Things I Wish I Knew, Vol. 9: Law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer, and that’s kind of okay

It defies our concepts of professional school, right?

Dentistry school: learn how to make people’s teeth healthy. Physical therapy school: help people regain lost movement. Electrician school, beauty school, you name it – all pretty much teach you everything you need to know to accomplish the job you’ll have after graduation.

Law school is the odd man out. Even attorneys I know who took classes in the area of law they now practice say that they learned most of how to do their job after they got it. That’s why I when someone asks me what type of law I want to practice, I always want to reply, “Well, I don’t think I know how to practice any type of law.”

I was absolutely astounded when after only four months of being optometry school, my boyfriend gave me an eye exam and a) diagnosed the fact that law school had ruined both my 20-20 vision and my vanity (hello, glasses), and b) got the prescription right, as confirmed by my licensed optometrist.

Because four months into law school, I’d learned a lot about being a law student, but I didn’t know anything about being a lawyer that I hadn’t learned from Law and Order. I didn’t understand how lawyers got paid, I didn’t understand the forms they had to fill out (what the heck is an engagement letter???), I didn’t understand how to advise a client, and so on and so on.

Everyone was super excited for the school year to end, and so was I – but I was also terrified of having to actually, you know, lawyer. 

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Me on my first day of my internship

But I’m now two weeks in to my internship at Harter Secrest & Emery, and I’m starting to understand why law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer.

Here’s how I see it: remember when you were 7 or 8, and you’d be reading something aloud in class, and you’d be mortified when you got to a word that you’d never seen before. “Pediatrician” or “exhilarated” or something equally alien to a second-grader. Remember how there was that long silence when the teacher would wait for you to say the word, and how frustrated you’d be because you knew she knew the answer; she just wasn’t telling you. So you’d stumble through the word amid snickers from your classmates, and you’d be mad, because the teacher wouldn’t correct you until after you’d botched the pronunciation.

If your teacher was anything like mine, she’d say, “Well, if I just gave you the answer, you’d never learn.” And then you’d be even madder. But sure as sugar, the next time you saw came across the word, you got it right.

Law school is very fond of that sentiment. If they just told us how to be lawyers, you see, we’d never learn.

So here’s what I have learned during my first two weeks of trying to be a lawyer:

First, the practice of law is much murkier than other professions. For every “yes” or “no,” to a question you find, there are a million “well, maybes.” Rarely is there one correct answer to a problem. And, as I’m learning from my supervising attorneys, rarely does someone give you the answer even if they have it. “Look into this” is a phrase that has become part of my average day, and the more I “look into” things, the more I’m figuring out, particularly in areas of law far afield from the 1L curriculum.

Second, I can research, I can write, and I can think. I’m not perfect at any of the three, but these are the things law school teaches you to do. The rest is just details.

And finally, when my family and friends ask what it’s like to be an almost-attorney, it’s totally okay to reply that I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I know that I’m doing it.

I’m rising 2L, but check out my posts about things I wish I knew as an incoming 1L so you’ll actually know them when you get here. My inbox is always open so you can comment on here, or shoot me an email at ochogo@bc.edu. 

One thought on “Things I Wish I Knew, Vol. 9: Law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer, and that’s kind of okay

  1. Pingback: 59 thoughts I had during my first week as a summer associate | BC Law: Impact

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