Coulda Shoulda Woulda: Law School Research

For the month of October, we’ll be bringing you the Coulda Shoulda Woulda series – blog posts by current students on topics they wish they would have known more about, and tips and tricks for the tough parts of law school research.

Briana Jackson gives tips on law school research

Briana Jackson, 2L

Starting the law school application process can be daunting and extremely overwhelming if you aren’t sure where you want to be. Like many others, I am a first-generation law student in both my immediate and extended family. Without any direction I applied aimlessly to over 15 law schools. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 but I realized I “coulda” gone about it a better way; learn from my experience and follow some of these tips!

First, I would consider location – where might you want to practice after graduating from law school? This may seem premature for most, but I promise it’s not. The geographic area of the law school is important for a variety of reasons, including externship opportunities, alumni reach, and leisure activities. Externships give you the opportunity to get hands-on experience while also getting credit for school! Students at William & Mary Law School work at law firms, local government offices and some travel up to Richmond to work in the state capital. It’s a great way to gain experience in the legal field while staying within driving distance! Additionally, the reliability and success of the alumni is something that should not be understated when researching law schools. Not only can you generally measure the quality of the law school on the success of the alumni, but alums can be powerful networking sources for internships or externships, jobs, and tips for interviews. Alumni are generally concentrated in the same geographical area of the law school, which makes networking much easier. They are an excellent resource for advice and information about their particular practice area or field, and become an essential tool when you are trying to make connections and working through the job application process.

If you are not sure about where you want to live or are not ready to make a commitment, I assure you that you are not alone. If you are unsure about where you want to be post-graduation, the prestige of the law school will allow you to make connections in a variety of locations. The reputation of the law school can play an important role when it’s time to start finding summer internships and securing a job after graduation. Keep in mind that rankings and reputation don’t mean everything, but they can be helpful in transcending markets in various geographical locations. Make sure to utilize many resources so that you aren’t hearing only one side of the story. It can be a good place to begin your law school research, but it shouldn’t be the only factor in your search and decision-making process!

Lastly, don’t take the little things for granted. A gut feeling goes a long way, and often the law school experience will be made up of those around you. It can be hard to judge these factors on any type of research system, but if you have the chance to talk to those who have attended the school, or you have the opportunity to visit the school beforehand, this is an opportunity that should not be wasted. Often times, law schools can look similar on paper – numbers and types of clinics and journals, scholarship offers, alumni base, and services provided. What you won’t know is how you feel about the student body, the faculty, the facilities, until you visit the school and see for yourself. That gut feeling can tell you a lot about whether a particular school is a good fit for you, and vice versa. Don’t discredit it!

These aren’t end-all-be-all tips for law school research, but they are some of the things that I should have considered when I started looking at law schools. Hopefully you will find them to be helpful in your own search! Good luck!

Briana Jackson is a 2L from Leesburg, Virginia. She graduated from Christopher Newport News University in 2016 with a degree in Political Science. At the law school, she is involved with the Black Law Students Association, the Public Service Fund, and the Women’s Law Society; she currently serves on the staff of the Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice (formerly the Journal of Women and the Law), and spent last summer working at the Fairfax County District Court office.

Coulda Shoulda Woulda: Networking

For the month of October, we’ll be bringing you the Coulda Shoulda Woulda series – blog posts by current students on topics they wish they would have known more about, and tips and tricks for the tough parts of law school research.

Nick Agyevi-Armah, 1L

Nick Agyevi-Armah, 1L

The dial tone droned on as I pressed the phone against my ear with my shoulder, scribbling down some last minute notes with my free hands. Hi, this is Nick Armah, I wrote, and I received your number from a mentor of mine who spoke about the trajectory of your legal career. I’d love to hear more about your experience and ask you some questions, if you don’t mind! I muttered the notes to myself a couple of times, took a deep breath, then began to dial the phone number of the Senior Vice President of Development at Loyola University, Maryland.

I clicked my pen nervously as the phone rang, glancing down at the introduction I’d quickly written and the list of questions I’d prepared. Suddenly, the call was answered: Hi, is this Nicholas? I’ve been expecting your call. I paused, unsure how to respond to the unexpected greeting. I glanced at my notes once more, then answered, Hi, yes! It’s nice to meet you. Thanks so much for finding the time to chat—I mean, uh, talk. Or converse, rather. I laughed nervously as I tripped over finding the most “professional” words. Terrence Sawyer laughed, asked me how my day was going, jokingly complained about the traffic he was sitting in, and then asked me if I had any questions.

