One thing on a lot of law students’ minds is the best way to get good training early on. As we learned in the Law and Public Service class, the law school curriculum has largely been shaped by the interests of private firms that want law students to walk through the door as blank slates, ready to be trained on the job. Without many practical requirements and training opportunities built in, students seeking to enter public service work may feel the best way to build a strong foundation is to start in the private sector. I don’t think there is any one best way to get solid training, so this post will discuss different opportunities to do so, considering some potential pros and cons.
A starting point is to consider what public service minded students can do to supplement the law school curriculum, so that you leave having done more than read thousand page books and write out stream of consciousness exam answers. You can take part in pro bono, clinics, oral advocacy classes, independent studies, and moot court/mock trial. You can get your J.D. without doing these things, but with some extra work, you can better prepare for the work ahead.
As a side note, a common complaint about clinics is that they are incredibly B+ heavy and are more time consuming than the credit hours reveal. Regardless of whether this is true, the perception is harmful, and the school’s administration should make more of an effort to either dispel these misconceptions or improve the grading scheme and credit allocation for clinics.
Right after school, a great way to get your feet wet is by clerking. At UVA a “clerkship” tends to be synonymous with a fancy appellate or federal district court clerkship—but these aren’t the only clerkships out there. If you plan to work in direct services at legal aid, or in prosecution or defense at the state level, a state-level clerkship may be even more valuable. Government agencies also offer clerkships in their judicial arms—for example, I summered at Department of Labor, Office of Administrative Law Judges, where I learned that clerking after law school in a particular agency can be a great way to get your foot in the door. In any case, working for a judge, doing research and writing for a year or two is a great way to improve skills that are neglected by the law school curriculum.
Starting in the private sector is also a viable option. There is no doubt private firms have more resources to spend on your training. And if you’re after a job in the federal government, it’s a fairly well trodden path to start at a firm. However, working at a firm is not necessarily a sure bet in terms of training. Even though firms have tightened their belts a bit following the 2008 financial crisis, outsourcing more mundane work like document review and hiring more staff support as opposed to associates, as a young associate you’re still not going to be speaking with clients, stepping into a courtroom, or drafting briefs—and you may still get stuck doing document review. That being said, the private sector offers a level of handholding and individualized attention that most public service outfits don’t have the time or money for.
You can also jump right into the fire (go straight into a public service job). In fact, people who start at firms are often encouraged to engage in pro bono for the training value. So why not skip the middleman? Learning on the job isn’t easy and you’re bound to make mistakes, but you will instantly be given responsibility. You’ll be the one meeting with clients, going to court, and writing briefs. The downside is you may not be given as much guidance and feedback.
The main takeaway is that where you end up first doesn’t really matter. There’s something to be learned from each experience and regardless of where you are, you’ll have to advocate for yourself and check in with yourself to make sure you are getting the opportunities you need to develop as an attorney.
To end with an anecdote, my PILA alumni mentor worked in big law before having a medical crisis and religious awakening that led her to quit work and start volunteering at Catholic Legal Charities where she eventually obtained a full-time position. She said the writing, management, and interpersonal skills she obtained at the law firm prepared her to quickly move into a leadership position and expand the reach and services provided by the nonprofit.
Michelle Garafalo is a 2L. She graduated from George Mason University in 2012. Last summer she interned at the U.S. Department of Labor in the Office of Administrative Law Judges. Michelle enjoys doing yoga and drawing people and animals in her spare time.