Why Are You Here, Where Are You Going, and How Can You Get There?
What do you want to do with your law degree? Help kids? Make big money? Become a judge? Prosecute criminals? Make sweeping systemic changes in unfair legal, legislative or regulatory frameworks? What kind of work would best suit your personality and skills? Are you detail-oriented? Do you enjoy writing and research? Do you like to speak in public? Do you thrive on pressure? Are you willing to put in 60-hour weeks?
Some students arrive at UDC-DCSL knowing exactly what they want to do upon graduation and beyond. For example, they may want to become a criminal defense attorney. Others have a general idea of what direction they want their legal career to take - for example, they might want to help children in some way. Still others have a couple of specific interests that may or may not intersect - like either securities law, family law or intellectual property law. And some - and not just a few - have almost no specific idea!
To think about it more, check out Deciding on a Career.
Using The Tools: Community Service Work
Use your Community Service Requirement to your advantage. For example, if you know you want to become an environmental lawyer, you might begin by choosing to volunteer at one of the many environmental law organizations in Washington in fulfillment of your Community Service Requirement. Do a great job there, be a nice person, and make friends with the staff. If a part-time or summer job comes open, they will be much more likely to hire you if they know you, like you and respect your work. Even if they cannot hire you, they may help you find another group in town who can.
If you do not know what you are ultimately interested in, scout around for a Community Service opportunity with an organization that sounds interesting.
Summer After Your First Year: Volunteer
Though most UDC-DCSL students cannot afford to give away a full summer's work, many can and do volunteer part time while working part time. As with the Community Service work, this is an opportunity to get your foot in the door at a placement where you will be contributing to some important effort, learning something useful, and meeting people who can help you later. If you know what kind of work you want to do upon graduation - or further down the road - this is a chance to begin to build experience and a resumé that reflects your interest.
If you do not know where the road of lawyering may take you, do not despair. If after the first semester in law school you find you are an average or better student, you may well be able to do a volunteer summer clerkship for one of the many DC Superior Court judges who need help – and take pride in mentoring students. A successful judicial clerkship is one resumé item that impresses all viewers - from law firms to non-profits. When Judge Arthur Burnett - perhaps the nation's leading expert on minority internships and clerkships - spoke at UDC-DCSL, he recommended clerking for rising 2Ls, not only as an excellent career move, but also for its positive impact on students' future academic performance. Such voluntary clerkships can be for as little as 15-20 hours per week during the summer and as little as 12-15 hours per week during the school year.
The Internship and Externship Programs
As with Community Service and voluntary internships, UDC-DCSL's credit-bearing Internship and Externship programs are potentially powerful career-building tools. In addition to the pleasure of doing good works and all that can be learned from working with experienced attorneys outside UDC-DCSL clinics, many students report ongoing professional relationships with organizations they have assisted.
Playing an integral role in one of the many UDC-DCSL student organizations is a way to demonstrate skills that are important in the real world that go largely untested in other ways. Successful involvement can show leadership, commitment to particular causes, creativity, professional judgment, political savvy, etc.
Such work in such a small school is always noticed and appreciated. On numerous occasions it has formed the basis for a personal letter of recommendation from the Dean for a student with whom she would have otherwise had little substantive contact. On the other hand, failed involvement can show the opposite and have the opposite effect, tempering what might have otherwise been more positive recommendations from the Dean and other faculty members.
Voluntary Bar Associations
For students and alumni who are interested in private practice, especially in small or medium-sized firms, one of the most valuable on-going connections you can make to practicing attorneys is by joining a voluntary bar association. Many voluntary bar associations (which complement mandatory bar associations such as the D.C. Bar Association) offer inexpensive student memberships, and a wealth of educational programs, written materials, speakers and networking events. Students can often find leadership opportunities, such as arranging an educational program, through sections like the young lawyer’s division. Take the time to become involved in-depth in one or two organizations, and get to know the members well; don’t spread yourself too thin. Through the association, you can set up informational interviews, find internships and part-time jobs. Small firms hire on their own schedule, and with advance planning and participation, you can graduate with a solid personal network of attorneys who will look to you first when they are looking to hire.
Visit the D.C. Bar Association website for a list (with web site links) of DC based organizations. If you are planning to re-locate to another state, it is even more important to maintain a connection while in law school. Use the internet to locate the appropriate state bar association web site, most of which have links to local and voluntary bar associations.
Balancing School and Work
Clearly, a student who is struggling - even just a bit - in classes or clinic should think twice – or even thrice - before making a commitment to get overly involved in a student organization or to assist another organization through an internship or externship. Just as excellent performance in a placement can open doors, poor performance or bailing out of an internship – whether voluntary or for credit - can do great harm.
With its clinical workload atop the standard academic coursework, the UDC-DCSL program is tough enough to begin with. If you have doubts about whether you have the time or ability to take on additional responsibility, consult with your academic advisor, the Office of Career and Professional Development, or one of the professors most familiar with your work. If you continue to have significant doubt, stick to basics and forego the opportunity.