How to Get Legal Experience in Law School

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 20, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Law schools excel at teaching the theory of law but not exactly its practice. You can spend years learning some of the nation's most important legal precedents and discussing obscure points of jurisprudence, but if you want to put that knowledge in to practice, you're going to need to get some experience.

Thankfully, you don't have to wait till you've graduated to start getting some experience in how law is actually practiced. Here are some ways to get your feet wet as a law student.

1. Internships and Clerkships

Clerking or interning is the most common way that law students gain experience in the law. A good clerkship or internship will familiarize you with how a firm, nonprofit, or government organization works, allow you to get a peek at some of the behind the scenes maneuvering, and hopefully introduce you to attorneys who can guide and inspire you.

But not all internships and clerkships are created equal. A clerkship where you spend most of your time researching the law or editing drafts can be enjoyable, helpful, and inspiring -- but it's not exactly going to expand your legal skillset that much. If you're focused on being practice ready at graduation, look for clerkships that will allow you to deal with client intake, strategizing, filing, even billing. These are the kinds of tasks that most lawyers don't know much about when they graduate, but which are essential for a successful practice.

2. Clinics

If your law school has a clinical program, consider taking part. Legal clinics allow students to get real, hands-on experience serving clients and tackling legal issues, under the direction of professors and actual lawyers of course. And clinics come in many shapes and forms: environmental clinics, human rights clinics, tax clinics, and more. They're probably the best practical learning you can get in law school, and in some jurisdictions, you can even argue cases in court.

3. Skills-Based Courses and Competitions

Now ever law school course is focused on caselaw. Consider pursuing a few skills-based courses as part of your second and third year curriculum. And no, we're not talking about legal writing here. Classes on negotiations, mediation, trial practice, and the like can be good ways to develop some of the less-academic legal skills.

The same goes for competitions like moot court, arbitration, and client counseling. Here, you can use your competitive drive to help gain important legal skills -- and in some schools, you can even get academic credit for participating.

4. Legal Aid Events

You don't have to limit your pro bono experiences to a summer internship at the local legal aid society. Many nonprofit groups will allow law students to come in and assist during single-day legal events. For example, a local immigration group may provide a weekend clinic where you can help individuals understand their status and the immigration process. Or a nonprofit serving low income communities might have an event where they aid individuals with simple tax issues.

Check with your school or local legal nonprofits for upcoming opportunities. You can help people out, learn more about the law, and get valuable face-to-face time with actual clients.

Just kidding. Don't do this. Remember, until you're an actual esquire, it's illegal to practice law without a license.

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