I am one of the younger members of the “Still Lovin’ It” section of the Austin Bar Association. Some previous contributors have been practicing over fifty years, while I’m only at twenty. But I am old enough to be thrilled that I am still lovin’ law practice, and I am young enough to remember law school pretty well. I’ve spent the last twenty years thinking about how law practice is not what I expected and how it has changed me for the better. Here are the top ten things they didn’t teach me in law school:
10. Law school did not teach me how to manage stress. The practice of law is nothing if not pressure-packed. This is particularly true in bankruptcy, practiced with its insanely shortened deadlines, constant expedited matters, and scrutiny from all the parties who appear in each case. How you learn to stay calm and centered without turning to drink or drugs, and how you keep anxiety and depression at bay, are absolutely the most crucial things all lawyers need to learn. My approach is to work out and do yoga several times a week and eat healthy foods that keep my energy level high.
9. Law school did not teach me work/life balance. Once you become a lawyer, it is so easy to get caught up in the life of a lawyer (“da life,” you might say). Maybe you work out or drop off kids at school in the morning, but then you go to work and stay there until bedtime. Dinner time can turn into a microwaved meal at your desk. Law school trained us to work hard 24/7. How do you pull yourself away? It is difficult to be a full-time lawyer and also keep up friendships, be a good family member or spouse, and a good neighbor. And what about hobbies and recreation?
8. Law school did not teach me how to manage priorities. In law school, the priority was to do well and to find a good, high-paying, prestigious job. But what about social service? And what about lifestyle? Should your priority be to write a legal article, sit on a bar committee, or volunteer for VLS? Should you take pro-bono cases or more CLE or trainings? Should you get board certified? Should you blog, podcast or speak at CLE? All of these things take time. And I didn’t even mention personal choices, such as getting married, having kids, deciding where to live, and so on.
7. Law school did not teach me that there is no single pathway to success. In law school I learned to interpret appellate cases and write about them. This prepared me for a job as a junior associate at a large law firm or maybe a judicial clerkship, neither of which I received. I worked as an editor of legal publications for a while, at a dot-com for a few years, and then I started filing consumer bankruptcy cases. I have sometimes wished I had the big firm and clerkship experience, but as I have talked to my peers who did, I realize that all paths have their pros and cons. The key is that you are enjoying what you do and are gaining experience, supporting yourself, and helping people.
6. Law school did not teach me how to get business. Having followed the path I did, I had to get the word out. Why should anyone hire Ron Satija to be their attorney? At the outset, I didn’t think anyone would! Most of my business came from word of mouth and referrals from my prior firm, and also from a business networking group called BNI. At first, I was very resistant to networking because it felt somehow like selling out. However, networking doesn’t have to be a bad word. The key is to be passionate about what you do and do good work. People will remember your enthusiasm and refer work to you.
5. Law school did not teach me how much creativity there is in the practice of law. There are so many ways to handle any given problem. It is not a mechanical choice to decide to file a Debtor in a particular chapter of the Bankruptcy Code. Creditor work and collections offer myriad options, whether to garnish accounts or seize assets, or come up with a settlement the Debtor can stick to. In law practice generally, there are opportunities to come up with a creative fee arrangement with a client or a creative business plan or trade name. You might structure an entity to get the best tax outcomes, write up an estate plan that exactly meets the client’s wishes, or structure a win-win settlement. I have often wished I had written a novel (and I still might someday), but I have already been creatively inspired in my law practice daily.
4. Law School did not teach me how to resolve conflict. Nowadays, our society seems entirely taken over by anger. I represent people who are in difficult and often bitter conflicts. I believe that my role as a professional is to see and manage the conflict but not get caught up in it. It has taken a lot of practice and a lot of work on my own anger, but being able to approach opposing parties with calm, compassion and curiosity has made me a better lawyer.
3. Law school did not teach me how to manage the business of law. Getting a case is one thing, but keeping your doors open is another. Who do you hire? What are the requirements when you hire an employee? How do you manage them? How do you choose an office to rent, and how do you negotiate the lease? How do you choose a case management system? How do you get your bills out monthly? How do you collect delinquent fees? Do you remember to pay your bar dues and take your CLE annually? All of these are lessons I have had to learn painfully, and often repeatedly, over the years.
2. Law school did not teach me how to take law school exams. In my first year of law school, there were flyers posted at UT Law for a class on how to take law-school exams. The class wasn’t part of the law school curriculum; it was provided by an outside company for an extra fee. I pooh-poohed the idea. “I’ve taken exams all my life. This won’t be any different.” Boy was it different. As you know, the “IRAC” method is key, and for me it wasn’t intuitive. When I mentor law students, I make sure to emphasize this lesson.
And the number one lesson:
1. Law School didn’t actually teach me how to practice law! When I graduated, I didn’t know how to file a case or draft an agreement! I didn’t know that lawyers draft the orders that judges sign! I didn’t know the role of the clerk! It could be the classes I took: I loved thinking about the abstract issues in Constitutional, Contracts, and Tax Law, whether there was such a thing as “substantive due process” or whether tax policy properly reflected the goals we expressed as a body politic. I didn’t take any litigation or drafting classes. I had to learn these lessons every day at work, often painfully at first.
I’ve heard that law school has improved on these issues since I graduated, but I would not trade learning them through the practice of law for anything.