school. Build up your confidence, and come into school with an open mind. No matter what your classmates will tell you, everyone essentially comes into law school on even footing. Even people who have worked as paralegals, or whose parents are lawyers, aren’t really prepared for the intensity of law school.

And that’s because it’s basically impossible to prepare, really. But that’s also a good thing – law school is a time where you grow and change rapidly, learn your strengths, and get really close to your classmates, because you’re all going through the same thing.

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