Becoming a Lawyer: How to Ace Day 1 of Law School

becoming a lawyerTen years ago this month I started my path to becoming a lawyer. In August 2005, I enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. I spent three years with some of the most remarkable people I have ever had the privilege to meet. I engaged in debates, I survived winters, I watched an absurd amount of football, and at the end of it all, I graduated in May 2008 secure in the knowledge that three years of law school had shown me not just how to think like a lawyer, but how to become a lawyer. That would become crucial when the world shifted on its axis a mere four months later.

Law school will always be one of the best experiences of my life. But now, thinking back on those early days of law school, I realize that there was quite a lot that I did not know on my first day about being a law student and becoming a lawyer. There were, and still are, an infinite number of books, articles, and blog posts on how to prepare for law school generally. However, as a new student and particularly one from a foreign country, I didn’t know what to do right from the moment I started.

So that’s what this is. On your path to becoming a lawyer, what do you need to know on Day 1 of law school? Here’s my advice:

1. Know how the U.S. legal system functions.

Remember civics? I don’t; I didn’t go to high school in the U.S. so I never studied it. And even if you did take civics, you might not know how it relates to you becoming a lawyer. You might not know about the different federal courts, the relationship between federal and state court, how the appeals process works, and what actually happens when an appellate court makes a decision. You are going to be reading hundreds of cases in law school from the very first day, and every single one rests on the foundation of our U.S. legal system. If you don’t know how that legal system works, then you’ll be lost from Day 1. Read this before school starts and you’ll already be ahead of most people in your class.

2. The first person you meet might be a future client. Or boss. Or friend.

Every single person you meet in law school is important. Not only because they will be your friends and colleagues for the next three years, but also because you have no idea how your lives’ paths will intersect. That woman sitting by herself at orientation dinner might be the next General Counsel of Microsoft. The 3L offering to be a mentor might become a partner in your law firm. Your Torts professor might have clerked for the very judge you would like to work for. Law school is life in miniature. Every person you meet might one day have a job or position that you will need. Don’t believe me? On my first day of law school, I met two guys assigned to be roommates at Michigan. Four years later, I married one of them. His roommate stood up in our wedding. Two years after that, the very same roommate recommended me for a job in his law firm. I got that job. So take a look to your right; take a look to your left. Both of those people might change your life.

3. Join a club.

Every law school has dozens of different clubs and organizations that you can join. You will learn about all of them at the beginning of school. They are stacked with 2Ls and 3Ls who are willing to help you navigate the unknown. Do you know how to brief a case? What an outline is? The difference between holdings and dicta? They do and they want to help. Sign up for a club and your first year suddenly becomes immensely more manageable.

4. Buy a commercial outline.

Almost every law student in the country takes the same foundational courses – contracts, property, torts, and criminal law. The legal principles that govern these subjects are fundamentally the same. Professors teach you to think about these principles, to challenge these principles, and to apply these principles to a host of scenarios. However you still may want a one sentence explanation of how the basic principle works. So pick up a Gilbert’s or Emmanuel’s. You certainly can’t use those books alone to ace the exam, but it helps to have a firm understanding of the legal principles before you start waxing esoteric on whether those railroad guards should have known there were fireworks in that package. (Palsgraf – remember the name).

5. Introduce yourself to your legal writing professor.

Legal writing is one of the most important classes you will take in law school. For litigators, this is obvious, but if you’re going into the corporate world, you might think, “I’m doing deals not writing briefs.” But you will be writing. You will be writing emails, memos, and paying incredibly close detail in your contracts to the “hereafters” and “hereins” that litigators will seize upon when they sue over your deal ten years later. Also, that legal writing professor is often a current or former practicing attorney with connections in your legal community. They are great references to have and can offer excellent advice on the career path that you choose.

6. Make a plan.

Like many things that seem insurmountable in life, surmounting them only works when you have a plan. Don’t go day-to-day in law school thinking you will figure out the whole thing later on. Have a plan now, today, this very minute, right this second. When will you do your reading? How much reading will you get done? When will you start outlining? What’s your outlining process? What study groups will you join? Where will you study? It is very easy to get sucked into the everyday busy-ness of law school and put aside a long-term plan until later. But with a plan in place, you can both manage the workload and just maybe, have some fun as well. Which takes me to my last piece of advice . . .

7. Please remember to have fun.

Yes it is an enormous amount of debt. Yes it is an enormous amount of work. And yes it is an enormous amount of pressure to get the grades, get the ranking and get the job. That said, remember to have fun. For most of you, this will be your last time in school. Enjoy the new friends you will make and the wonderful times you will have. And then when 2025 rolls around, you can reminisce about how ten years ago, you too had one of the best experiences of your life. So good luck new law student. You are well on your way to becoming a lawyer.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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