By: Daniel K. Wiig | In-House Counsel to Municipal Credit Union
There has been much talk as of late about the relationship of law schools vis-à-vis the practice of law and, perhaps more bluntly, the ability for students to obtain meaningful employment as attorneys post graduation. Indeed, the statistics emanating from some quarters paint a dire image of an increasingly smaller number of recent grads who are able to secure a job requiring a juris doctorate. It also appears that more and more newly minted attorneys, in response to the difficult job market, are opting to hang their own shingle, which poses a different set of issues, namely, despite the degree and bar passage, are these individuals truly qualified to practice law? Consequently, this raises the question as to whether law schools should be designed as incubators to train students to perform legal work. Moreover, in a tight job market, what additional steps should law students take to increase their chances of securing employment?
To be sure, a law student needs to develop roots in theory about, for example, a contract formation and the manner in which an individual obtains the “bundle of rights” before she/he can engage in the practicalities of drafting a contract or prosecuting a trademark infringement matter. And this interplay of theory and practice has long been a reality at the majority, if not all of, the nation’s law schools. Many schools offer a myriad of clinical programs concentrating in areas such as civil rights, securities laws, consumer debt, and elder law, which provide students with “real-world,” hands-on experience. Additionally, there are numerous courses that assist students in honing specific skills. Courses with a particular focus on, for example, corporate governance, contract drafting, and the intricacies of electronic discovery are at many students’ disposal. To this end, at St. John’s University School of Law, I teach a course focused on New York’s Commercial Division, where, using a fact pattern of a commercial dispute, the students discuss strategy, draft pleadings, motions, discovery demands, and argue a motion – in sum, emulating the life cycle of a commercial case.
And this leads me to my first piece of practical advice for law students: enroll in these clinics/courses. Whatever area of the law that you are drawn to, register for those associated clinics and courses that will help you sharpen the necessary skills to “hit the ground running” in your chosen arena. Apply for the clinic where you will work beside a professor/practitioner to assist under-represented individuals in prosecuting claims for alleged civil rights violations. Enlist in the course where you will actually draft agreements, which, consequently, can serve as the runway for your career as a corporate attorney. The benefits of incorporating these into your law school curriculum are plentiful. The experience that you gain through this practical training will enable you to contribute something more on your first post-graduate job than simply following guidance from your superior(s). Through the clinic(s) or practical-skills course(s), you will likely encounter some of the same issues that you will eventually confront when you enter the full-time work force, and can approach those latter tasks not as a neophyte, but as someone with a certain degree of “know how”. Additionally, during the interview process, you would have the potential to share “war stories” with your interviewer, based on your experiences, and form the bond all interviewees hope to forge with the interviewer.
The other piece of practical advice involves a single word that installs utter fear in many law students: Network. I cannot emphasize enough the enormous dividends that you can earn through community engagement – specifically by taking on a leadership role. By participating in community affairs, notably through bar associations, you can cultivate career-long professional relationships with persons whom you may not otherwise encounter. I chose my words carefully here by specifying leadership. Too often, I have seen law students and lawyers attend events with the belief that somehow their mere presence, sipping a cocktail, or engaging in light banter will translate into a job, client referral, plum appointment, or whatever pot of gold they hope to seize at the end of the rainbow. While the sponsoring organization greatly appreciates, and candidly needs, your participation in these events, it is that next step – flexing your leadership muscle – which separates the wheat from the chaff.
The New York City Bar Association (the “City Bar”) is the perfect organization to assist you with this endeavor. With over 160 committees covering a spectrum of disciplines and a countless number of programs offered each year, there is ample opportunity for you to contribute something measurable and meaningful to the broader legal community, and simultaneously enhance your curriculum vitae. Whether you organize an event or co-author an amicus brief, you can demonstrate your intelligence and ability to successfully complete an assigned task. We tend to associate positive traits with people whom we view positively. As such, your active, dedicated participation will leave a positive impression on your fellow members – law firm partners, corporate counsel, judges, and prosecutors – from which only good things can follow. The legal job market is tough for new grads. But the truth of the matter is that it was never terribly easy. Historically, a relatively small number of grads obtain their post-graduate position prior to graduation, with an even smaller number securing employment through the on-campus interviewing or “OCI” program. In order to compete effectively, you should utilize all means at your disposal, as discussed herein, to thoroughly prepare yourself for the challenges that lie ahead. There is an old saying, “it is not what you know, but who you know.” I believe a more accurate iteration of that adage is that honing your craft, and cultivating a wide range of professional contacts, can be your recipe for success.
Daniel K. Wiig is In-House Counsel to Municipal Credit Union, where he is involved in the day-to-day management of the legal affairs of the $2 billion + financial institution. Dan is also an Adjunct Law Professor at St. John’s University School of Law, where he teaches a course entitled, “Litigation in New York’s Commercial Division”, and is a faculty advisor to the “Commercial Division Online Law Report”, a student-run blog focused on cases and issues stemming from New York’s Commercial Division. He presently serves on the New York City Bar Association’s Council on Judicial Administration and Law Students Perspectives Committee. He is also a New York County Delegate to the Judiciary Committee.
Reprinted with permission from the New York City Bar Association, Law Student Perspectives Newsletter, August 2016.