Law schools are changing. When I was a student, we spent our days analyzing cases and learning how to identify potential issues. Even today, when I visit a business, I can easily spot 10 potential problems that could cause liability issues for the company.
But now, I read that law schools are going beyond just analyzing cases to offer students everything from meditation lessons to mock trial experiences.
And while I love the way things are heading, I think law schools could be doing so much more.
An Opportunity to Pursue What Matters
Growing up, I experienced a lot of adversity. As a Hispanic female whose family hails from Central America, I know all too well what it feels like to be powerless.
The main reason I went into law was to advocate for those who have no voice. In school, I had grandiose dreams about how I would change the world when I graduated.
But those dreams didn’t come true. At least not right away.
When I entered the workforce, I felt like I had to fit what I called the “lawyer mold.” Instead of serving the communities who needed me, I was in the courtroom defending insurance companies.
If I had learned the following lessons in law school, I believe I would have been more comfortable in my skin and confident in my choices. It wouldn’t have taken me five years to start my own business and do what really mattered.
Lesson One: It’s Okay to Test the Waters
After hiring a recent grad, most firms invest a lot of time and money into training the new hire how to adapt to their practice area — only to lose the employee to a better opportunity a year or two later.
Much of this turnover comes from not feeling a sense of purpose on the young lawyer’s part. At least, that’s why I left my first job.
To prevent this, law schools should offer a rotational program, much like medical schools do. This would give students the opportunity to discover what they love — and what they hate — and avoid years of frustration and stress toiling away in the wrong job.
What better way to do this than to encourage students to get real-life experience at firms, startups and corporations? They could even shadow someone in the C-suite.
A law degree is one of the most versatile degrees. If we could show students how many options are available to them after graduation, it’s likely that there would be less burnout, substance abuse and health problems.
Some law schools have tried this in the past, but the programs were not sustainable. I vote we keep trying to perfect this model.
Lesson Two: There’s More to Law Than What’s in the Books
When I first started my career, I was a stickler for precedents. If the law said our opponent was in the wrong, we would be merciless in ensuring they got the punishment they deserved.
But when I went into business for myself, I saw that there’s more to serving a client than just following the letter of the law.
A few years ago, I met with a client who was rightfully angry because his employer was withholding his wages. On top of that, the boss was preventing my client from working other jobs. The employer was breaking multiple laws; we could have sued them for a good chunk of change.
But my client was an immigrant. And he was concerned that if he sued his employer he would be deported. He walked away from what could have been a very successful case because it simply wasn’t worth the potential heartbreak.
Even though I knew the law was on his side, I fully respected his position. That’s a lesson you don’t learn in law school.
Lesson Three: The Importance of Being a Good Communicator
During undergrad, many aspiring law students bulk up on political science and criminal justice classes. But if I could get my hands on them, I’d tell them to take English lit, journalism or communications instead.
My bachelor’s is in English literature. I spent my undergrad years poring over Victorian novels, Greek classics and dramatic poems.
But I wasn’t just reading, I was analyzing. Every day in class, we got together to dissect what the author or poet was trying to say. My classmates came from different backgrounds. Each person’s unique perspective made these discussions even more interesting.
Undergrad experiences like these don’t just help students prepare for the case studies they’ll have to write in law school, they also help them see how many ways a single piece of writing can be interpreted.
This insight has helped me immensely as a lawyer. Sometimes you have to look at the law in a new way to reach a resolution.
Lesson Four: Mentors Matter
Beyond the classroom, law schools could almost guarantee every student’s success by matching them with a mentor who shares their values, goals and life experiences.
I know, because I never had one.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t jump at the opportunity to serve when my alma mater, Stetson University College of Law, rolled out a new mentorship program.
Today, I serve as a coach and counsel to a young law student. Each semester, we talk about her experiences and the decisions she has to make.
Recently, she struggled with her plans for her summer break. We went through her options together. I was so proud to hear her thoughtfully work through the long-term consequences of each possibility before making her decision.
Lesson Five: You Have a Gift to Offer the Practice
One of the biggest lessons I learned, much too late in life, is that I have a unique gift: I am an excellent teacher.
Looking back, one of my favorite jobs was teaching eighth-grade English. And while the bureaucracy of the job was draining, I absolutely loved working with my students.
Teaching forced me to not only understand the rules of grammar, sentence structure and syntax, it also forced me to make those rules relevant to my students. (Trust me, getting hormonal 13-year-olds excited about serial commas is no small feat.)
Even today, as the managing partner of our firm, I still find myself playing the role of teacher. Daily, I have to create and manage processes that help our lawyers, paralegals and staff produce their best work.
That’s the easy part.
The hard part is teaching my staff how to follow and work within the guidelines of these processes. This can get hairy when someone’s unfamiliar with a tool we use. It can get even hairier when a team member is used to accomplishing a task in a different way.
But I love every moment of it. Nothing brings me more joy than seeing someone learn a new skill or conquer a new process.
Each law school student has a gift that they can bring to the practice. My hope is that their professors, schools and mentors can help them uncover that gift sooner, rather than later.