First-day jitters and first-year myths

Green Hall was abuzz last Thursday morning with the excited chatter of first-year law students. KU Law faculty and staff welcomed another class of bright and motivated students with continental breakfast, several orientation programs and the first of many Lawyering class sessions.

After a few more days of Lawyering and orientation sessions, they begin their core courses today.

It hardly seems possible that it’s been 15 years since I anxiously began my law school experience in Austin. I remember making small talk with a KU graduate, Blaine Kimrey, as we waited to be welcomed to UT Law by the dean. My head was swirling as I looked around and sized up my classmates. I had graduated from college only a few months before and wasn’t sure that I was ready for the rigors of professional school.

As KU Law welcomes the Class of 2013, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on five bits of advice I received as a curious prospective law student and a nervous 1L. I’m afraid I was pretty impressionable and absorbed most of these statements as gospel.

Did they prove to be true?

  • You’ll only get a job if you’re in the top 10 percent of the class.

And it’s corollary …

  • Law school is the most intense experience you’ll ever have. You must dedicate every waking minute to reading cases, studying and outlining in order to make good grades.

I’m not very good at math, but even I can figure out that the first statement is baloney. At KU Law, we admit about 160 students per year. After their first year, most students gain practical legal experience in the summer months or subsequent school years through paid or for-credit positions. And while our employment numbers dropped this year due to the recession, it’s typical that two-thirds of each KU Law class is employed at graduation and over 90 percent are employed nine months after graduation.

Of course grades matter. And of course some employers are more selective with respect to grades than others. But to state that only 10 percent (or 15 percent or 20 percent) of law students will be competitive in the job market is flat wrong.

Some of the most successful, grounded and happy law students I’ve known made time as 1Ls for hobbies, exercise and other activities that helped clear their minds and brought them back in touch with family and friends.

Law school is serious business, but if you treat it like a professional job — rather than just like undergrad — you’ll be surprised by how much you can accomplish while still reserving time for some fun. If you work steadily throughout the semester, you won’t feel overwhelmed when finals roll around in December.

While acquiring legal knowledge, don’t lose yourself. Take care of your body by getting plenty of sleep and exercise. Commit to investing time and energy in family and friends. Develop sound strategies for dealing with the stressful times head on. And be nice to one another! Law school is challenging, but it doesn’t have to be cutthroat or ugly.

  • Don’t bother with Career Services; they only care about the top 10 percent of the class.
    Our marching orders are to care about the employment prospects and well being of the top 100 percent of the class. That may be hokey, but it’s true. Our doors are open to everyone, and typically students with lower grades seek our assistance more regularly.
  • Don’t bother looking for a job in a state other than where you go to law school.About one-fourth of each KU Law class secures permanent employment outside of Kansas and western Missouri. If you want to wind up in Chicago or Denver or Houston, you should start your search early and consult with our office often. KU Law alums are spread across the country, and many will be amenable to assisting law students in establishing a foothold in a particular city or state.If you wait until you’re a 3L to decide that you want to move to another state, especially a state with which you have no previous connection, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle.
  • You’ve got to figure out what area of law you want to practice as soon as possible.
    During your first year, you’re learning how to read cases, spot issues, and analyze and apply statutes. In the process, you’ll gain some inkling of what you want to practice, but don’t buy into the hype that you must plot out your career path in its entirety by the end of your first year.Want some help with making sense of your options? Read “The Official Guide to Legal Specialties: An Insiders’s Guide to Every Major Practice Area,” by Lisa Abrams. Also, make an appointment with our office to discuss your options.

    Potential employers expect that 2Ls will be able to articulate an interest in an area or two. It won’t help your cause to say you’re interested in “all areas” or that you “just want a job.” You will need to answer practice area-related questions more thoughtfully by that point.

Todd Rogers, Assistant Dean for Career Services