Like many enterprising young pre-law students, in my senior year of college I made what I believed was an extremely rational and uncontroversial decision-I started working as a file clerk at a law firm. I figured that on the ladder to the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States, second best governmental acronym after POTUS), this was just one of the rungs I inevitably had to climb. 100,000 photocopies, 800 pots of coffee and 132 motions to compel later, I have a significantly more nuanced opinion of what I once saw as an irrefutable truth. While I write this with some reservation (which I will go in to later), I do not think that pre-law students should feel any need to work in a law firm.
Unlike a lot of career paths, there really is no intermediate step to being a lawyer that is accessible to undergraduate students. Many other fields have research assistants and internships that offer hands-on and involved work, but this is not the case with the legal profession. While file clerks (which is the general job given to undergraduates and involves some mix of file-organization, photo-copying and paralegal/secretary assistance) are an important part of a law firm and perform many valuable duties, the work you are doing is actually fairly removed from the actual work of a lawyer. What could be thought of as an intermediate step, paralegals or secretaries, are often highly skilled workers with a post-bachelors degree and is not considered a pre-cursor to law school. Working at a law firm to gain skills to be a lawyer is like an aspiring athlete signing up to do a pro team’s laundry.
More importantly, in my experience law schools do not seem to prize working at a law firm over other extra curricular activities. A law firm is in no way detrimental, but an experience like volunteering in Haiti or working with a poverty advocacy group can be just as effective and perhaps more so on an application. Law schools plan to teach you everything you need to know to be a lawyer (although some of the people I have encountered make me wonder if some law schools actually do this), so it is not like there is some knowledge you can gain in advance working at a law firm as a clerk. The life experiences you can pick up elsewhere could end up being infinitely more valuable.
The reason I wrote that I had some reservations is two-fold. The first is that working in a law firm does give you an indication of what law firm life is like and it is good for aspiring lawyers to know what they are getting themselves in to. However, as I stressed before, since there is little real legal work one can do, it is the environment you get to experience. To help expedite the process for anyone reading this, I will sum up all you will learn right here — like all highly competitive and skilled businesses, law firms are an intense and fast-paced environment where the mood of the office generally depends on the most recent successes or failures and especially fluctuates around deadlines. I highly doubt that anyone who knows anything about law would be surprised by this. The second caveat is that I really like my job. As the current manager of front desk operations (the title I just created for myself so I didn’t have to write receptionist) and in my year as a file clerk I have gained leadership and social skills that will be very valuable in the future for whatever industry, law or otherwise, I chose to enter.
As a job, working at a law firm is no better or worse than most other places of employment. I do not mean to dissuade someone who is looking for a job from working as a file clerk or in some other capacity in a law firm if they are offered a position. There are definite skills to be gained and lessons to be learned. I only hope to dispel the myth that working as a file clerk is in any way necessary or valuable to a legal career, especially if you have another more interesting option on the table (like going to Costa Rica for five months). Don’t skip checking the legal/paralegal section on Craigslist, but if you’ve always secretly wanted to click the nonprofit sector link, do it.