Post-Law School: Wings to Fly or Freefalling?

The Bencher—May/June 2018

By Sarah M. Phillips, Esquire

I distinctly recall the anticipation and excitement of walking the stage for graduation four years ago. I was excited to finally join the real world and apply the years of knowledge I had acquired, but I also had trepidation that I did not have a job lined up. More so, I knew I had the dreaded bar exam ahead of me, which I was unsure of how to approach. While there were a variety of concerns bugging me, I was confident in my law school education and what my school had equipped me with. That is not to say everything was rosy.

Bar Exam

Coming out of graduation, as we know, there is a quick turnaround to prepare for the bar exam. Law schools around the country are quick to ensure, as best they can, that there are preparation courses in place. It was difficult to tackle my prep course after completing three years of schooling. The last thing any student wants to do after graduation is muster the motivation to study more. However, I have learned that the key in law school, and more specifically in bar preparation, is that you get what you give. The more disciplined and more effort you put into the work, the better the result. That was the idea, right? As part of the mind games of the bar preparation period, you are almost set up to fail. There are countless practice exams where you are nowhere close to sure of the results. This is a vicious circle because you are continually studying with disheartening outcomes. The key is to remain calm and not give up entirely.

In my last year of law school, Widener University Commonwealth Law School began offering a third-year class designed to assist with the bar examination. Many law schools have been offering this type of course, which includes a study of the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) questions and essays. Other law schools have noted that their preparation courses accounted for an uptick in passage rates.

The April 2016 issue of the ABA Journal described one course offered by Belmont Law professor Jeff Kinsler: “In the course, Kinsler lectured on all seven subjects tested on the Multistate Bar Exam—civil procedure, constitutional law, contracts, criminal law and procedure, evidence, real property and torts. The course also contains a comprehensive writing lab, where students were required to submit answers to essay and Multistate Performance Test questions.” Kinsler noted in the article that “the best courses are taught by blending real-life MBE and essay questions into substantive lectures. The most important part of any bar review course, however, is academic rigor.”

In my own experience, I found it important that students accept every opportunity offered and take each one seriously. My law school’s fundamentals of law course was an excellent course to jump-start the preparation period, as well as get in the mindset needed for studying day in and day out over the next few months. It was important to not falter under the mind game. The National Jurist outlined reasons smart people fail the bar, including thinking too far outside the box, suffering anxiety, not doing enough practice questions, having a lack of understanding of the law or just having bad luck.

Job Prospects

As every law school student knows, the most concerning uneasiness is the job market. My law school graduation class had an 87.6 percent employment rate, or 99 of the 113 graduates. This included non-professional positions, as well as those that did not require bar passage. Sixty-two jobs required bar passage. The employment rate for bar passage jobs was 54.9 percent.

Most law schools have a career development office to help students with on-campus interviewing, internship placements, resumes and applications. It is a competitive market, so it is imperative to take advantage of these resources.

I knew early on that I wanted to be a prosecutor so I attended seminars and lectures on criminal law offered outside of class. I also followed up with the presenters, asking about internships. I landed an internship with the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office, where I made it clear that I wanted to stay. I was fortunate to have the stars align: There was a position open and I was hired.

Another reason to use the career development office is to figure out what you are not interested in. At my law school, the Central Pennsylvania Law Clinic consisted of exposure to administrative law, elder law, consumer law and family justice. Most law schools offer clinics, which are excellent opportunities to allow students to experience the real practice of law in a structured setting.

Financial Strains

According to a 2015 New York Times article, nearly 85 percent of law graduates have student loans, and law graduates in 2010 accumulated debt averaging $77,364 at public law schools and $112,007 at private ones. By far the biggest struggle for recent graduates is no longer being able to ignore your loan situation. After graduation, one of the biggest hurdles is educating yourself about the loans and payment schedule. It’s best to start learning about these programs while you’re in  law school.

One of the biggest programs is the Public Interest Loan Forgiveness Program, which provides relief for those going into government or nonprofit positions. This program was a huge incentive to me, allowing me to fully devote my efforts to my goal of being a prosecutor. The work is not only extremely rewarding, but the public loan forgiveness ensures that graduates are able to work in these fields. The loan amounts can be excessive and not in correlation with the pay.

While the road leaving graduation is not always smooth, it is a rewarding experience if you are prepared, confront what you are going to be thrown, and educated on the different obstacles you have to deal with out of law school. Be sure to take advantage of the many resources available to recent graduates during and after law school so that you can guarantee you are giving it everything you can to find a position perfect for you.

Sarah M. Phillips, Esquire is a deputy district attorney for Dauphin County in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and is a member of the Honorable William W. Lipsitt American Inn of Court.

© 2018 Sarah M. Phillips, Esq. This article was originally published in the May/June 2018 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.