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  So You Want to be a Lawyer: A Play in Four Acts

Nicholas Johnson*

You will also want to read: "How to Pick Your Law School," April 29, 2008

Note: This work is Copyright © 1998 by Nicholas Johnson. It is now in version 8.26, and will probably remain a work in progress.  Students continue to raise questions, and demonstrate behavior, requiring comment.  Colleagues and students continue to suggest revisions.  In any event, your suggestions for revision are also invited.

Its purpose is to provide some guidance for entering law students. It is not intended for theatrical production. It is simply written in this form to make it a little more readable.

I wish to thank those students, family and friends who have inspired many of these ideas, and made suggestions for their expression -- especially my colleagues, Professors David Baldus, Patrick Bauer, Randall Bezanson, Willard Boyd, Marcella David, Michael Green, Sheldon Kurtz, Jean Love, Margaret Raymond, Hillary Sale, John-Mark Stensvaag, David Vernon -- and, hopefully, more to come. Of course, I bear sole responsibility for anything you may find offensive, silly or erroneous.

As for the predominance of white male photos throughout, that's what Corel had to offer. I am looking for other sources and specifically would welcome any suggestions.

-- Nicholas Johnson, University of Iowa College of Law, Iowa City, Iowa, May 29, 1998, rev. August 26, 2004

Act I. Orientation Day

Student: Excuse me, professor, do you have a minute?

Professor: Of course. Come on in. Sit down.

Student: Well, I know you're busy.

Professor: No, that's OK. You'll find that most professors enjoy talking to students. That's why we're here; at least most of us, most of the time.

Student: Thank you. I'm a new student here.

Professor: So, you want to be a lawyer.

Student: Well, yes. I guess so. Anyway I'd like to ask your advice about law school.

Professor: Sure. Go ahead. But if you're smart enough to seek me out for advice you're also smart enough to know that you shouldn't rely exclusively on what I say.

Student: What do you mean?

Professor: I mean you should talk to a great many people -- of course any judges or practicing lawyers you know, and other law professors, but also your parents, some of your favorite undergraduate professors, law students who have been here a year or two. Some will agree with what I say, others will disagree -- often strongly. Each of us bases our own most honest advice on very different experience and values.

For example, some professors think that a first year law student is under enough stress already, and that you ought to be encouraged to make sure you get enough recreation. As you'll see, I think the risk runs in the other direction.

You will have to balance all of that conflicting advice and decide what's best.

Student: OK, but I'd like to start with you.

Professor: Sure.

But I do want to emphasize to you the value of getting to know as many members of the faculty as you can while you're here -- at a minimum the ones who are teaching the classes you take.  Check out their resumes and bibliographies; they're on the law school's Web site and in the current Association of American Law Schools' Directory of Law Teachers. It's a very impressive collection of individuals who have a wide variety of experience.  Even if you're not initially thrilled at the prospect of visiting with them informally, remember that these are the same folks you are going to be asking for recommendations some day.

But I've digressed.  Sorry. Go ahead.

Student: I've heard that law school is a lot tougher than undergraduate study. Is that true?

Professor: Yes, I suppose so. Although, at least for me, it was a lot more intellectually challenging, rewarding and just plain fun. But what's most significant, I think, is not how hard law school is but how totally different it is from college.

Practicing the trumpet at summer music camp, sinking a 20-foot putt, Army boot camp -- they're all tough, but in different ways.

Student: It seems like I've been going to school all my life. So now I'm in law school, and it's tough. But how's it different?

Professor: You're here to learn.

Student: I thought that's what I've been doing.

Professor: Well, there are some students who genuinely enjoy learning. They bring what is almost a Buddhist, Morita, or Zen, approach to it. They "enjoy the journey, not the destination." They may or may not have read John Gardner's little book, Excellence, but they go through life as if they had. Their parents may have set a good example. Perhaps they were inspired by a teacher along the way. Or maybe they just figured it out for themselves.

For your sake, I hope you're one of those.

However, for many students, "education" just means doing well on exams and getting good grades. For what? Not to understand the material, or because of a love of learning, or even because the knowledge will be useful some day.

Even if you are more interested in destinations than journeys, this is the last stop, the last destination. From now on, it's all about what you know, what you can do, not what "grades" you got.

Student: But I had to get good grades in high school in order to get into a good college. And then I had to make good enough grades in college to get into this law school.

Professor: That's exactly what I mean. Prior to law school, many students -- as well as many parents and teachers -- see education as a means to an end, the next step along a treadmill.

Student: So what do I have to do to be a good law student?

Professor: The first thing you have to do is forget about being a good law student.

Student: What!

Professor: You're not a student any more -- good or bad -- at least not in the sense I've been describing.  This educational experience is preparing you to be a professional. Think about becoming a good lawyer -- a knowledgeable, skillful, ethical lawyer. That should be your goal. That's what your law school experience ought to be about. One of the by-products of preparing yourself to meet professional standards will be that you'll also be a good law student. But that's not your goal. You'll only be in law school for three years; you may still be practicing law 50 years from now.

