Follow-Up to "International Law: Believe the Hype?"

I love the question a commenter asked in my last posting called "International Law: Believe the Hype?" Here I've been telling you not to fall for the "International Law" hype, but I haven't told you what areas of the law you should focus on instead. I'll address that here.

In a perfect world, people don't go to law school right out of college. They've experienced the world, and the working world in particular, so that they have some idea who they are outside of that bubble called school, and they have some sense of their talents and inclinations (and disinclinations!) in the "real" world, which is so very different from the academic world.

In a perfect world, that person gets some experience, say, working in the compliance department of a big bank, and discovers that she loves the compliance world, she's psyched about the intersection of banking and finance and the law and the regulatory state. And she can apply to law school articulating that interest in a coherent and credible and persuasive way (making her application stronger), and she can start law school knowing what she hopes to get out of it, and knowing what courses she wants to concentrate on in her second and third years (making her academic experience, and her career, stronger). Those people exist, and yay for them.

Or, also in a perfect world, that person discovers that she hates banking or finance or the nitty-gritty obsession with details that such laws and regulations require, and she's just learned something very important: what she doesn't want to do. That has enormous value as well. Should she go running off to law school? I would argue no — not until she has been able to observe, first-hand, somebody, somewhere, practicing the kind of law that does excite her, and whose life she can envision living (because lifestyle matters too).

You should go to law school only if you like the idea of being a lawyer. A real lawyer, not a lawyer that exists only in your head, or only on TV. If what is drawing you to law school is the adjective rather than the noun -- "international" or "corporate" or "environmental" or something else rather than "lawyer" -- then go explore that world first: work at the State Department or the Peace Corps, work in a corporation, intern at an environmental group. Don't go running off to law school until you've done that. I've written about that more in a posting called "Law School for Non-Lawyers."

But we don't live in a perfect world, and most law school applicants do go jumping into law school without having reached that level of self-awareness, and I should have what is (I hope) advice for them too. Here's what I say to those applicants.

A good legal education — whether you already know what you want to do with it or not — should give you a set of tools that teach you how to "think like a lawyer." You'll hear that phrase a lot among law professors and lawyers. It's hard to understand what that means until you're actually doing it, but it's basically a very particular way of analyzing and solving problems (both legal and non-legal). It rewires your brain — whether for good or for ill, because once you've been properly trained to "think like a lawyer," it's not really something you can undo. It's a whole new way of thinking about things, and those glasses don't come off again. They're soldered on, if the training is done right.

Those tools should be fundamental ones, and they are typically the ones you learn during your first year. Will you ever again need to know the Rule Against Perpetuities, or the Parol Evidence Rule, or Judge Learned Hand's formula for calculating negligence damages? Maybe not. But those 1L courses teach you the basic tools of learning how to think like a lawyer, and then you can go explore different pockets of the law in your second and third years, and for your entire career. Here's one way to think about this: during your first year, you're learning the law; in your second and third years, you're learning laws. Big difference.

Laws are going to change before you even graduate from law school. Laws change constantly, and you have to learn how to understand them and use them as they change. You might even have a role in changing them. Your career path is going to take you through many different areas of the law, and it's almost impossible to predict what those are going to be. There was a time when I thought (along with many others) that IP lawyers were going to rule the roost, but over time IP has become so commoditized that it has even started to wreck some law firm business models. And right now bankruptcy is hot, but that can change quickly.

Those are just examples. You may choose to migrate through different areas of the law over the course of your career, but chances are you'll be forced to. Just as the law changes, your career will change too, and the odds that you'll end up doing — for your entire career — what you thought you'd be doing when you applied to graduate school at age 21 or 25 are pretty slim.

In our dynamic economy, with many lawyers changing jobs multiple times over the course of a career, flexibility is crucial. General training enables that; specializations and boutique seminars don't. That's also an argument against picking a law school because it has some alleged expertise in some narrow area.

For that reason, in your second and third years, take only at most a sprinkling of esoteric seminars. The goal should be to have some specialized knowledge and sustained interest in a particular area or areas that might become hot, or that interest you. But at the same time, have general training to fall back on.

Also go easy on all those Law & Whatever seminars. I've written before about how the law schools' obsession with "interdisciplinary" approaches to the law is also a big marketing exercise (I'm looking at you, Penn, but all the schools do it to some degree, including my own law school, Chicago). Why do applicants love the Law & Whatever courses? Because the Law & Whatever courses look and feel just like advanced courses in the humanities, and lost and confused college students who have no idea why they're applying to law school are wildly attracted to more coursework that looks just like college.

And guess what? Those Law & Whatever courses are often pretty fluffy. They aren't terribly respected out in the real world, and they don't really make you better lawyers. I can't make this argument better than Judge Easterbrook in his article "Cyberspace and the Law of the Horse," where he talks about the "cross-sterilization of ideas" ("put together two fields about which you know very little and get the worst of both words"). Read it.

A lawyer friend of mine also put it really well:

I'm firmly with Easterbrook on this based partly on my own experience -- thought I wanted to be a litigator while I was in law school and loaded up on litigation-oriented classes that are of little relevance to what I now do.

My [big NYC] firm and, as far as I know, others like mine, are recruiting for well-trained generalists and have very extensive internal training programs for the specialized stuff that's needed for our practice. I don't expect summer associate interviewees to know anything about cross-border M&A or whatever; the point is that if they're telling me they want to come to my firm to practice international law, they need to at least be able to identify the thing we do that most plausibly could be called international law. Otherwise it's like they're telling me they want to come here to do admiralty law, or dog-bite litigation, or something else that we don't do.

This profession is chock full o' malcontents and my advice to students is, think hard about all the people out there who regret becoming lawyers or who regret choosing a particular practice. Other than trial and error, the best way to avoid becoming one of those people is to steer toward an area that you'll enjoy practicing as opposed to studying. The fact that a practice area has relatively little demand (trusts and estates), or has clients who nitpick the bills (insurance defense), or results in your making less money than your friends (many specialty practices), or results in your clients being criminals (public defender) are all things that need to be taken into account in deciding how much you're going to like what you do.

To boil all this down:

  • If you have observed lawyers whose work life you want, and whose personal life you want, go to law school. Otherwise, don't. Yet.
  • If you're certain you want to do "X Law," go experience X before you tack on the Law part.
  • Go to the best law school you can get into that will give the best fundamental training. Don't pay too much attention to a school's marketing or fame in specialties X, Y, or Z.
  • During your first year, learn how to read, write, and think like a lawyer, and learn how to network. In your second and third years, take whatever classes you want, and do specialize in areas you discover that you love (they can be great distinguishing factors out on the job market), but go easy on the esoteric seminars and the Law of the Horse.

Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).