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What they don’t teach you in law school…

I started this post back in 2013…or rather, I came up with the name for this post then, and it’s been sitting in my Drafts folder here on the blog just waiting.  And waiting.  And waiting.  While I staggered around and learned on my own about all the things that really aren’t covered about the practice of law in the 3 years I spent studying The Law.  It’s been another 2 years since I tried to start this post, and 5 years since I actually got licensed to practice (October 2010–go me! 😉 ).  I now feel qualified to make a list of things that I didn’t learn in law school, but would have been really helpful to know.  So, in no particular order…

  1.  How to Practice Law.  I actually got a bit more of this than some others did, because I worked in the student legal clinics.  I was a part of the Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project (DVLAP) at the University of Wyoming College of Law.  I actually DID practice law, under the supervision of a licensed attorney.  We only worked with victims of domestic abuse, which meant that almost all of what I did was family law type stuff.  But it was in Wyoming, so it doesn’t necessarily translate over to practice in Utah seamlessly.  There are

    “I just got my law license. I’m standing in front of impressive looking books. Now, what in hell am I doing??”

    Rules, and judicial quirks, and specific “language” that is used in pleadings in Utah courts more consistently, and Other Lawyers to deal with.  Practicing law is NOT the same as learning legal theory.  Which is what law school is, by and large.  Being in business as an attorney is a whole world away different than learning what the theory is.  Because sometimes the “theory” doesn’t hold up, because it’s up for judicial interpretation.  Which brings me to #2…

  2. The Judge can make up the rules as he goes along.  My first year in law school I was involved in a moot court competition.  Now they don’t usually let first year students (1Ls) participate in these things, because we haven’t taken Evidence, and therefore do not know The Rules.  Evidentiary rules limit what can be presented in court, based on some fairly logical principles (that don’t always hold water well when we’re in the Real World, but that’s the theory).  judgejudyANYWAY.  My team was in one of the first rounds, arguing a case before our volunteer “judge.”  I attempted to introduce some information as evidence in our case.  Opposing team objected–that type of evidence was NOT allowed under the Rules.  The judge made some comment about how he thought it was relevant, and he wanted to hear this evidence.  I just remember the flabbergasted look on that 2L kid’s face….”But it’s in THE RULES!!”  We really didn’t know at that point that the court can make up whatever rules it wants to when you are in a hearing.  The attorney’s remedy is to appeal, or file an objection to the order.  Which takes time, and more of your client’s money.  The theories of Rules of Evidence or Civil Procedure are nice, but they don’t necessarily reflect reality.  Which is a very good thing to know.
  3. Lawyers can be real a**holes.  We all go into law school thinking we’re generally decent people; and our law school friends are decent people; and our professors are intelligent, rational human beings (who occasionally just aren’t great teachers.)  What we (mostly) don’t learn until it’s too late, is that a lot of lawyers are jerks.  Like, would push their own mother off a cliff if they thought they could make a buck off it.  None of us start out
    I swear, I just googled

    I swear, I just googled “jerk images,” and The Donald popped up…who am I to question?

    thinking we’ll be like that.  But because law school is nothing if not a pressure cooker for turning out Legal Thinking Robots, we change part way through.  Some of us decide that the world is not as we thought it is, and we’re gonna take whatever we can grab.  Some become disillusioned and leave law school only to go back to what they wanted to be before, just scarred a bit for the experience.  And some of us come out just trying to stay afloat in a sea of a lot of a**holes.  The problem is prevalent enough that lawyers are actually governed by Rules of Professional Responsibility in every state.  These are not to be confused with Rules to Make You a Decent Person; rather, this is how close you can get to the edge of being ethical without falling over and getting a bar complaint.  Because a lot of lawyers just want to know where the line is between Legal and Illegal, just so they can get as close as possible without crossing it.  This means that there are a lot of people who are not following Professor Burman’s advice…At the end of our semester-long professional responsibility class, he summed up the almost 4 months’ worth of subject matter we’d just had in 4 words:  “Don’t be a jerk.”  The fact that you have to TELL lawyers not to be jerks does not bode well.

  4. How to live on nothing when your clients don’t pay.  Actually, I spent all of law school living
    Not quite this bad, but pretty friggin' close...

    Not quite this bad, but pretty friggin’ close…

    on nothing, but the theory was that I would get out of law school and get a job and live Financially Less Pinched Ever After.  Not so.  I graduated just after the economy crashed in 2008.  There were no jobs.  None.  Government wasn’t hiring.  Private firms weren’t hiring.  And I live in a very small community without a lot of jobs anyway.  So I made my own.  I went into business for myself as a sole-proprietor, Marca Tanner, Attorney at Law.  Guess what?  My clients were as broke as I was.  I was effectively working for free in a lot of cases, not for lack of billing, but for lack of clients paying.  I did contract work for a friend just after I was licensed.  She split any collected fees on cases I worked on 50/50 with me, for the hours I billed, at a rate of $150/hour.  So the idea is that I bill 10 hours on a case, I get half of 10 times $150, or $750.00.  Except that if the client doesn’t pay, I don’t get paid.  In November of 2010, I billed $4,000.00 worth on one of my cases.  It was a very law-centric (less fact specific) type case, and a lot had to be done on it.  Guess how much I got paid that month (and that wasn’t the only case I worked on)?  $576.00.  That’s it.  And my rent at that time was $850.  So Thank God for family that helped me out A LOT, and food stamps.  I couldn’t have made it without either one of them.

  5. Work-Life Balance.  To be fair, I think they *tried* to teach this.  But when you’re expected to read 150 pages for just 1 of your 4 classes (meaning there’s reading in those classes, too), there’s not a lot of time for Balance.  And I have found that in practicing law (or at least in practicing family law) the cases and clients creep in on the weekends and after hours, even though I didn’t want them to.  I’d find myself in the shower thinking through some client’s issues, what the angles were I could argue in them, what needed to be done next, or just feeling frustrated that I couldn’t get the case finalized.  Their miseries crept into my heart and added to MY miseries; their unavoidable heartbreaks broke my heart over and over and over again.  Balance is necessary for survival in practicing law.  I lost my balance more than once in practice.

    Yes, we're all so Super Happy while trying to be all things to all people, that we just can't HELP but grin. Or Not.

    Yes, we’re all so Super Happy while trying to be all things to all people, that we just can’t HELP but grin. Or Not.

So that’s a short list.  Law school really sucks.  But it sucks more if you don’t know what you don’t know…Best to be prepared.

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