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The value of working as a clerk before attending law school

During college and in the time before I went to law school, I worked at a well-known criminal defense firm in Dayton, Ohio. I knew I wanted to be an attorney, so it made sense that I’d start my working toward my career as early as possible by earning some early experience working in the legal industry. The popular wisdom suggested that this would help my career once I graduated from law school. Of course, perhaps unsurprisingly, I learned relatively little that would help me once I became an attorney. After all, most of my tasks at that time were of the unskilled variety. And, at this point in my career, I’ve completely dropped this work from my resume. The only value it likely ever had on my resume may have been that it provided me some experience in the legal industry when I sought internships during law school. I earned less performing this work than I had earned working in restaurants and later in a coffee shop. Not only that, in many ways, the work was less fun. So I think it is fair to ask whether, in retrospect, it was in fact worthwhile to take a menial level position at a law firm before embarking on my career as an attorney.

To be honest, my position at the criminal defense firm was relatively unusual in many regards. Although my title was law clerk, the job description was pretty vague and I performed an unusually wide range of tasks for the firm. Some of it, now that I look back, is surprising work for a firm to assign to a college student. On the one hand, I’d be sent to fetch coffee and donuts for the staff in the morning. Pretty bland work, right? But in the afternoon, I acted as a process server in divorce and criminal law cases. I’d literally be sent out with a stack of subpoenas and divorce papers to serve on unsuspecting spouses and hesitant witnesses in sketchy parts of town. On other occasions, I drove the lawyers to meet with clients in prison and to attend hearings at courthouses. On a few rare occasions I was able to join them as they met with the client or during the hearing. Once or twice I’d be asked to drive as far as Cleveland (an approximately 3 1/2 hour drive from Dayton) to rush paperwork to the courthouse for filing. If it was a less eventful day then I simply worked as a file clerk in the office. Most of my responsibilities required little more than an ounce of courage and a driver license.

Nonetheless, I did learn two extremely valuable lessons from this position. First, I learned what it is really like to work in a law firm. Being an attorney is often very different from the way it is portrayed on TV or in movies. It is often high-stress and rarely fun. It can often be intellectually stimulating (as I’d learn once I actually became an attorney), but it can also feel occasionally routine and dull. Moreover, I learned that you’ll occasionally have to perform work you don’t like for clients you aren’t crazy about.

Second, I learned a lot about myself and about working in criminal law itself. Before I attended law school I’d believed that I wanted to work in criminal defense. I romantically envisioned myself working hard to prove someone’s innocence or standing up for the little guy against an unfair system. But while accompanying the firm’s attorneys as they met with their client, I learned that sometimes criminal law isn’t always so black and white, and on some occasions, you’ll be defending someone who is definitely no angel. In terms of divorce law, I realized how nasty people can be to one another when their marriage is following apart and how difficult it can be to represent someone involved in those hostilities. And so, although I developed a profound respect for attorneys who practice in both areas of law, I realized that neither of those practice areas were right for me and my personality.

So although I could have taken a more lucrative position as a server or barista while performing less stressful work alongside fellow college students, I do think the experience proved valuable for me. It gave me a better sense of the type of work I wanted to perform as an attorney and a realistic sense of what it meant to be an attorney.

Did you work for a law firm before going to law school? If so, did you learn any valuable insights during that time? Please share them in the comments section!

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