Everything I Know About Law
School I Learned In My First Year
Paralegals share their
experiences about tackling that difficult first year and discuss whether
to take the plunge.
By Lana J. Clark, CLA
Have you ever
wondered what law school is really like? Do you question whether you
could attend while working and still manage the demands and finances of
carrying the extra burden? Are you filled with doubts that keep you from
looking into law school in the first place? If so, this article may help
to dispel a few of the myths and detail a handful of realities regarding
what it’s like to attend law school.
After 20 years working as a paralegal
in California, I recently completed my first year of law school at Santa
Barbara College of Law in Santa Barbara, Calif. While there is still
much to learn and experience, I would like to share my thoughts on the
typical first year of law school. What follows is a compilation of my
personal experience, details on what you can expect, tips on what to
consider when contemplating attending law school, and the input and
thoughts of other paralegals who have either traveled the same road or
share the journey with me now.
Attend Law School
The most common reasons paralegals give for deciding to go to
law school include salary motivation and realizing they are no longer
challenged by current work assignments. Let’s face it, after 10 or 15
years of litigation, corporate or transactional work, many paralegals
perform the same tasks as an attorney except giving legal advice and
appearing in court. After passing the bar, these paralegals can, in many
cases, significantly increase their salaries.
Ernest Davila, a former attorney
prosecutor for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in Houston
who also previously worked as a paralegal, said when he realized he was
doing as much work as an attorney and being paid significantly less, he
became motivated to begin law school. “The attorneys I worked for at the
time saw the good, substantive work I was doing and encouraged me to
become an attorney,” Davila explained.
The obvious advantage you have when
studying law is your existing knowledge of terminology, civil procedure,
research and writing. During the first two years of schooling, while
other students without legal backgrounds are struggling to understand
terms, learning how to read and brief a case, sweating and weeping in
confusion, you can zoom directly to the content of the course and
understand the elements of the law more quickly as a paralegal law
student. This is a key advantage.
Legal assistants like Meghan Behrens, a
paralegal at the Santa Barbara County Counsel’s Office and a second-year
law student at Santa Barbara College of Law, said law school was always
a goal for her. She explained that her experience as a paralegal simply
confirmed her feelings about becoming a lawyer were on target. “Being a
paralegal definitely has helped me [in working to become an attorney],”
A word of caution however: Beware of
coming into law school with a “know-it-all” attitude. You must realize
that while paralegals are more superior in their knowledge of legal
procedure than the typical, inexperienced law student, practical legal
experience isn’t always applicable in law school where the subject
matter is almost entirely theoretical.
Davila said his expectations of law
school didn’t mesh with the realities.
“I expected it to be different. I
thought it would be more like what I was doing as a paralegal —
preparing documents, conducting research. Instead, that first year was
just constant reading and [discussion of legal theory],” Davila said.
Janet Lammers, a paralegal with 15
years of experience who is also currently attending Santa Barbara
College of Law, said the paralegal work assignments she received were
substantive and complex.
However, she said she felt frustrated
because she could only go so far on a particular assignment before she
got stuck and had to turn things over to an attorney. She said as a
paralegal, she became an expert at the procedural process, but didn’t
thoroughly understand the law. The disparity between procedure and
theory was what motivated her to enroll in law school.
Can I Work and
Attend Law School Too?
While it’s a given attending law school requires a big
commitment of time and is ideally done on a full-time basis, many people
can and do work full time while attending an evening law school program.
If you are an organized person, have self-discipline and are not prone
to procrastination, you can succeed at both. Many law students work —
the only limitation is your desire. However, if you can forego work for
a time and focus all your attention on law school, you can certainly
succeed with less stress on your plate.
“For me, there is more pressure from
classmates who are not paralegals. They seem to think, ‘Oh, you are
already in the field of law. You have it so easy,’” Behrens explained.
“In truth, I think the people who have
the best chance in law school are those who are not working (who are
full-time students),” she said.
