THE BLOG

Memo to the Legal Community: It Takes a Village to Make a Good Lawyer

11/21/2011 04:46 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2012

In Sunday's New York Times, David Segal's article "What They Don't Teach Law Students: Lawyering" shines some light on what many law schools don't want their students to know: they won't know how to practice law when they graduate.

Although this may come as a surprise to people outside the legal community, this is something that practicing attorneys have known for quite some time. In fact, the need for practical information about how to practice law is the reason I wrote "The New Lawyer's Handbook: 101 Things They Don't Teach You in Law School."

After graduation, it became very clear to me that while the study of law deals with statutes, cases and appeals, the practice of law deals with an intriguing cocktail of greed, substance abuse, domestic violence and basic immaturity - and that is just between you and your law partners. Your clients also experience these issues in their cases.

Introduction, "The New Lawyer's Handbook"

You may be wondering what the law schools are doing if they are not teaching students how to practice law. Law schools are teaching critical thinking. They are giving students a long view of legal history. They are showing students how to dissect an appellate case, write about it and argue it. They are providing the information that students need to pass a bar exam. They are connecting students with internships and full-time employment.

Most law schools also try to find "real-life" experiences for their students through legal clinics and mock trials. But here is the reality: you don't know what it's like to be a lawyer until you have the sole responsibility for a real-life client with a real-life problem sitting across the desk from you.

To be clear, law schools can and should do a better job of preparing students but they are only part of the solution. The state bar associations need to sponsor legal education seminars and mentorship programs. Law firm partners need to create a teaching atmosphere within their firms. Experienced lawyers need to foster an atmosphere of collegiality with new practitioners who are on the opposite side of a case. New practitioners need to admit that they don't know what they don't know and approach the practice with eagerness and also with humility.

Segal's article asks, "What do corporate clients wish associates were taught in law school?" Let's ask another question: "What do new practitioners need to know in order to both succeed in and enjoy their law practice?"

They need to learn how to survive office politics. They need to learn how to have a positive and productive relationship with their office staff. They need to understand the business of practicing law.

They need to know how to control their clients. Whether it's comforting a sobbing client or defusing an angry one, they need to understand that the practice of law is actually one-part law and one-part psychology.

But arguably, the most important thing they need is an experienced lawyer to mentor them. The mentor will answer questions without making them feel stupid. The mentor will encourage them to keep a healthy balance between their law practice and their life. When the new practitioner is lamenting that he/she is waking up at 3 a.m. worrying about a case, the mentor will offer advice and a sympathetic ear.

The most effective way to transition students from the classroom to the courtroom requires law schools and lawyers to work together. The law schools need to set aside any disdain they harbor about the value of practical advice from experienced lawyers. Experienced lawyers must accept and embrace the responsibility to mentor not only the lawyers in their firm but all of the lawyers they come into contact with.

Learning to practice takes practice. In the end, the responsibility for the theoretical and practical education of students and new practitioners belongs to the entire legal community.