Law school won’t always look pretty or feel comfortable, but hang on, advises Fernando Garcia
We are weeks away from law students starting their first year of law school or returning to law school after what has been an unprecedented and challenging few months. Frankly, what law school will look like in September is anyone’s guess, but regardless of what the new reality is there are some fundamental tips and pieces of advice that can be very important for law students to consider and which I, in hindsight, would have loved to know as I walked into the beautiful McGill University law school for the first time in 2001 (gulp!).
The best piece of advice I ever received, and which I gladly share with all law students I meet, is that law school, especially in first year, is best represented by the image of a student waiting for a bus at a bus stop. The bus quickly appears on the horizon and just as quickly passes, without stopping or slowing down. Your job is to grab on to whatever you can and hang on for dear life. It won’t always look pretty and it won’t always feel comfortable, but hang on and everyone will get off at the same destination at the end. Most law students are used to receiving As and high Bs, grades that are not as forthcoming in law school. Don’t get discouraged, and stick with it. Hang on tight and enjoy the ride as much as you can!
There is a lot of pressure to achieve high grades. I get it; getting interviews at the major law firms is hard, and good grades are often a determining factor. Nevertheless, try to make the most of your experience and remember that you are paying to learn, so do what you can to learn as much as you can. I remember that I wanted to grow my level of knowledge in areas of the law that I had no knowledge in – securities law, for example. But this course was considered more challenging and I would find myself gravitating toward courses with which I had more familiarity and could achieve a higher grade. Looking back, however, I wish I had taken more chances, taken more courses to expand my knowledge base more and enhance my future career. You never know what twists and turns await you or what will become useful in the future. Take chances!
Building on the point above, be careful not to convince yourself that you will be a _____ (fill in your preferred subject area) lawyer and nothing but a ______ lawyer. Law school is like a buffet. Get a taste of as many offerings as possible; you may be pleasantly surprised by what you like and what you are good at. I recall that I did very well in real estate law and I really liked it. While most students cursed the rules against perpetuity, the Planning Act, etc., I quite enjoyed the course, as I did a course in Maritime law; and, on suggestion from a friend, I took a course at McGill’s Institute of Air and Space Law, which was one of the best courses I took while at law school. Not only was it fascinating but it would become very important to my current in-house role for a Canadian transportation and logistics company. I regret not taking more such courses. Be curious!
Make the most out of your experience. This is your chance to start networking and building relationships with future leaders in the legal profession. Your fellow students will develop careers in law firms, the not-for-profit sector, in-house departments, government and more. This is your chance to build a solid and broad network. My need to secure scholarships to help pay for my schooling meant that I often sacrificed socializing to studying. I regret this so much; the value of this networking will eventually become invaluable. Find the right balance!
If you are interested in pursuing a career such as in-house counsel you may want to take a joint degree. I completed a Master of Industrial Relations and Human Resources degree before I went to law school, but a joint MIR/JD or MBA/JD degree could be a valuable combination to set you apart from others. Consider this option, as it can allow you to complete dual degree requirements in less time (and with less money) than it would take to earn two professional degrees independently of each other. Be efficient!
I hope you law students make the most of this experience, and I wish you well. Also remember to never be afraid to reach out to senior lawyers and ask for advice; they will often be glad to offer their two cents’ worth.
I also want to send a special shoutout to the first cohort of law students at Ryerson Law; congratulations, and this is your chance to help form a new way of learning and practising law. Knock it out of the ballpark!