This week we welcome guest writer Hillary Vaillancourt to discuss some changes she would make if she were going through law school again.
I still remember feeling like I was on the brink of something great the day I walked into my law school for my first day of classes. My whole career was ahead of me. The possibilities were endless.
I went to law school wanting to be Atticus Finch or Erin Brockovich. I was going to work for a nonprofit or move to Washington, DC and lobby on Capitol Hill for animal rights or children’s rights or the environment. Who needed to know estate planning or business law? Estate planners and business attorneys, not a future philanthropic advocate like me.
Turns out I was wrong about a few things. Here’s what I would do differently if I could go to law school all over again.
Build A Solid Legal Foundation
Funny thing about practicing law is there is never a case that involves one single subject area, but there are some areas of law that are more prevalent than others. Those are the ones tested on the bar exam.
For example, I wanted to practice animal law advocating for farm animals. Practicing animal law requires understanding property law (animals are considered personal property), contract law (when animals are bought and sold), criminal law (to prosecute crimes against animals), tort law (civil liability for actions of animals), and so on.
Keep in mind, too, that careers don’t always go according to plan. When I applied for law school the housing market was just starting to crack. By the time I graduated, jobs (even for lawyers) were few and far between. I quickly realized I needed any job, not necessarily my dream job.
That meant going to work for a small town general practice firm that mostly practiced property law but also represented defendants in criminal court and children in family court, drafted contracts, estate plans, adoption and divorce decrees. It seemed I needed to know a little bit of everything.
If I could go to law school all over again I would study all of the subjects tested on the bar. These subjects are tested, because they are the building blocks of the legal profession, and you never know what you might be called on to do in your career. Having a solid foundation will serve you well no matter what twists your career takes or what clients walk through your doors.
I applied to college as an English major thinking that I wanted to be a writer. But, before I enrolled I already decided to change my major to Public Policy in preparation for law school. Since I was five years old I wanted to be a writer, but later I discovered law. I spent years wringing my hands wondering whether I should become a writer or a lawyer.
Even after I enrolled in law school, I considered dropping out to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing instead. I thought I had to be one or the other. Writer or lawyer. Lawyer or writer. I could not be both. What I didn’t realize is that exercising creativity can make for better lawyering.
Writing persuasive headlines in briefs, finding unique, applicable causes of actions to solve a client’s problem, and even developing marketing content for a law firm all rely on a lawyer’s ability to be creative.
Plus, taking a break from strict analysis to engage the other parts of the brain can enhance the overall ability to think critically. At least, it does for me. There are so many ways to maintain creativity in law school. If I could go to law school all over again, I would absolutely make more time to be creative.
Prepare For Hidden Costs
Nine years ago when I graduated from law school there were only a few widely known bar exam prep programs. And they were expensive. Really expensive. I didn’t look into them until my third year of law school thinking I had time, but I was bowled over by sticker shock.
Later when I went to register for the Virginia bar exam, I was once again taken aback by the cost of registration fees not to mention the realization that I would have to foot the bill to travel across the state and stay at least two nights in a hotel. I’m taking the bar exam again this year, this time in New York, and my hotel bill alone will be $1,400 for three nights in Albany, NY.
I had no idea that there were countless hidden costs in law school, the bar exam, and practicing law. If I had it to do all over again, I would have had a few less pumpkin spice lattes and been a lot more financially conservative to account for all of the costs of attending law school not just the ones on my tuition bill.
Making The Most Of Your Law School Experience
No matter what your legal career ambitions are, whether you aspire to be Atticus Finch or Erin Brockovich like I did, or a general practitioner like I became, build a solid legal foundation, take time to be creative, and be prepared for the hidden costs of starting your legal career. You won’t ever get to do law school over again, so make the most it while you can.