Student: But I heard I have to get good grades in law school in order to get a good job.

Professor: Not necessarily.

Sure, if you want to apply for a job as a law clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court justice, or as a young associate in one of the nation's most prestigious corporate law firms, you'll find it very helpful to graduate in the top ten percent of your class. That's right. And if that's where your grades put you, and those opportunities offer themselves, and they are of interest to you, so much the better.

But there are hundreds of other things you can do with a law degree, many of which are much more personally rewarding than helping corporations increase compensation for executives and returns to shareholders -- "not that there's anything wrong with that" -- to borrow Jerry Seinfeld's line. In fact, you may want to represent those corporations' workers, or customers, in law suits against those companies by creating, or joining, a "public interest law firm." Or you might want to work for one of the 600,000 non-profit corporations involved in the arts, social services, or religion -- many of which are now practicing "social entrepreneurship."

Do you know what most lawyers are doing, most of the time?

Student: Sure. I've seen "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice."  I guess they spend a lot of time in court -- and sometimes with really exciting cases.

Professor: Well, I hate to disappoint you, but most lawyers are in their offices, helping ordinary people -- who need help -- with their day-to-day affairs. Most of the people who go to a lawyer need his or her help to buy a house. Others are going for wills, or tax advice.

Student: What if I don't want to do that?

Professor: That's one of the advantages of law school over other graduate level programs. Law is one of the few areas of study that widens, rather than narrows, your range of career choice. It opens opportunities in business, politics, teaching, public service of all kinds, public interest advocacy -- and, of course, the practice of law in a variety of settings.

Student:  I suppose I shouldn't worry.  I got a good GPA in college and a fairly high score on the LSAT.

Professor:  Unfortunately, that raises another thing you need to know about law school grades.

Everyone else here has, more or less, the same kind of outstanding LSAT score and grade point average you do. It's like Garrison Keillor's mythical Minnesota village, Lake Wobegon, "where all the children are above average." As long as we grade you on a curve -- and we do -- the odds of your ending up in the top ten percent are a lot less than they were for you in college.

So that's another reason not to focus on grades.  Some students' legal education is actually impeded because they are so focused, so discouraged and depressed, with their class standing here compared with what it was in college.  Your success here is only measured by your knowledge and skills, not by how your grades compare with your classmates'.

Student: So I don't get it. Are you telling me that grades do matter or they don't?

Professor: I'm telling you not to worry about grades. The grades will take care of themselves. We grade anonymously, indicate a grade for each examination book by its number, and post the results on a bulletin board. But I've known students who have gone through this law school for three years and never bothered to check a single grade until they applied for a job.

Student: Really?

Professor: Yes. They are rare, but I have known some.

Student: So I guess you mean what's important is being prepared for class, right? When I was an undergraduate we mostly just had lectures and wrote down what the professor said. You never really had to do any reading. But my mom rented a video tape for me when I was home called "Paper Chase."  It's about law school and this really tough professor.  So now I know something about how law professors call on students in class and we're supposed to know the cases you assign. That must be pretty stressful, knowing that in any class you could be embarrassed in front of everybody.

Professor: Sure you should prepare for class, but no, I wouldn't put all your emphasis on that either.

Student: Well, I can't believe you want me to walk out of here thinking that law school is party time. So if I'm not supposed to worry about grades, and being prepared isn't that big a deal, what am I supposed to be doing here?

Professor: Does the name James Carville mean anything to you?

Student: No.

Professor: He was President Clinton's political advisor in the 1992 presidential campaign.

Student:  Oh, yeah.  Like that guy in the movie "Primary Colors." He was really pretty funny. Tough but funny. I liked "Wag the Dog" and "Bulworth," too.

Professor: Do you remember what advice Carville had for Bill Clinton?

Student: No.

Professor:  Carville put a poster on Clinton's wall.  It said, "It's the economy, stupid!" You see, Clinton's kind of a policy wonk.

Student:  What's that mean?

Professor:  It means somebody who breaths, eats and lives public policy discussions.  Clinton was interested in talking about a whole range of policy issues, and Carville was constantly trying to keep him "on message."

Student:  So what poster would you like to put on my wall?

Professor: Well the message for you -- at least the message from me for you -- is, "It's the profession, stupid!"

Student: OK, but how does the fact that there's a legal profession affect my legal education?

Professor: You may have taken an undergraduate course in which you had to learn the names of the British kings in chronological order. Once the exam was over you could forget what you'd learned and be little the worse for it. Law school's not like that.

The closest analogy to what you're doing in law school is what you may have learned in sports, music, drama -- or military or survival training.

It's not enough that you read the book about how to putt, or play the trombone. It's not enough that you got an A on the exam over what's in the script for the play, or that you've memorized the football team's play book. The "examination" tests performance. Can you two-putt the green? Can you look at sheet music and turn it into trombone music? Execute those football plays? Do you live or die when left in the jungle or desert for two weeks? Can you remember, and deliver, your lines so that the character is believable?

Student: OK, OK, I get it. But what's an example from the law?