If you can’t attend school full time,
and must work while in law school, the best advice is to have a
realistic attitude and expectation of your performance. You can’t work,
attend law school and still expect to always be at the top of the class.
“When I went to law school, the level
of the other students who had excelled in their undergraduate studies
was high. But in law school, you are just another face in the crowd
initially,” Davila warned, noting the fight for top grades is an uphill
struggle in the first year of law school that is a world apart from
However, once you pass the bar, you are
a lawyer just like the person who graduated at the top of the class.
Your practical paralegal experience may even be more attractive to
potential employers and make up for any lack of honor-role status.
Employer support for employees
attending law school varies widely. Some will encourage, offer to answer
questions, clarify legal issues, or even review written papers prior to
submission to your professors. Some may allow you to have a flexible
work schedule to accommodate your classes and exams. Other firms may
conclude your school commitment and eagerness to leave work promptly at
5 p.m. detract from your dedication to your job.
In addition, it’s important to note
that some firms only hire top students from American Bar Association
(ABA)-approved law schools.
If you work at one of these firms while
attending law school, you may find your employer acts in a manner that
makes you feel your education is second class. Since each firm is
different, only you can evaluate what kind of roadblocks may be in your
way and how to best overcome them.
One legal assistant I know, who
completed law school at a non-ABA-approved school, was hired at the firm
where she previously worked as a paralegal, but only as a contract
attorney. She was told she would not be hired as an associate, nor would
she have the ability to be on the partnership track like other
associates who were hired following graduation from ABA-approved
After several years working in this
capacity and laying a solid foundation of professionalism and skill, she
was finally moved to an associate status.
Do You Have
What it Takes?
One reason some paralegals automatically believe law school
isn’t an option for them is that it often requires a bachelor’s degree
to get accepted into law school. While many ABA-approved schools do
require a bachelor’s degree as an admission requirement, the actual ABA
Standards for Admissions under Standard 502(a) states having a
bachelor’s degree, “or successful completion of three-fourths of the
work acceptable for a bachelor’s degree.” This means if you have three
years of college education, you might be able to meet this standard and
be admitted to an ABA-approved law school.
An alternative to attending an ABA-approved law school is to attend a
non-ABA approved law school. Some non-ABA-approved schools don’t require
a bachelor’s degree as an admission requirement.
In California, only 16 out of 34 law
schools are ABA-approved, which means the chance for a paralegal without
a bachelor’s degree to be admitted to law school is good. However, you
should consider that following this course could significantly inhibit
your ability to find employment as a lawyer. Only four state bar
associations in the United States (Alabama, California, Connecticut and
Maine) admit graduates from non-ABA-approved law schools, thus limiting
available options for nondegreed paralegals in states other than the
four listed here.
Each state bar sets criteria for
education requirements for law school admission. For example, California
requires only two years of college or passing a college level
equivalency examination before beginning the study of law. This means if
you have an associate degree or attended college for a couple of years,
you might be able to attend a California law school.
ABA-approved institutions also require
students to pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Most
non-ABA-approved schools, however, have no LSAT. Although, in
California, non-accredited schools do require you to pass the First Year
Law Student Test, also known as the Baby Bar, before you may continue
your studies, according to the state bar. Check into the requirements of
schools in your area to find out more.
Another option for obtaining a law
degree involves online legal education programs, where class discussions
occur in professor-led chat rooms or on bulletin board discussions. The
study time and reading materials are the same, but chat room discussions
of legal topics with other students are typically less time consuming
than in a physical classroom setting. For many people, if distance is a
factor in attending law school, this is an option to study law in a more
flexible setting while avoiding travel. One such online school is
Concord University School of Law. Concord has a physical office in Los
Angeles and can be accessed at
Concord’s curriculum takes four years
and it isn’t ABA-approved. Therefore, graduates are only able to sit for
the California Bar Exam. Before a graduate of Concord can sit for a bar
exam in other states, they must practice law in California for five
years. Such requirements may make this particular option less attractive
for those paralegals who wish to immediately practice outside the state
following graduation. A little searching on the Internet may result in
other, more viable online law schools in your own state.
