Pre-pandemic, I used to occasionally guest lecture in ethics classes at Marquette University Law School. Remote learning and restricted campus access put that on pause, but I’m excited to say the pause is over. Next month, I’ll be back at Marquette, but tomorrow, I’ll be chatting with Dean Emeritus and Warren P. Knowles Chair Margaret Raymond’s professional responsibility class at UW Law School.
And, I’m sure, even if I don’t mention my blog, at least a few students will Google me and, if my SEO allergy hasn’t come back to bite me, come across it, which means I should really update this thing.
So, hi, students I may have met or who may have stumbled upon this through other means. I’m happy to answer questions—I respond well to a social media “subpoena” even though I know I don’t have to and probably shouldn’t. Here are 10 of the answers I’ve given over the years when law student and new graduates have asked about what I didn’t know in law school but should have.
In no order:
1. You will make mistakes. Your law school legal writing professor may dock your grade for italicizing a period that shouldn’t be italicized. But in practice, mistakes happen—bigger, scarier ones that sitting in your classroom today, you don’t even know exist. The good news is, many don’t matter, and/or are fixable through motion practice, supplemental briefing, apologies. And the ones that aren’t? Well, we have malpractice insurance for a reason.
2. Relatedly, success is not linear. You probably had some idea, when you started law school, about what you wanted to do when you were out of law school. It’s OK if you end up doing that, and it’s OK if you don’t, or don’t do it forever. Law isn’t like medicine, where you do a residency and perhaps a fellowship in a specialty, and if you want to change once you’re in practice you have to take a huge pay cut and perhaps move to do another residency. You can keep learning, add and subtract practice areas, go in-house from firm practice (or vice versa) throughout your career. And, if you falter–you can come back from being fired (I can speak first-hand to that) or from being suspended.
3. Law school is designed to make you compete against your peers, but you don’t need to be a jerk about it. Wisconsin’s legal community may seem big, but we all seem to know each other. Your classmates may become your colleagues, your opposing counsels—maybe even your bosses or judges. Don’t be that guy (regardless of your gender).
4. SCR 20:1.7(a)(2) conflicts come up way more often than you would expect (and more often than my own law school classes would suggest, even though we spent a lot of time on more traditional conflicts)—this Rule prohibits representation of a client (absent informed consent) when “there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer’s responsibilities to another client, a former client or a third person or by a personal interest of the lawyer.” This is not a direct, “someone else in our firm represents one spouse in a divorce so we can’t represent the other” conflict, but anything that interferes with your ability to adequately represent someone. This could be a family conflict (do you want to sue your spouse’s cousin?); a political or issue conflict (can you adequately represent the PRO side of something when you are personally very ANTI?); a business conflict (that chiropractor is a really good referral source, but now someone wants your help pursuing a malpractice claim against them—should you?); or, really, anything else. And, a good conflict checking system may not pick this up; you really need to stay on top of these conflicts and really be honest with yourself about whether you can do a good job notwithstanding the conflict.
5. On the other hand, the fraction of a class session you spend on SCR 20:1.8(j) is probably enough.
6. Your worst moments do not define you. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of, and most will not prevent you from being able to practice law. But if your worst moments are things that the Board of Bar Examiners wants to know, figure out how to disclose them fully and candidly (and, if necessary, amend your law school application to reflect things that pre-law you didn’t realize you should have disclosed). Your character & fitness application is not the place to relitigate old arrests or blame your ex for the back taxes you admitted responsibility for.
7. Law school and lawyering are hard and stressful. Lawyers and law student have high rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Similarly, vicarious trauma can be a thing for law students and lawyers, and not just in criminal law.
Please don’t be afraid to get help when you need it. Wisconsin’s character and fitness application stopped asking general questions about mental health treatment several years ago; the fact that you sought counseling or medication, or had inpatient treatment, or had to take a semester off to attend to your mental health should not keep you from becoming a lawyer. I would wager that students who stay on top of their mental health with professional support make better lawyers than those who struggle alone but can honestly report they’ve never sought treatment.
8. You can be a successful attorney without selling your soul, or even without removing your nose ring. I know career services will advise you to wear a conservative suit; light makeup (and only if you are female-presenting); minimal jewelry and no visible non-ear piercings or tattoos; and wear neat and “professional” hair, whatever that is. Tone down your language, and keep your politics to yourself, lest you talk yourself into a 1.7(a)(2) conflict with your future employer’s entire business model. And for some employers, that’s the MO, and unfortunately, that MO is keyed to a white, well-off, cisgender male norm. But you don’t have to work there or do that, if you don’t want to. I do what I do without makeup, without high heels, sometimes in jeans or in sandals well past the season, and often, with cat lady hair. I swear a lot and am open about my politics. You’ll land somewhere that values actual professionalism over appearances.
10. Not everyone comes into law school with up-to-date office suite skills, and I don’t think most of us have to know things like v-lookup or web design. But seriously, know how to redact, the right way. Check you’re hitting “reply” and not “reply all.” Competency includes technical competency (see Comment 8).
What questions (or answers) do you have?