Professor: Suppose you're in trial and the other lawyer offers in evidence a document that the rules of evidence say should be excluded. You can say, "I object, your Honor," and keep that evidence from the jury. But you can only do that if you can (a) see that there is an issue, (b) identify what it is, (c) articulate the applicable legal principle, and (d) argue persuasively the applicability of the principle to the facts before you. The judge doesn't care what answers you came up with on your evidence class final exam. If you come up with the wrong answer in the courtroom, if you don't even, as we say in law school, "spot the issue," it's a little more serious than forgetting a King of England. It may mean that your client gets a death sentence instead of a life sentence. It may mean that a will is successfully contested that shouldn't have been, or that thousands of unsuspecting people will be injured from unsafe products or working conditions.

You're about to prepare yourself for a profession in which we play for keeps. Law school isn't "Mickey Mouse." It isn't about skipping class, fooling professors, seeing how little studying you can do and how much beer you can drink, and cramming for exams. It's about -- sometimes literally -- life and death, riches and poverty, justice and injustice.

Did you read Plato's Republic in high school or college?

Student:  No.  Should I have?

Professor:  I think so.  Yes.

Plato described what he called "philosopher kings."  Lawyers come as close to that as any class in our society.  We play a disproportionate role in thinking through our society's public policy issues -- and we certainly do in writing those policies into laws.

And if your professional responsibility to your clients, and your societal responsibility as a "philosopher king," aren't enough to make you want to master the material, remember that at some point your incompetence can result in a malpractice liability suit against you, sanctions from the bar association or courts, or even disbarment.

That's a little more embarrassing than being called on in class and being unprepared.

Student: Wow, I never thought about it that way.

Professor: Well, start thinking about it that way.

Do you remember that rain we had three days ago?

Student: Yes.

Professor: I met up with a student as I was walking from the parking lot, across the wooden foot bridge. After a rain storm there's always a big puddle on the sidewalk at the south end. We waded through water that came almost over our shoes, and she asked, "How come the sidewalk doesn't drain?"

You know what I answered?

Student: No.

Professor: I said, "Because the engineer who designed it skipped class the day they learned about drainage."

Do you still have your appendix?

Student: You mean the one in my body? Well, yes. But why do you ask me that?

Professor: Suppose you have an appendicitis attack and you're rushed to the hospital for an appendectomy. The next morning the doctor comes to visit, a little shame-faced. He explains that he accidentally took out your kidney instead. Fortunately, you have another, he says, and he's awfully sorry.

It seems there was a big beer party the night before they learned how to do appendectomies in medical school. He had a hangover the next morning, and missed class; kind of blew it off; never did learn for sure just exactly where the appendix is located.

Think how you'd feel. And then think about law. The responsibilities are similar. The consequences of ignorance, of lack of skill, are sometimes no less severe.

So that's why I say that law school is not about grades. It's not about being prepared for class. It's about mastering the material. Mastering the skills. Of course, preparing for class helps with that.  But your goal should be to practice -- and then practice, and practice some more -- the skills that will help you to become a responsible, caring, helping professional.

The difference between a fifty percent free throw shooter and an eighty percent free throw shooter is often the difference between winning and losing a basketball game. You can't gain that kind of skill in one afternoon of practice -- or one year for that matter. A lawyer's skills take at least as many hours of practice as free throws.

I don't often quote President Nixon. But one thing he said -- gross though it is -- may bear repeating. He said the one quality you need to be a successful law student is "an iron butt." That is, you have to be able to sit for hours, reading the cases, making your case briefs, refining your outlines. That's what he thought law school was about.

Student: Thanks, professor. I'll be back. But what law school is about for me, right now, is getting to the model class one of your colleagues is putting on in five minutes. It's only orientation week and already we're being pushed.

Professor: Better get going then. See you later.

Act II. Two Weeks Later

Student: Got a minute?

Professor: Sure. How's it going?

Student: I'm confused most of the time, but enjoying it anyway. I'm glad you got me off on the right foot. At least I'm taking it all a little more seriously than some of my classmates.

Professor: That's good.

Student: And I'm not picking seats in the back of the room.

Professor: What do you mean?

Student: Some students like to sit in the back, with their heads down, hoping they won't get called on.  I figured that's kind of missing the point, based on what you said.

Professor:  Bingo!  Why is it that education is perhaps the only consumer product or service for which the less of it the consumer gets for their money the happier they are?

You're right.  Trying to avoid getting called on is like downloading the "cheat codes" for video games from the Internet. The equivalent in my day was called cheating at solitaire.

You might as well go out for the college baseball team and then hope the coach won't ever make you pitch a game.  Learning how to "think on your feet" -- and we used to, literally, have to stand to recite when I was in law school -- is a part of the training you're paying for.

Besides, most professors keep some kind of record and will end up calling on all the students anyway.

Student: There's this one guy in class who puts up his hand to volunteer. He usually has something pretty useful to say, too.  He asked the professor a question the other day and the professor didn't know the answer.  Said she'd have to look it up and get back to us.

But some of the students call him a "gunner" behind his back.

Professor: Sounds like he's going to be a successful lawyer.