I’m not a shy person. I’m pretty gregarious, actually. But something about talking to professionals has always made me slightly uncomfortable. I never want to come off as annoying, pestering, or unprepared in my questions. I rambled nervously through the first question on my list, inquiring about Terrence’s law school experience and the beginning of his legal career. As I went down my list of questions and Terrence continued to give me honest, thoughtful answers, I began to relax. Our conversation was natural, genuine, and informative. I was doing it—I was networking!

During my senior year, a mentor of mine assuaged my concerns about networking, stating an adage I still think about today: There exists no other individual in the world who has the same exact experience as you. And if that doesn’t make you interesting, I don’t know what else will. No matter what, no one else in the world can ever say they’ve had the same exact life I’ve had—and that’s true for everyone. We all come from unique backgrounds, various life experiences, and transformative periods of growth. We should see ourselves as distinct individuals with extraordinary characteristics. And if that alone doesn’t make us want to talk to people, it should at least let us know that people definitely want to talk to us.

Half of networking, in my opinion, is building a personal brand that we’re eager to share with others. Your brand is made up of everything that makes you unique, what makes you stand out from the rest. Networking isn’t simply talking to someone about why you are great, but rather knowing who you are as a person and expressing the most salient, wonderful parts about you.

Networking might sound hard, and it can be at first, but it gets easier with practice. In my law school research, I found these tips to be helpful as I navigated the networking world.

  1. Find mentors It’s hard to jump into a crowd of people at an event and start networking. There are connections you’ve already made on your campuses that can help with that process – professors, teaching assistants, upperclassmen, and even senior members of organizations you may be in are great places to start you on your networking path. Letting these individuals know what you’re interested in, where you might see yourself in the future, and who you think you might want to talk to can prove to be invaluable. You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do in the future; simply talking to the aforementioned individuals about your interests can land you conversations with individuals with similar interests who may be in career fields you didn’t even know about.
  1. Build a personal brand People often think building a personal brand takes a lot of work; however, there are plenty of small things you can do to help it develop organically. Building your brand simply means creating an image for yourself. Consider how you want others to see you, what you want to be known for, and what your goals are. Capitalize on your natural talents and qualities; are you an organized individual, or do you tend to be the creative mind behind a project? Maintaining consistency in the behavior that conveys those traits is the foundation for people recognizing and recommending you, which is key to networking.
  1. Attend events where networking might happen Attending formal networking events can be overwhelming, but it is one of the best way to engage with a large number of individuals in a short time period. Prepare in advance your “elevator pitch,” or your 10 second introduction, to deliver in a genuine manner. Think of it like the mission statement of your brand: who are you, what do you want to achieve, and how will you do it? Be approachable, enthusiastic, but not inauthentic. People are generally attracted to individuals they feel are being themselves. Always present your best self but never lose who you are!
  1. Don’t be closed off to networking opportunities in unstructured spaces Networking doesn’t always happen when you think it will. Often times, people will turn their “networking persona” on and off, saving their elevator speeches and professional small talk for designated networking spaces. But you truly never know when an opportunity to network may arise! This doesn’t mean that you should always be on and ready, hungrily awaiting the next opportunity to network. Rather, be ready to talk about yourself in a professional manner at any time. This may take some practice, but it will prove useful when an opportunity presents itself to speak with an influential member of your university, alumni, or professors!
  1. Follow up! I cannot stress this enough – follow up with the individuals you have met. A lot of the initial fear that stops individuals from following up stems from the idea that they’re being annoying or questioning whether the person they’re contacting will actually care. In reality, since most people don’t follow up, your outreach is more likely to be seen positively. Meeting someone at a career event isn’t enough. Get their contact information and follow up with a correspondence that expresses your gratitude for meeting them and the hope for more meetings in the future. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or ornate—just let them know who you are! If you met this person at a networking event, chances are they were introduced to a ton of people. Sending them a follow up e-mail will set you apart from the rest.

As I employed these tips and became more comfortable in my networking abilities, I was able to present myself confidently because I knew my brand and my goals. And though it wasn’t the deciding factor in my admission to law school, networking was the first step in building relationships that helped me in my research and decision making process, and will help me later in my internship and job searches.

At the end of the day, there is a level of confidence that is necessary to walk up to someone, introduce yourself, and begin a conversation. But 9 times out of 10, the people you network with will have been in your shoes before and understand your nerves, and they’ll still want to help. Use your resources, take initiative, and, overall, trust yourself. I believe in you!

Nick is a 1L from Silver Springs, Maryland. At William & Mary Law School, he is highly involved in many organizations, including representing the 1L class in SBA and serving his community through Equality Alliance, Lawyers Helping Lawyers, and the Black Law Student Association to name a few.