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You were valedictorian of your high school class, graduated summa cum laude from college, and scored in the 98th percentile of the LSAT — all of which got you into a top law school and a coveted spot in the summer associate class of a prestigious law firm. So why are you feeling so clueless, while the summer associate in the office next door exudes confidence? Could it be that she took commercial transactions, securities law, tax law, and conflict of laws during her second year in law school, while you took entertainment law, First Amendment law, international law, and a seminar in law and popular culture (which was mostly spent watching movies about lawyers)? Contrary to what most law schools these days would lead you to believe, many of their curricular offerings are of little or no practical use in the real world of large firm law practice. And with firms expecting new associates to hit the ground running on Day One, making sure you graduate with a relevant education, not just a law degree, may well be crucial to your professional survival. In reviewing the law school transcripts of well over 100 junior associates who were laid off from large law firms in the past 18 months, I discovered that a very high percentage took virtually no courses in their second or third year with any commercial content whatsoever. Indeed, many of them had selected mostly courses in which cases, codes, and statutes took a back seat to philosophy, sociology, or literature. So I decided to poll a dozen or so successful lawyers at large firms to find out which classes they identify as the most useful preparation for practice. � Corporate.A surprisingly large number of students seem to be under the impression that a basic corporations class is sufficient preparation for transactional practice. However, lawyers working in transactional practice areas all stated that an understanding of the basics of various forms of organizing business enterprises is by no means adequate preparation for large firm practice. They all recommended that students take at least one Uniform Commercial Code class (beyond what is covered in first-year contracts), securities regulation, and accounting for lawyers. Most lawyers I consulted also noted that some knowledge of corporate income taxation is essential to understand the reasoning behind the structures of many complex transactions, and that corporate reorganization is also a useful class. Almost all of the transactional lawyers recommended taking as many classes as possible from professors who are experienced transactional lawyers. In many schools, courses such as mergers and acquisitions, secured financing, and financial institutions are taught by adjunct professors who are also practitioners. One transactional lawyer, who is also the hiring partner of a major firm, suggested that virtually all courses starting with “Law and … ” are of little or no use as preparation for law firm practice. � Litigation.The large firm litigators I polled were unanimous in their core recommendations: jurisdiction, federal courts, conflicts of law, and evidence. Several also mentioned commercial transactions and securities regulation — which seem to be especially good choices for students who may wish to sample both transactional and litigation work before making a final decision regarding practice emphasis. Lawyers representing clients in regulated industries recommended taking administrative law (in addition to specialized subjects relevant to their particular practice), and several mentioned antitrust. All of the litigators emphasized that excellent legal research and writing skills are critical, and that students should seek out additional training beyond the required first-year class. One way to do this would be to select seminars with regular written work assignments, preferably involving the critical thinking and complex fact analysis that will be required in actual practice. One partner made the point quite bluntly: “If the seminar is one in which a college senior studying history, philosophy, or sociology could excel, it’s probably not going to provide a relevant legal writing experience for law firm practice.” All of the litigators also strongly recommended law review writing and editing experience. Many of them added that judicial clerkship experience — either as a student or for a year or two after graduation — is especially valuable preparation for litigation practice. � International.Everyone stated that public international law classes (such as international dispute resolution, international protection of human rights, and world trade law) are of virtually no practical use in private practice — and that, in any event, local counsel is always used whenever U.S. law does not apply. Most international work typically done by large firms for non-U.S. clients or for U.S. clients doing business abroad requires a knowledge of U.S. law relating to contracts, jurisdiction, and/or the structuring of business transactions. Although several international lawyers said that some knowledge of private-sector arbitration or the fundamentals of European Community law “couldn’t hurt,” there was unanimous agreement that the best preparation for working with foreign corporate clients is the same as it is for working with domestic corporate clients. � Intellectual Property.No one in this area suggested that classes in copyright or trademark law were of much value for students interested in working at their firms, unless the student also has a strong background in engineering or science. Lawyers in firms with intellectual property departments all noted that they generally hire only lawyers who are qualified for admission to the patent bar. � First Amendment.Although issues involving defamation and privacy are handled in the litigation departments of some large firms, work of that type constitutes such a miniscule percentage of a large firm’s practice base as to be virtually nonexistent. None of the lawyers to whom I spoke suggested that a student who stated a desire to focus in that area would be welcome at his or her firm. � Real Estate.Commercial transactions and bankruptcy were suggested for second- or third-year electives. One real estate lawyer also noted that “taking the sorts of classes that would be excellent preparation for work with the Sierra Club, such as environmental law and water law, is not useful preparation for private-sector real estate practice.” � Tax.Believe it or not, some students who express a desire to practice in this area have not taken any tax courses. According to two large firm tax lawyers, someone who had not taken at least a couple of tax courses in law school would not even be considered. � Trusts and estates.One lawyer recommended courses in personal income tax, estate and gift tax, wills, trusts, and elder law as useful. He also stated that a judicial clerkship in a surrogate’s court would give a student a leg up in this very competitive practice specialty. � Employment.One lawyer suggested that employment discrimination law is more useful than labor law for most large firm employment practices, but most strongly recommended good general training in litigation skills as the best preparation. You may want to solicit the advice of senior associates and partners in the firm where you are working this summer. Obtain a list of your school’s course offerings for next year, and ask lawyers at your summer firm to indicate which classes might be particularly useful as preparation for their firm’s core practice areas. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a few classes involving noncommercial subject areas that appeal to you. In particular, you may wish to take some classes that are good preparation for the kinds of pro bono work in which you have an interest (for example, immigration law, family law, or criminal procedure). If your eyes glaze over at the thought of taking most of the classes recommended here, you may want to give some thought to working in an environment that does not demand familiarity with complex commercial subject matter. And if you’ve already signed up for law of the sea, law and literature, or Roman law as your next semester’s classes, you might consider doing a little judicious “dropping and adding” when you arrive back on campus this fall. In a year or so, you may be very glad you did. Carol M. Kanarek, a former large firm lawyer, provides career management services for lawyers and law firms. She can be reached at [email protected].

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