Before coming to law school, I didn’t think too much about what I’d do when I was done. My future legal career was on the other side of the horizon, too far away to see. Surely, I thought, “law school would make it all make sense.” Classes would line up neatly with practice areas, my favourite law class would lead to my passion, and I’d be all set.
Despite my optimistic outlook, 1L went by and no sudden inspiration came. While others seemed certain they wanted to be criminal or corporate lawyers, I still had no idea. Would I enter private practice or government? Would I focus on litigation or business? Would I live in a rural community or an urban one? The possibilities seemed endless.
Eventually, I found my calling. This article is about finding yours.
Everything you imagine yourself doing is based on what you’ve already done
Why didn’t I understand more about my future legal career after 1L? At Queen’s University, we heard from private practitioners from main street and Bay Street, public lawyers from Crown offices and federal agencies, academics, and even former lawyers in related fields. Attending those talks was helpful, but only to a degree. Something was missing.
What I needed to hear was how “the law” worked into my own story. To know whether I wanted to go into criminal defence, I needed to walk into a courthouse and attend a bail hearing. Similarly, I could only relate to corporate law after working with a business owner through a difficult management problem. I had to connect what I had done before with what I wanted to do in the future, and that meant I had to take a wider view.
Law school offers a narrow window to the outside world
Let’s explore why 1L may not have revealed my ideal law school exit plan. Like most students, my 1L was spent almost exclusively reading appellate-level decisions, including historical relics in Old English. The rest was spent attending classroom lectures, discussions, a small moot, writing small research assignments, and volunteering for an academic law journal. The tantalizing snippets of “real law” were few and far between.
In other words, the past experience menu I was selecting from was short. Studying case law and attending lectures did not fill me with purpose. I had to look outward for legal career paths that resonated with me, including the reason I originally went to law school.
Start by reading your law school admission essay
Five years after writing my personal statement, I wondered how my perspective had changed. Did I honour my original reason for studying law? Reading that essay was really meaningful — I wish I had read it earlier.
I recommend starting your career path reflection by reading your essay. Before we saw our law school’s platinum firm sponsors, met our professors, or learned about starting salaries, we all wrote a document that laid out why we applied to law school. It represents an unbiased (although possibly naive) view on why we were interested in law.
How does reading those words make you feel? If your plans changed after getting into law, why? Reading that document can ground us. Even if it doesn’t provide the whole picture, it’s a great starting point.
Expand your window by reflecting on the past
If your admission essay doesn’t tell the whole story, what truly interested you before law school? What workplaces and volunteer activities were you drawn to before getting your acceptance letter? What was your worst work experience? Reflecting on what you’ve already done may help reveal legal practice styles to seek out or avoid.
For example, I had worked almost exclusively for private businesses before law school. Working for a technology startup was by far my favourite. The work was fast and furious, and we all had to jump into different roles because we were low on resources. It wasn’t the whole picture, but it filled a piece of my career puzzle.
For every past experience, there is something about it that we liked, didn’t care about, or actively disliked. Understanding that about ourselves is important.
If your pre-law school resume is short, it might not reveal much. However, even small signals may mean a lot. It could reveal something about your future law practice’s ideal clients, location, organization size, or mission.
For example, is there a reason you’ve always worked for public (or private) employers? Have small companies ever appealed to you? Did a certain location or cause matter? What environments did you thrive in — ones with a lot of autonomy (like a small law firm) or larger organizations where decision-making was more dispersed?
Reflection at that depth is tough work. It takes time, steady effort, and a good journal. Looking back is worth it because it highlights areas to investigate further while you’re in law school.
Explore career options like a scientist: Make a list of experiments
After identifying some different practice areas and styles you might be interested in, it’s helpful to approach that list like a scientist. If you don’t have a reference point on what it’s like to be a public servant, large company employee, or small business owner, it’s a good habit to seek out experiences that test out those theories.
While still in law school you can:
• Ask to shadow an alumnus’s practice or visit his or her firm;
• Conduct informational interviews to gather insider information on certain practice areas, organization types, and locations;
• Attend court to see a trial or bail hearing in action; or
• Complete a short-term volunteer project for an organization.
The list is really only limited to your imagination and ability to make up an opportunity. Alumni and legal professionals are usually helpful and informative. Reach out to the resources you have available. Most importantly, be persistent. The final “job offer” is the end of a long journey.
Overall, my career journey in law school was not as easy as it could have been. I didn’t make a formal list of experiments I wanted to try before graduating, and I didn’t read my admission essay until the very end. It was a slow and incremental process, often made more challenging because law school alone is demanding.
If you’re like me, your classes and textbooks won’t provide all the answers when it comes to your career, but with enough effort and reflection, you’ll find your place in law, too.
To students and lawyers out there: What did I miss? Did any experiences help you find your place in law? Comment below.
Ivan Mitchell Merrow recently graduated from Queen’s University’s JD-MBA program, articling with Devry Smith Frank LLP. Follow him on Twitter at @CanadianLawGuy.