Non-ABA Law Schools
Understanding your future goal as an attorney and the impact
of choosing to attend a law school that is or isn’t ABA-approved is
important. Unless you live in Alabama, California, Connecticut or Maine,
you don’t have the luxury of such a choice.
If your goal is to work in a top law
firm in a metropolitan area or in a Fortune 500 company, hiring
requirements may eliminate graduates of non-ABA approved law schools
from being considered.
Behrens, whose law school isn’t
ABA-approved, said she is comfortable with her educational decision.
“The Santa Barbara College of Law isn’t ABA-approved, but it is
[accredited by the Committee of Bar Examiners of the State Bar of
California]. I think if I wanted to work in a big firm, they probably
would not look at me. But I’m not leaving Santa Barbara. I want to work
for the government … and I know a lot of people in government work who
went to non-ABA-approved schools,” Behrens explained.
She also noted that her school offers
night classes which allow her to continue to work as a paralegal while
she attends law school. According to Behrens, the only law school in the
area that is currently ABA-approved is too far from her home and doesn’t
offer the night classes she needs.
Davila, who went to law school at the
University of Houston, which is ABA-approved and was so when he
graduated in 1988, said ABA-approval can be a complex choice each law
school candidate needs to consider for him or herself. At San Jacinto
College, where Davila is currently a paralegal educator, the school is
currently undertaking the process of obtaining ABA-approval for its
“I wouldn’t say attending a
non-ABA-approved law school is necessarily a bad thing depending on the
overall quality of the program. However, it could be a negative when it
comes to employers who are looking at candidates from ABA-approved
schools as well as from non-ABA-approved schools,” Davila said.
There are other options to review when
considering law schools, including being hired at the firm where you
currently work, seeking employment in the public sector or in a district
attorney’s office prosecuting criminal cases, opening your own office,
doing contract work for other attorneys at home, or doing work outside
the traditional law firm or legal department setting.
Obtain a book on alternate careers for
attorneys or do some creative thinking on how to market your skills with
a law degree. Ultimately, the decision of what school to attend and
whether ABA-approval is necessary is up to you and your individual
The best course of action is to
approach the situation from an attorney’s perspective: Do your due
diligence. Contact law schools that are both ABA- and non-ABA-approved
and ask to speak to some recent graduates. Ask those graduates about
their experiences as working attorneys and how their ABA-approved
education or lack thereof has either helped or hurt them. Also, contact
a few law firms in areas in which you might consider one day working.
Find out what hiring practices those firms have regarding law school
programs, specifically where the firms stand on ABA-approval. Then weigh
those comments against your own ambition and choose carefully.
Myths and misconceptions you may have about attending law
school after having worked as a legal assistant might include:
- Memorization of facts and statutes
is most important. The reality is law school grades are based on how
you do on exams, which test your ability to read hypothetical fact
situations, apply the law you have learned and — most importantly —
analyze various possible outcomes. This is similar to the judgment and
analytical ability section of the Certified Legal Assistant Exam (CLA).
Those who have taken this CLA exam section can comprehend what a law
school exam is like. You spend a lot of time memorizing the elements
of a legal theory and the case holdings of the leading cases on the
subject, but your grade is based on how well you can analyze the facts
on the exam and demonstrate your ability to think like a lawyer.
- Since I’m experienced in doing case
briefs, I can breeze through the assigned cases. Don’t believe this
one. It generally takes several hours per week for each class to do
the reading and case briefing because of the magnitude of cases and
the fact that the cases contain multiple and complex issues.
- If you attend every class and read
the material, you will do well on the exams. Again, the exams test
your ability to reason and think like a lawyer. This is a skill you
develop from not only attending class and listening to the professor,
but also by participating in discussions, working in study groups and
developing your reasoning ability.