Student:  What do you mean?

Professor:  In law practice, "gunner" is just another name for "winner."  You don't win cases by holding back and hoping you don't get called on.  Besides, he's getting his tuition's worth with those exchanges with the professor.  Which of you do you think is going to come out on top when those questions are being fired at you by a judge instead of a law professor?  I'll bet it's the student who's had the most experience doing it.

Student:  But it can be embarrassing if you're wrong.

Professor:  So, would you rather be embarrassed in class now or in court later? It's your choice. We shoot blanks here in law school. Out where you'll be going they use live ammunition.

Look, it's possible to overdo it.  Every entering class may have someone who pushes the limits, really does talk too much, and often doesn't know what they're talking about.  But that's rare.  Over 99% of the students, in my experience, err by talking too little.

Student: So what do you think I should have learned by now?

Professor: I hope you've learned to read directions.

Student: What do you mean?

Professor: You'd be amazed how many students don't read the memos their professors give them.  You wouldn't go into a new court without familiarizing yourself with that court's rules. So don't take a class without paying attention to the materials. Come up with some kind of filing system for keeping them where you can find them. Review them from time to time. And, of course, read, and then re-read, the instructions that come with your exams.

Student: OK, but what I meant was, what rules of law?

Professor: I don't mean to suggest that there are no rules of law, or that they're not important. But much of what you ought to be learning now are skills.  Take the skills involved in briefing and synthesizing court opinions. That's something you are learning to do your first semester.

Student: How important is that?

Professor: Those skills are, to law, what blocking and tackling are to football, or chipping and putting to golf. You'll be using them the rest of your life.

They aren't like childhood vaccinations -- something you can do once and then forget about.  Law students who stop briefing cases after the first semester are making a big mistake, I think.

Selecting the most relevant facts in a case, identifying the issues, expressing the holdings -- and doing all of that in your own words -- is a far different exercise from making some marginal notes, or using a highlighter to select some of the judge's language.

And briefing every case in your casebook that your professor assigns, and then preparing your own outlines synthesizing those case briefs and your class notes, is the best way to master the material.

Student: But I talked to a second year student in the bookstore who was showing me outlines you can buy. They're bound to be better than anything I could write as a first year law student. And they're not that expensive.

Professor: You're right. There are commercial outlines available, or those of other students. But using them misses the whole point of the exercise. You want, you need, to develop the skills of working with legal material that outlining helps you hone.

It is the process of making the outline, not the end product, not reading it, that is the most important. In fact, by the time you have worked over an outline of a course for a semester you can probably throw it away. Although I'd advise you to keep it -- and your casebooks. Good ones can often be useful to you in practice. But just reading over someone else's outline is like reading over Tiger Woods' score card after a round of golf. It's inspiring, perhaps, but it won't take any strokes off of your score.

Student: What do you mean, "worked over an outline for a semester"? I assumed this was something I'd do in preparing for exams -- maybe after the fall Thanksgiving break.

Professor: Have you ever heard of the "forgetting curve"?

Student: No; what's that?

Professor: It's a graphic presentation of the rate at which we all forget newly acquired knowledge or skills.

One hour after you walk out of class you will have forgotten a significant amount of what you just learned. By the end of the day it's worse. The curve starts to level out after two or three days, but by then it's too late. Wait two or three weeks to get started and not only will you have forgotten most of what you once knew, but the task of catching up really looks overwhelming.

So my advice to you is to think constantly in terms of outlining your courses. Think about it while you're briefing cases, while you're taking notes in class. And, if possible, start to work your class notes into outline form within five or ten minutes after you walk out of the classroom. If you have access to a computer so much the better.

Most word processing programs have an outline feature that automatically renumbers your Roman numerals and sub-sections when you move them around. Take the table of contents of your casebook, or the professor's syllabus, and begin your outline with that. It's amazing how much you can learn about a course just by studying a casebook's table of contents, preface, index and trying to get inside the head of the author. Why has she put a group of cases under one heading rather than another?

You could have a skeleton outline of the entire semester before the first class meets. It gives you an overview of the entire course, and begins to give you some idea of the interrelationships between concepts. From then on you're just filling in the details with your reading notes and your class notes.

Work on it every day, right after class.

There will be days when outlining will be frustrating. You may be in the middle of a new concept, or section of the book. The professor hasn't pulled it together. Try anyway. You can always fix your outline later, once you've finished the section and understand it better.

Review the entire outline every weekend. The review needn't take long -- sometimes only a half-hour or hour will do it. You may see the need for some revisions. The relationships between the sections will become more clear. And by the time you've done this for 13 or 14 weeks you will be a professional-in-training. You will have come as close to mastering the material as anyone can.

Student: So I really will be preparing for class. You were kind of kidding me that first day.

Professor: Sure; a little. A lot of what your professors say in class are questions. In fact, a useful approach to studying is to play the game: "What question will the professor ask about this material?" -- or, after class, "Why did she ask the question she did?" If you haven't read the material, and made an effort to understand it, much of what goes on in class will be meaningless to you.

