Is this how you envisioned the practice of law before going to law school? Also, wouldn't it be nice if law schools were focused more on the practice aspect of things. (Although I am not sure if [Mediocre University] has solid clinical programs or not, I am sure it could be much better.)
Answer to the first question is: yes and no. Having worked in the legal profession for six years before going to law school, I had a pretty good grasp on what law practice was actually like, including the trials and tribulations of new associates, at least in my city and in the areas of law I worked in. So, I can't claim to have been under some sort of false illusion when I signed on. I knew the job market was tough; I knew of attorneys taking jobs as secretaries.
Even still, I was under the impression that I did not want to litigate going in to law school. I had done some corporate transactional work, liked it, and thought it was for me. I was wrong. The simple stuff I'm cool with, the crazy complicated stuff makes my brain ooze out of my ears. I don't want to think that hard every day. That's not how I roll. Also, I went through a lot of trouble to concentrate on international law, only to find I will probably never practice any sort of international law. I still have an interest in it, but more within the scope of domestic legal practice. Like, products liability cases against multinational corporations, or a child custody dispute with a foreign national who has taken the child out of the country. That stuff I think is more up my alley. And I never thought I'd want to be a trial lawyer, but I love being in the courtroom. I caught the trial bug doing mock trial, and it's a total rush. That's where I want to be.
Now, did I imagine I would have to move two hours from home, and spend half the week away from my husband and two nights a week away from my child in order to be employed? Particularly in a small town? No. The vast majority of 2009 law graduates in our state are unemployed, I'm damn lucky to have a job. I think it's somewhere around 75%. It's ridiculous. Granted, there are jobs in rural areas, but not everyone's willing to make the move. My friend ranked in the top 15 didn't get any call backs from big firms, and she ended up not getting an offer from the small boutique firm she clerked for as a 3L. However, she was offered a job in boofoo (3 hours away down country highway, watch out for the coal trucks) for $80K per year working for Racist Guy who apparently felt comfortable enough to drop the N-bomb in her job interview. Needless to say, she turned down the offer. She eventually took a job in her hometown an hour away, which she swore she'd never do. But it was either that or be unemployed.
I probably could have held out for a job with the public defender's office, or waited tables at night while volunteering for legal aid until something came up instead of moving away, but the job offer I got was a great opportunity, and one I couldn't pass up just because I wanted to stay living where I was: it was the opportunity to actually practice law. I really love my job and I'm learning a lot. It (almost) makes the pain of law school slip away.
Second question: As for what my law school taught me, well, let's just say I didn't get my money's worth, and I really doubt I paid anywhere near as much as most of the rest of you 2009 grads did. Our in-state tuition is really cheap in comparison to other schools, but what I paid for was really just a piece of paper that's now framed hanging in my office. I had a few really good professors, but also some really crappy ones. (That adjunct who taught our nonprofits class ruined any chance for me to look back on law school favorably.) I learned most of the material from supplements, not from sitting in the classroom listening to my idiot classmates prattle on. I had a great experience with the prosecutorial internship, and learned so much. I learned a lot from taking Litigation Skills. And my favorite professor is this guy I had for Evidence, Scientific Evidence and Insurance. He doesn't dick around with the stupid Socratic Method, he just tells you what you need to know. He also focused on our state law too, and the realities of legal practice. He practiced law for quite awhile before realizing he was working too hard, and became a law professor because (as he says) he gets paid a very good salary for not doing much of anything. He also utilizes puppets as a teaching tool. My highest grades were all in his classes. Had every class been taught by him, I would have enjoyed law school immensely and probably graduated with an impressive gpa rather than with mediocrity.
We have a legal clinic, but only about 10 students out of 140 or so a year get to participate. There are the judicial externships, and the prosecutorial externship, and such, where a handful of students get to participate each semester. Even still, it wasn't a big deal to not do those things if you worked for a law firm during the summer and got experience that way. But now that a lot of law students can't even get a summer clerkship, the amount of actual legal practice they get during law school is pretty much nothing.
I think it's a huge disservice to send law grads out into the world who know absolutely nothing about the actual practice of law outside of reading legal opinions that don't even apply in our jurisdiction. That's nice that we spent all that time learning the Rule Against Perpetutities. Imagine our surprise during bar review when we found out our state doesn't have it. But you have a client coming to you who wants to put a joint custody agreement in place with the mother of his child, they've never married, how do you go about that? Oh, that wasn't in your family law book? Yeah, that's a problem.
There's no "how-to guide" for practicing law. There's a "Practice" set for our state that has the state law in the main subject areas, along with some forms and such, but it's all rather basic, and particularly with family law, shit, I never seem to get anything basic. The client I had today I thought was basic, ended up being anything but. Did my law school prepare me for that? Hell no. But my nine years of experience in the legal profession, coupled with three years in sales and customer service prior to that is what keeps me afloat. Law school (well, more specifically the WestLaw luncheons) taught me how to research and my clerkships gave me practice. Bar Review taught me the main substantive state law. My graduate degree helps me in working with people and conflict resolution.
If I had to make a recommendation to make law school better for students, and produce better-prepared lawyers, I would say give 3L's limited license to practice, and set them all up working in a legal clinic, like a law residency program. Our state desperately needs pro bono legal services, but doesn't have the funds to get more attorneys for legal aid agencies and the public defenders office. Then that obscene tuition we pay could go to funding legal aid services instead of being wasted at the law school, which really hasn't done much for us in terms of preparing us for legal careers, or helping us pass the bar, or helping us find jobs.
My two cents. Enjoy.