- Don’t help others because professors
grade on a curve. Because students recognize the importance of a grade
curve, some students may avoid study groups or sharing study aids. The
reality is competition is strong. However, you can often become
supportive of each other and develop a “we are all in this boat
Personally, I learned I needed to
confront a few myths of my own. One such myth is that your family is
your bedrock of support and solace in times of law school-related
stress. This isn’t always the case.
I actually experienced added pressure
from family and friends because I was constantly told I would do great
in law school due to my experience as a legal assistant.
While such comments were intended to be
supportive and ease my stress, they only made my situation worse because
it seemed everyone expected me to whiz thorough law school and make top
grades because I already knew it all.
During the first semester of school, I
quickly realized despite 20 years of experience as a paralegal, I didn’t
know it all. I also came to recognize I didn’t completely understand all
the legal theories I had been cutting and pasting into those legal
pleadings all those years. Luckily, reality sets in for family and
friends after you explain law school exams are graded on a curve and you
are being compared to other students who are attending full time.
As a result, some of the pressure tends
to subside once the reality of your first year sets in for yourself,
your family and your friends.
the Financial Burden
While costs can vary, attending law school may not be too far
out of reach when you consider the available loans, grants and
scholarships. Numerous scholarships for re-entry students, single
parents or students who represent a particular minority or vocational
background are available. Internet and library research can provide you
with a wealth of available scholarships and grants which often lapse or
go unclaimed due to a lack of applicants.
Typical costs for a non-ABA-approved
law school range from $8,000 to $10,000 a year. ABA-approved law school
tuition can be double or triple such costs.
If you incur student loans of $50,000,
you will likely make this amount in a year or two after graduation due
to increased wages, so don’t let the financial fear hold you back — you
are making an investment that will pay off big later on. Investigate
your financial options with the financial aid office at the school you
What Is Law
School Really Like?
Typically, homework and class preparation consists of reading
case summaries and preparing case briefs.
For a three-hour class that meets
weekly, expect to have about 50 to 100 pages of cases to read and brief.
This may consist of 10 or more cases to brief and each one may take you
30 minutes or more to complete. It’s not uncommon to spend four to eight
hours per class weekly on homework alone. If you are taking three
classes per semester, this totals 12 to 25 hours weekly on homework, in
addition to nine hours a week attending classes, plus any study groups
or law-school related activities. This amounts to 20 to 35 hours a week
or more for law school, which makes a long week if you also work full
Many students purchase study guide
books containing briefs of the cases contained in the casebook. It’s
important to try to use the briefs in these books to simply check your
comprehension of the issues and case holdings rather than as a
replacement for doing your own briefs. While this may save study time,
it means you spend less time analyzing and learning to think like a
lawyer, which may impact your ability to perform well on the exams.
“The main challenge I faced in
attending law school was the integration of the practical, hands-on
experience I had as a paralegal [versus] the theoretical or classroom
[applications] I experienced as a law school student,” explained Eric
Schurger, an attorney for the Department of Children and Families in
According to Schurger, law school is a
significant challenge that requires what he called “a near single-minded
During the course of an average 15-week
semester, you can expect to cover 400 to 600 pages of reading material
per class. Multiply that by the number of classes you take and you get
an idea of just how much reading you are doing, and this kind of reading
is much more difficult than the pleasure reading you may enjoy now.
Preparing an outline of the elements of
law covered in your class is another important task to ensure your
success. Your ability to prepare a succinct, yet comprehensive outline
of everything covered during class becomes the guide you will review
over and over as you study the elements of the law, and prepare for
Many law school students prepare course
outlines that comprise 20 to 30 pages, at least initially. As the
semester progresses, those outlines are significantly pared down to be
more concise study aids.
Class time is typically spent in a procedure commonly
referred to as the Socratic method. The professor asks a student to
orally brief a case in front of the class and then discussion occurs
about the case issues, holdings and applicable law and precedent-setting
standard. The pressures to analyze and perform this task orally before
other classmates is intimidating.