Student: For sure. I've been called on twice so far, and I'm sure glad I had briefed the cases. So why did you say earlier that I shouldn't worry about grades or being prepared?

Professor: Because I wanted to re-orient your thinking. Because I think the best advice I can give you is to encourage you to focus on the James Carville wall sign we talked about for you: "It's the profession, stupid!"

If your goal is to master the material, if your ambition is to become a truly competent lawyer, if you are taking seriously your responsibility for the lives and fortunes of your future clients, then you will also end up being relatively well prepared for class and doing relatively well on exams. But that will be a byproduct of your effort, not your primary goal.

Student: I guess that makes sense. Well, gotta' run. See you later, professor.

Professor: Good luck.

Act III. Second Semester

Student: Can I come in?

Professor: "May I come in?" Either way, the answer is "of course." How's it going?

Student: I didn't know you were also an English professor.

Hey, you're not going to believe this, but I think I have a shot at a summer clerkship with a medium size firm not far from here.

Professor: Congratulations. That's pretty unusual. Usually those jobs only go to second-year students. So don't be totally devastated if you don't get it.

Student: No, I understand. But it's got me to thinking more about all the emphasis you keep putting on professionalism.

Professor: How's that?

Student: Well, let me ask you this. I hope you won't be offended.

Professor: I doubt it. Try me.

Student: A couple of guys I was talking to last night, second years, told me that they think there's not that much relation between what we learn in law school and what you really do in practice. Like it's too theoretical here. You go to law school for three years and you still can't find the courthouse. What do you say to that?

Professor: Talk to those students after they've been in practice for five years.

I've worked at a major law firm. Most professors have had some kind of experience outside of teaching. And to keep up to date, I talk to young practicing lawyers as well as hiring partners. What they tell me confirms my own experience: The most difficult part of practice involves precisely the skills you develop in law school.

It won't take you long to find the restrooms in the courthouse, or to learn how to use boilerplate legal forms to accomplish transactions you do every day.

If you're involved in litigation, it's true, there's no substitute for the experience of having been through a number of trials. It's also true that most good trial lawyers will give you that experience, and help you learn the ropes.

But if you can't do legal research efficiently, if you can't read a statute or brief a case accurately, if you can't marshall a legal argument persuasively, if you can't write clearly and use correct Blue Book citation form, you're unlikely to find many lawyers willing to teach you what you should have learned in law school.

Student: But how often am I going to need that?

Professor: An awful lot of what you'll do, especially in your early years, will involve precisely these skills: working on appellate court briefs, legal opinion letters for clients, or memos for senior partners. You can't do it, at least not to professional standards, unless you've mastered the tools and techniques of legal analysis, clear writing, and efficient and thorough legal research -- whether in the books or with the Internet and commercial online resources.

For the most part, you will find a direct relationship between what you do in law school and what you'll later do in practice.

You'll see a similarity -- from understanding the assigned reading, to being able to answer the professor's questions in class, to being able to analyze and answer his or her essay questions on the final, to the questions you'll get on the bar examination, to the challenges you'll confront in practice.

Remember what I told you last semester about knowing the rules of evidence during a trial?

Student:  Yeah, that did stick with me.  You said the lawyer had to identify the issue, articulate the relevant principle, and then be able to argue why it applies to the fact situation.

Professor:  I trust you've discovered that those are precisely the same skills you need to recite in class or answer essay exam questions.

And it's no accident. I think most law professors are well aware of "the real world," and what you'll need to be successful there.

Of course, there are differences from casebook to casebook, and professor to professor. Even I wonder occasionally about the relevance of some of the courses that get through the curriculum committee and into the catalog. But for the most part the basic courses, and the exercises we put you through, are directly related, and essential, to your success as a lawyer.

Student: OK, I'll take your word for it. But you should have heard those guys last night.

Professor: I have; just not last night.

Student: There's one other thing. A third year told me there was a law student who couldn't get admitted to the bar because he'd once put a nickel slug in a parking meter. Is that true? Are the bar examiners really that petty? I always kind of liked George Bernard Shaw's advice about being "moderate in all things": moderately faithful, moderately honest, moderately truthful.

Professor: I like Shaw, too, but "moderate" integrity just doesn't cut it in the legal profession. That parking meter story may be true. At least a colleague of mine told it as true in a professional responsibility class I audited. Maybe that's where your friend heard it.

Don't be terrorized that some minor infraction when you were a young kid will end up keeping you out of the bar.  But the story does make a couple of important points.

For one thing, it's not unreasonable to expect lawyers to set a good example of respect for law. If we don't have it, who will? More than that, as you'll discover, you are technically considered "an officer of the court." You have an obligation to the legal system in general, and judges in particular, that goes way beyond that of ordinary citizens.

The casual attitude that many persons have about misrepresentations and dishonesties sometimes seems endemic to our society.  You grew up in that society, and may have adopted some of those attitudes yourself.  Well, now's the time to change.  The laws and regulations governing lawyers' behavior require a standard far above that of the average citizen.

