7 Things you must Unlearn from Law School

It’s no great secret that I have an uncomfortable tension with university education. For lawyers, it’s a mandatory and expensive barrier to practice.

So after spending upwards of $100k, you would think that at Uni you would learn, at the most basic level, how to function as a lawyer, right?

Except you don’t.

In fact, many of the things you learn at University are outright destructive so far as your legal career is concerned.

Here are my top 7 things that University teaches us that you simply cannot get away with in practice.

1. There is No Client

Everything you do at university is client-less.  Even hypotheticals like “advise your client about…” don’t really have a client.  How do I know? Because these people don’t DO anything. They don’t ask for estimates of cost or time, they don’t google things and ask you about them, they don’t drip feed facts to you, and they don’t make decisions that go against your advice and then blame you for it.

As a result we learn that legal practice takes place in a vacuum, carefully protected from the humanity of it all.

Whereas, in reality our client is the only thing that legal practice is for.

2. It’s About the Law

This shines through in the way university is structured.  I accept, of course, that knowing law is important – if you didn’t know it, then you would be useless.

But it’s not ABOUT the law.

It’s about your ability to apply it, explain it, adapt it, and communicate it in ways that are useful to people.

Those are different things, and ones where university fails, as you’ll see in the next few headings.

3. All Writing is Academic Writing

Here are things you’ll lose marks for in an assignment at University:

  • doing footnotes in the wrong academic method
  • failing to identify all of the correct authorities – even if the answer was right
  • not picking the things the lecturer thought were most important

Here’s what you’ll get “marked down” for in a Law Firm:

  • using long sentences with multiple concepts
  • not having a point
  • footnoting at all (other than rare exceptions)
  • using stupid words like “hereinbefore”

Here’s the thing – at University you write in the way you know will get you better grades (which is fine – I’d do the same).  As a lawyer, though, your job involves a much more subtle and nuanced approach to writing for your specific audience.  What works in situation A might be a total failure in situation B.

4. Limitless Time

Here is the joy of the procrastinating law student.  You get an assignment – it has 4 weeks to do the work.  You look at the question, and think perhaps you like the first option.  You think about that.  You read stuff over the next week, but haven’t quite made up your mind yet. You dilly dally a bit, mess around, read other stuff, cases and books.

With a week to go, you get down to writing it.

With a day to go, you knuckle down and get it finished.

With an hour to go, you put the polish on – voila!

Unfortunately, what you have just done is the most indecisive, inefficient, and costly method of doing anything, ever.

In practice, your time would be written off as wasted, inefficient time spent doing effectively nothing.  Sure you got the answer eventually – but you took the slow, costly road to get there.

5. Money

Yep – it was going to come up.

Connected with limitless time is the concept of your value – at least from a law firm perspective.

No law firm can afford too many lawyers who stuff around – your time is valuable.  If you ever hear “It can just be written off” it’s someone saying that they are throwing money down the drain, because whoever had the job to do didn’t do something right.

Your time is valuable in a law firm.

At uni – not so much.

6. Other People

Outside the delightful concept of group assignments, by and large you are on your own at university.  It is your personal endeavour, your individual effort, and your singular achievement.

A law firm isn’t like that.  You have to interact with your colleagues, secretarial staff, paralegals, partners, mail clerks, settlement clerks, outside clerks, couriers, barristers, judges, clients, friends of clients, and many more.

Some people are easy.  Others are not. Some people make your life easier, and others seem to throw up roadblocks at every available opportunity.

Many young lawyers hit the profession thinking that they can simply do law.

Instead, they have to work as part of a team.  This can be traumatic for the star student who believes that they are all that matters.

7. Thinking There is an End

If there is anything you take from this article, make it this: there isn’t an end to your education.

University teaches you (not deliberately) that once you graduate you are “there”.

But you’re not.  Education is not an end point, but rather a continuum.  You can’t get “there” – it doesn’t exist.

So just because you graduate, you get admitted, you become a lawyer – you’re not there.

Nor are you “there’ when you make partner.

It Just. Doesn’t. Exist.

Strive for continuous improvement, rather than random aspirational targets.

If today, you are better than yesterday – you’ve done well.

If not – you’ve gone nowhere.

Happy Lawyering!

  • This fact is true, the truth about this field was never emphasised… one gets into practice without this reality…. proper training and advancements should be introduced….

  • This is a good way of encouraging us as students and to highlight a few points that most of us as Law students usually get taught and truly believe that its right which is not. I am great full to be part of the “Tips for Lawyers” program.

  • Agreed…Good stuff Chris…further, 50% at Uni is a pass…50% in small-medium legal practice is a serious (total) fail…with overheads running in the range 75%-85% of revenues (including sensible principals salaries) anything less generates no margin whatsoever…

    Being pragmatically useful to clients and charging them properly, and working effectively on educating clients and referrers etc, is a a full-time role…whatever “full-time” means to each individual lawyer these days…

    Irrespective of lifestyle choices most of the overheads don’t change…

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