Some professors use a daunting and
insulting demeanor if you fail to properly answer the question. This
provides the motivation to adequately prepare for class. While this
method is stressful, it develops the skill of thinking on your feet,
which develops courtroom attorney skills, so it does play a key role in
your legal education.
In most classes, grading is based on performance on the
mid-term and final exams. Some classes don’t even have a mid-term exam,
so your entire grade is based on how you do on the final exam.
In classes that take two semesters,
such as torts, contracts, real property, civil procedure and
constitutional law, the final exams are generally comprehensive,
covering 30 weeks of course content — adding pressure by testing you in
May on material you learned the previous September. This is why students
spend so much time studying for final exams.
Exams in substantive law classes
typically consist of essay exams that pose hypothetical facts and ask
you to identify the issues presented, analyze the facts, tell what law
is applicable, explain the law, write an analysis and state possible
conclusions which may be reached in the case. Some students use the
“IRAC” method taught in school, which sets out the issue, the rule of
law, the analysis of the facts and law and sets forth one or more
Typically, a law school exam for each
class will contain three hypothetical questions and allows one hour to
respond to each of the three questions, for a total of three hours of
Stress levels among students can run
quite high and competition to get the best grade in the class may either
motivate or paralyze you, depending on how well you are at test taking.
Schurger related a story about one
practice mid-term exam he took during his first year in law school at
the University of Florida.
He explained that a period of time had
elapsed in the fact pattern of the scenario he was offered as part of
the practice exam, and in his answer he analyzed the computation of time
periods under the existing state rules of procedure to apply the statute
of limitations as dispositive of the case.
“In correcting the practice
examination, the professor told me to just accept his facts as true and
analyze from that point. I did much better on the final examination once
I suspended my practical paralegal experience and stuck to the
theoretical law student experience,” Schurger explained. I recall how
fearful I felt when I started and professors told us 50 percent of the
people would drop out in the first year.
Looking back on my first year, it doesn’t seem so bad. I
worried too much about failing and should have tried to have more
Davila offered the best advice to
paralegals thinking of attending law school: “Don’t let anything or
anybody stop you. Don’t underestimate yourself because there will be
others out there who will. Don’t expect it to be easy; you will
struggle, but you will make it. Keep your eye on the prize.”
on Family, Social Life and Employment
A number of paralegals
who are either currently attending or have completed law school were
interviewed for this article. While space issues limited the number of
people who could reasonably be included in the main story, a number of
valuable and insightful comments were made by those interviewed. Their
comments reflect how, in each person’s opinion, law school attendance
affects personal and family relationships, social life and one’s current
been removed as some participants wanted to offer an open and honest
assessment of attending law school without fear for their reputations as
dedicated students and professionals.
- Law school at
night requires all your spare time for studying other than sleeping,
working and attending classes. There is just no free time left.
- People with
spouses and kids are crazy to do it — many marriages break up during
law school because you can’t spend much time with your family.
- Law school is
not conducive to family oriented people.
- You have to
create balance by structuring your responsibilities — for many people,
this may mean hiring a housekeeper and saving Friday nights as a date
night with your spouse.
- Get your
financial life in order before starting law school — debt problems are
activities are frequently eliminated or at least curtailed during
school. This is an unavoidable reality.
- I began to hate
discovery and the dull drums of the same tasks I had been doing for 10
years as a paralegal.
- I loved being
able to better understand the substance of the documents I was working
on at my paralegal job after studying legal concepts in school.
- I spend all my
lunch hours reading and seldom go out to lunch with co-workers like I
used to do.
- After a vacation
from school and a return to a normal family and social life, it was
hard to return to another semester of law school pressures.
- I was amazed at
how quickly the years went by and I had my law degree.
Note the various
positive and negative comments mentioned — they are all accurate
descriptions of feelings I had this past year. Although law school can
leave you feeling stressed by the demands on your time, it can also make
you feel pleased at how you are growing in your knowledge.