And there's another issue. It is in the nature of much of what a lawyer does that there is no supervision by others. It's like a doctor's access to drugs. Do you know the line from the country and western song, "If it weren't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all"? Well, if it weren't for a lawyer's self-discipline there would often be no discipline at all.

Fred Friendly was president of CBS News when asked to do something he thought unethical. He resisted. "Who'd know?" he was asked. He answered, "I'd know, that's who'd know."

Whenever one of my own children would come up with idea that involved personal advantage by cheating in one way or another -- like sneaking into a movie theater -- I'd tell them, "Sure, there's nothing you can't do if you're willing to lie, cheat and steal." The point -- which they seemed to get -- is that you have to set your own standards of honesty and integrity. That goes double for a lawyer -- both because of the opportunities for abuse and the special obligations owed by lawyers. And that's why express findings of "good character" are a necessary element of admission to the bar. So the parking meter offense is not about five cents. It's about character. Someone who's willing to cheat for a nickel may well be a bad risk as someone to entrust with clients' money.

Well, enough of this heavy stuff. Good luck on that summer clerkship. Come see me before you leave for the summer -- whatever you end up doing.

Student: I will -- but, wow, now you've given me even more to worry about.

Act IV. Last Day of Finals

Student: Hi, professor.

Professor: How did it go?

Student: Who knows? It's nerve-racking at best. The guy sitting next to me told me after the exam just now that he was sure he creamed it, because he saw all three issues. I didn't say anything, but it was all I could do to write something about what seemed like at least 47 issues.

Professor: That's a good sign.

One of my colleagues tells me her favorite advice for first year students is that they should never talk to other students about exams.  Not only is it bound to be upsetting, but you're on your own -- now, as a student, and later, as a practicing lawyer.  Exams are a good time to start getting used to that fact.

Student: I'm sure glad I took your advice about outlining. That made all the difference.

Professor: I thought you'd find it helpful.

But, you know, there are a couple of other things to remember about law school exams.  If you find you're really logging lots of hours studying, and still not getting the results you think you should, talk to your professors about it. Maybe the old line about "work smarter, not harder" applies to you. Don't try to get professors to change your grade. But ask them to go over the exam with you. Find out what it is they expected that you failed to do. There are books and articles about the techniques of exam taking. Read them. At least you won't be making the same mistakes twice.

Most of us have a number of issues in mind, with points assigned for each. We give a good share of the available points just for "spotting the issue." If you don't know "the answer," or even "an answer," at least note the questions.  One of my colleagues says that taking a law school essay exam is like playing a game of pinball: you just keep ringing up points.

Remember also that there are different styles of learning -- and of performance. Another colleague of mine refers to what he calls "tomorrow morning in the shower people." Among law students, these are the ones who think of the answer to the essay exam the day after the exam: "tomorrow morning in the shower." His point is that, for a great deal of what you'll do in law practice, tomorrow morning may be soon enough. It won't raise your grade point average in law school, but if you really can come up with the answer to the exam the next day you can be confident that, for most purposes, you'll do fine as a lawyer.

If you turn out to be one of those, look for the many alternatives we make available to you for distinction as a law student, such as moot court competition or writing for one of the law journals.

OK. Sorry I got going on that.

So, what's your summer look like?

Student: Didn't I tell you? I got the summer clerkship!

Professor: Hey, that's great! Congratulations. I'll expect a report when you come back next fall.

Student: If I pass enough courses that I can come back next fall.

Professor: It doesn't sound to me like there's much question about that.

Student: Now that I am going to be doing at least some kind of work in a law firm, I was just thinking maybe you'd share with me some of the qualities you think are important to being a successful lawyer.
"Real accomplishment is something rarely glamorous or ecstasy-filled:  It comes from steady, reliable effort over time; a never-ending fight against ignorance and laziness; the cultivation of productive habits . . .; and the building up of skill and experience by constant effort."

-- Steve Salerno, "Pumped for Nothing:  Motivational speakers are everywhere.  What are they really saying?" Wall Street Journal, May 8, 1998, p. W11

Professor: Sure.

Foremost, I'd say, is what we've been talking about throughout the semester.

There was a wonderful episode of the "Bill Cosby" TV show in which the son, who decides he wants to be a famous professional football running back, shows his father the kind of little dance he intends to do after he makes touchdowns. His father explains that there are some elements of football a little more basic to one's success than spiking the ball after a touchdown.

So the "dress for success" look, and fancy new briefcase -- what Willie Loman, in "Death of a Salesman," calls "a shoeshine and a smile" -- will only take you so far. What a lawyer has above his or her neck is a lot more important than the tie, or scarf, they have tied around it.

There's a lot of meritocracy about the practice of law. It may not be as easy to measure as meritocracy in the National Basketball Association -- points per game, or rebounds. But if you are winning tough cases as a trial lawyer, or with brilliant briefs on appeal, or coming up with innovative schemes -- whether for "consumer protection" or "creative finance" -- the word will get around. And your ability to perform, with quality and efficiency, is a function of how much you applied yourself in law school.

Student: I understand that. But from what you've said I gather there are other factors you think are important.

