Most business law students find it difficult to transition from student to practicing business lawyer. As a former associate and now law firm partner, I have interviewed dozens of law students from the best law schools around the country and many of them ask for suggestions about what they can do to prepare themselves for a successful transition to practicing law. The truth that most of us know is that law schools traditionally do a poor job of preparing students for the practical challenges of the real world. Yet, there are some basic things that can be done to make the transition more seamless.
First, carefully choose your coursework. If you want to be a business litigator, you should take advanced courses on evidence, procedure, persuasive writing, and everything dealing with contracts. After gaining these fundamental building blocks, I highly encourage students to take a law school clinic and aggressively pursue opportunities to interact with clients and practicing lawyers. Your clinic experience may also inform whether you want to spend the next 40 – 50 years of your life doing a particular kind of work. NYU Law's Civil Litigation Clinic is precisely the right type of clinical education that provides law students with unparalleled access to real world experience, including meeting with clients, drafting pleadings, preparing discovery requests and motions, taking depositions, and appearing in court for hearings or trials.
Second, build your skills outside of law school coursework. For example, while I was a law student at NYU, I participated in a mediation program and mediated small claims cases with real people who were passionate about their issues. Although the dollar amounts of the small claims cases were quite low, I gained soft skills from these experiences that helped me to successfully resolve multi-million dollar cases at mediation in my current law practice. At NYU Law, I also participated in a High School Law Institute Program and taught contracts and constitutional law to high school students. My experience in explaining legal concepts to high school students helped me as a young lawyer to explain difficult legal concepts to law firm partners.
Third, be open to trying different practice areas. I am often amazed when I interview law students who tell me they know precisely what they want to do before they start in the summer program. How do they know for sure? The best approach is to use the summer associate experience to try out as many different areas as the firm will allow. Some firms, such as my first employer Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, are fairly flexible in allowing students to try several practice areas during the summer program. You will have a much better idea by the end of the summer program which practice group best suits your skills and personal preferences. You may also learn whether the law firm you choose for a summer program is the best platform to grow your skills and practice as a young lawyer.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, find a mentor. This may be the most important advice for law students transitioning to a law practice. A mentor can provide you the exposure that you need to gain experience at the right pace. A well-placed mentor can also advocate for your success within your chosen organization. Remember that a mentor-mentee relationship is a two way street. Figure out how you can add value for your mentor and do it often.
In conclusion, being a successful business lawyer is as much about your technical skills as it is about your ability to inspire confidence in others. Law students should aggressively pursue opportunities (structured or otherwise) to interact with others and put their substantive knowledge into practice in real-world situations. The more comfortable you are with yourself and your abilities, the more quickly others will feel comfortable relying on you to solve complicated problems.
An AV preeminent rated lawyer, Grasford Smith is a shareholder of Jones Foster Johnston & Stubbs headquartered in West Palm Beach, Florida. Mr. Smith has significant experience in business litigation, intellectual property, and transactional matters. Mr. Smith is the Founding Executive Editor of the NYU Journal of Law & Business and is a Vanderbilt Medal Recipient from NYU School of Law.