My Best Advice for Progressives Attending or Considering Law School

Here’s the advice I wish someone gave me:

  1. Take federal income tax just as soon as you get your first-year required classes out of the way.
  2. Don’t avoid a professor just because you don’t agree with her or his politics.
  3. Take a clinic.

Take federal income tax just as soon as you get your first-year required classes out of the way. I’m so bad at math, you’d think I was a Republican. But seriously, I didn’t take federal income tax, known to most law students as F.I.T., because I assumed it would be Accounting 101 for lawyers.

Stupid me for assuming that. Tax policy is fascinating and affects politics like you wouldn’t believe.

Much of the tax code involves gray areas that are desperately in need of clarification. The amount and type of advocacy that 501(c)(3)s can undertake compared to 501(c)(4)s was a very murky area back when I was a lobbyist employed by a (c)(3). That sounds boring until you realize that this could impact how much money a museum, school, or healthcare charity might or might not be able to spend in order to advocate or educate its supporters about legislation that could zero out its funding. As it is, most charities are terrified to engage in any advocacy whatsoever, when in fact, they could be doing so to their great benefit.

Had I taken F.I.T. in the fall semester of my second year, would I be a practicing attorney today doing impact litigation on issues like that? Maybe so. I waited, however, until third year, and by then, I was just focused on doing whatever it took to get out of that place with my degree, dignity, and health. I no longer wanted to practice.

Don’t avoid a professor just because you don’t agree with her or his politics.
I could not wait, especially after tolerating the required Constitutional Law I class taught by an arch-reactionary conservative, to dive into a Con Law II class on free speech taught by a visiting progressive professor from Yale Law.

Arch-conservative prof imparted useful knowledge that has helped me understand complex political issues. I didn’t always enjoy sitting in his class, and I find most of the things he stands for repugnant, but I learned. I can even name some of the cases we studied, and it has been 16 years since I took that class.

Yale prof sucked. He’s got an impressive set of accomplishments and his work established some very important legal precedents, but I wasn’t excited to continue in that area of study once I slogged through the class, and I can barely remember the cases we studied.

Take a clinic. The depressing fact about law school, and I am nowhere near the first person (or even the millionth) to make this observation, is that you get trained in how to be a law student. Then, only when you get a job, do you get trained to be a lawyer.

I graduated from law school not wanting to be a lawyer, but if I’d been more self-aware, I would have realized that what I really wanted was to not be a law student.

Almost every lawyer I know who loves what he or she does, for the most part, participated in clinical work in law school. Even if you want to be a transactional attorney in a purely corporate setting, take a clinic. If nothing else, you’ll gain a little insight and empathy while learning the nuts and bolts of practicing law. You might, however, discover a talent and passion for working with people who desperately need help accessing or coping with our legal system.

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