Professor: That's true. There are. Factors that don't get much emphasis in high school and college. And what the hiring partners I've talked to tell me is that there is a direct relationship between the habits you form in law school and the habits you apply in practice.

Student: My second-year buddies don't agree with you.

Professor: Oh, really? What do they say?

Student: They say, "Oh, sure, I party hard and sleep late now, sometimes miss class, turn in papers late -- papers that I sure wouldn't want a law firm to see -- but once I get into a firm I'm going to get up at 5:00 a.m., be at my desk by 7:00, always do high quality work, and get it in ahead of time."

Professor: Yeah, sure, and if you believe that I've got some beachfront property for you in Arizona. It's not that easy to change basic life habits. If you need a little shaping up law school's the time to start doing it.

Good grades may get you an interview, and even your first job, but they aren't enough, alone, to keep you there, or give you the basis for a successful career as a lawyer.

For starters, you need to raise the bar on the standards you set for yourself.

Student: Give me an example.

Professor: A colleague was interviewing a law student for a job as a prospective research assistant, Once the student heard about the citation checking the professor wanted him to do the student said, "You know, I'm not really interested in that kind of work. I'm going to be a lawyer after all, not a detail guy. I'm more of an 'idea person.'" My friend asked the student if he had any idea how much of law practice was "detail work." The student said he didn't know. The professor said, "Try about 99 percent."

Student: OK, I've already picked up some idea of that. I guess you have to do "authority checks" when you work on the law review. But I would think that for really good law students that wouldn't be a problem in practice.

Professor: Oh, you do, eh? Well then, let me tell you another true story.

I have a colleague, a professor at this law school who is as bright as they come, diligent and attentive to detail. She practiced law in a very prestigious law firm, and I'm sure did excellent quality work as a lawyer. But she told me about the first memo she prepared for a senior partner. She sat across from him, at his desk, as he began to read it. Half way down the first page he spotted a typo she hadn't caught, flung the memo back across the desk at her, and said, "Here. When it's in proper form for me to read bring it back."

When I told the story to another colleague, he assumed the story was about him.  He'd had the same experience!  "We don't send out wills from this firm with typos in them," he was told.

Senior partners expect associates to proof read the partner's work; partners aren't there to proof read associates' drafts.

Most law students aren't used to standards like that. It's better to get used to them in law school than on the job.

I help students edit the seminar papers they give me. I explain to them that proof reading is their job, that Blue Book citation form is important. And yet I not only find obvious typographical and grammatical errors in their so-called "final drafts," students sometimes even fail to make the corrections I have pointed out to them when they do the revision!

Do that once or twice at a top quality law firm and you'll find yourself out on the street.

Student: OK. Looks like I'm going to have to give a lot more attention to my writing this summer and next year. We didn't have to do much writing where I went to college. And I certainly never got the kind of editing you're talking about.

What are some of the other qualities that I'll need as a lawyer?

Professor: A lot of them are kind of obvious.

I think it was Woody Allen who once observed that 90% of success in life is just showing up.  Or there's the line about house painters:  if you show up on time every day, and are sober, they make you the supervisor.

You can laugh at that, but there's also some truth in it.

The same principle applies now to going to class.  Give your professors the benefit of the doubt.  Assume they have thought through what they're doing in class, and that there is, in fact, a good reason for your being there.  Like Woody Allen says, "show up."

I must have missed a class some time or other when I was a student, but I don't remember it.  I do remember going to class with a 103-degree fever -- though I don't recommend that to you.  I just thought class was important.

Although, in fairness, I had an additional incentive.  Back in those days the dean literally used the line, in greeting the entering class, "look to your left, look to your right, one of you isn't going to be here next year."  They flunked out one-third of the entering class, and I really didn't want that to happen to me.

And, once you're in class, take notes.  Sometimes I sit in on a colleague's class.  Usually I have a notebook computer with me, and may end up with five or ten printed pages of notes.  I can't help but notice some students just warming the seats; at the end of the hour they don't seem to have more than a half-page of notes.

Showing up sober is kind of obvious.  The president I worked for had a rule that we were not to drink alcohol at cocktail parties, whether in the White House or elsewhere.  Back then I drank ginger ale.  I remember another time at a party with some Hollywood entertainers.  Their manager and I were both drinking ginger ale while the rest of the crowd was getting a little drunk.  The manager commented to me, "Did you ever notice how everybody running the world is drinking ginger ale?"

You have to make your own decisions about alcohol and what I call "the lesser hard drugs" -- because of the serious consequences of alcohol for our society -- both in law school and after you get out.  But I'd say the less the better.

So, show up at the firm on time -- preferably a little ahead of time -- every day.  Take notes in meetings.  I always put dates and times on everything -- anticipating finding the notes six months later and not having a clue as to what they were about.  And stay sober.

Student:  What else?

Professor:  They are mostly pretty obvious, such as self-discipline, punctuality, courtesy, and time management. Many students developed this kind of common sense long before law school -- especially if they grew up on a mixed agriculture farm, worked their way through school, served some time in the military, or participated in drama, music or sports programs in high school or college. They've already been in situations where they feel the sense of responsibility to do their very best for those who are depending on them. Other students still need to learn those lessons.

Take time management, for example. Lawyers bill for their time. The more efficiently you can turn out top quality work the more valuable you are as a lawyer -- to your firm and to your clients. Many lawyers bill out their time in tenth-of-an-hour units, six minute blocks. It's called "billable time."

You may be asked to do that this summer. There's no reason you can't keep it up next fall -- if not in tenths of an hour, perhaps in quarter-hour segments.

Student: So you mean I have to stop watching the "Seinfeld" reruns?

Professor: Not necessarily. Don't get too driven or you'll make yourself sick. That's also a risk. Get your sleep, good nutrition, some exercise; take care of yourself.

Keeping time sheets doesn't mean you don't take any time for sleep, lunch, socializing with friends, exercise, reading the paper, or going to a movie. It just means you keep track of how much time that is. If you're in the library for two hours, but spend 20 minutes talking to friends and ten minutes scanning the newspaper, you enter 1.5 hours as "study time," not 2.0 hours. If the study time ends up being less than you'd like it to be, you are able to see where your time is going. You can recapture some of that time for studying. You can see how much time you're spending on each course, and whether it's going to "preparing for class" or learning the material while outlining.

That kind of integrity about your time records is especially important in practice.  There's no reason some client should be paying your firm $100 to $300 an hour while you read the newspaper or visit with friends on the phone.

One of the secrets of the success of the Weight Watchers program is that participants are given great flexibility in what they can eat, but must write down everything. It turns out that the mere act of writing down everything -- whether it's portions eaten, pennies spent, or minutes used -- tends to make us more attentive and efficient. Try it.

Student: But I've heard professors give law students more to do than they can possibly accomplish.

Professor: It's nothing compared to practice.

Law students occasionally complain about how much they have to do. They have to skip class because they have a paper due in another class. Their paper is late because they had a "fly back" for an interview with a firm, family business to attend to, or computer problems at 2:00 a.m. the day the paper was due. When I was a kid, by the way, it was called "the dog ate my homework."

Lawyers will tell you that you'll never again have as much leisure as you have as a law student. A practicing lawyer -- especially one who is married, has kids, and is involved in community activities -- may have as much as ten times as many demands on her time as a lawyer as she did as a law student. Keep your eyes open this summer and you'll see what I mean.

That's a good reason for beginning the habit, while in law school, of planning your time so you get the most important things done first, and well before any deadlines. As the old salesman's adage has it, "Plan your work and work your plan." That way, when the unexpected arises -- as it usually does, and at the worst possible time -- you can both meet your deadlines and deal with the emergencies.

Be punctual. Get into the habit of getting to class, or other meetings, five minutes early. Carry work with you, so you can use any waiting time profitably.

The senior partners may admire the brilliant appellate court briefs you write, but if you don't finish them in time for the partner to look them over, and meet the courts' filing deadlines, they won't do the clients much good -- or your prospects for making partner.

There's stress enough in law practice. Don't create unnecessary stress for your colleagues by failing to meet reasonable deadlines. There's another wall sign I like that's sometimes posted in copy centers or above a secretary's desk: "Your failure to plan does not constitute my emergency."

On those, hopefully, very rare occasions when you see you are not going to make a deadline, ask for an extension ahead of time, not after the project is due.  Judges will sometimes even grant a postponement of a trial date; it's called a "continuance."  But you don't ever miss a court date and then ask for a continuance.  You get the continuance ahead of time.  Start showing the same respect for your obligations around the law school.

Student: What about professional ethics? I heard this lawyer joke. A lawyer falls overboard, but the sharks get out of the way and don't eat him. Do you know why?

Professor: Yes, I heard that one, too. "Professional courtesy." That's not exactly the same thing. You'll have an entire course devoted to the laws, regulations and ethical standards that govern lawyers. I won't try to summarize all you'll learn in that course now! You have to take the course. But when you do, take it seriously.

Student: That's a lot to grasp. I mean, I really appreciate your taking the time to share all of this with me this past year. But it's going to take some thinking about.

Professor: That's the right response. It will take some time. And you may want to re-read this record of our conversation from time to time. Fortunately you still have this summer and another two years. Use them well. And feel free to stop by anytime.

Student: Thanks, Professor. See you next fall. 

* Nicholas Johnson is a Visiting Professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. His legal career exemplifies some of the options open to law students. After graduation from the University of Texas Law School he was a law clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge John R. Brown, and then U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black. He has taught at many law schools, beginning with the University of California, Berkeley, in 1960, and has worked as an associate at Covington & Burling, a major Washington law firm. He has published articles in a number of leading law reviews. He has held three presidential appointments, including heading an executive branch agency (Maritime Administration) and an independent regulatory commission (FCC). He has been a political candidate for the U.S. Senate and House. And he has had a number of careers outside of the legal profession as well. More of the details, and much of his recent writing, is available from his Web page: http:/ His e-mail address can be found there. This "play," in the form of a transcript of a mock conversation with an entering law student, is his effort to share some suggestions drawn from that experience. 

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