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Invest Early in Law School Education, Internships to Seek Future Success

Choosing unpaid legal internships or rigorous law school programs may cost more upfront but produce better career benefits.

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First-year law students who need to take a paid job outside the legal field in addition to an unpaid internship or clerkship should seek an office job, ideally at a law firm. 

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Welcome to the latest installment of Law Admissions Q-and-A, a monthly feature of Law Admissions Lowdown that provides advice to readers who send in questions and law school admissions profiles.

If you have a question, email me for a chance to be featured next month. This week, I focus on decisions now that will having a lasting impact on one’s future education and career path.

[See photos of the top 20 law schools for 2015.]

Dear Shawn: My nephew Stevan is graduating this May from a decent public high school in Illinois. Stevan scored in the 30s on the ACT. As a result, he immediately received a full-ride offer from a good college in Alabama.

Another school in Michigan offered him a scholarship worth half tuition, with a chance to compete for the other half at a competition in the spring.

Stevan is excited about the full-ride school, and it alleviates his concerns about student debt, but with a median ACT range of 18-24, I have questions about how challenging the work will be for him. The second school’s academics are extremely rigorous, and as a result, their students typically score very high on graduate entrance exams – the LSAT average is 160. In addition, their prelaw advisor is outstanding. Despite being a tiny college, they have sent students to top-5 law schools over the last eight years.

Is the leg up Stevan could get academically worth giving up a full-ride scholarship? I consistently read that rigorous undergraduate studies can have an effect not only on your LSAT score, but also on the quality of your recommendation letters, not to mention your adjustment to law school. Stevan likes the second school – he's just very concerned about his future student debt. -Concerned Uncle

Dear Concerned Uncle:

Unfortunately, countless high school students are put in Stevan’s situation. They are stuck between choosing a full ride or substantial scholarship and a more academically rigorous institution that offers less financial aid.

Given his law school and career aspirations, if Stevan feels he would be equally happy at both colleges, I advise that he select the more rigorous institution. You are correct in your intuition that a challenging course load and an adept adviser is often worth more than the tuition cost over time. While it is beneficial to graduate with zero student debt, the more challenging school will better prepare your nephew for law school, which could result in a higher salary after graduation.

[Get additional information on paying for law school.]

The first step should be for Stevan to participate in the competition to see if he can obtain a full scholarship for the more challenging school. If he does, the decision becomes that much easier. If not, he should discuss the options with his family. In the end, it should be Stevan’s decision.

-Shawn

Dear Shawn: I am a 1L who is deciding what to do over the summer. I hope to be clerking for a trial judge in a civil court in New York City, but it's unpaid, as are all the other internships I am interested in.

I want to work in a paid position as well, in particular at a job that more pertains to my skills as a first-year law student. However, I am not sure where to look and how to find a meaningful paid job. Neither am I sure about what other 1Ls usually do as a summer job. I would appreciate any resources or advice. Thanks! –Seeking Work

Dear Seeking Work: It’s great that you are making your 1L summer plans, since that is a crucial period for law students and can affect your future career prospects.

Planning to clerk or take an unpaid internship is a smart decision. Sometimes students are apprehensive about unpaid work, but the value of the experience and references gained is well worth it when you are applying for full-time jobs out of law school.

So how do you pay the bills right now? Depending on the hours of your unpaid summer activity, you can take a second job. While it would be excellent to find a job relevant to your legal studies, keep in mind that the purpose of this job is to cover your living expenses.

[Learn the pros and cons of working during law school.]

Many law students will take a job waiting tables or serving coffee to make ends meet. As long as you are also doing meaningful work in your internship, that is perfectly fine. The only thing I ask 1Ls to shy away from is only focusing on a paid job, because you need to get legal experience.

If you’re looking for something a bit more relevant, you could apply to a few temporary office jobs. If you can find a position at a law firm, all the better, but any office exposure is beneficial, even if you are simply making copies and filing. This shows that you can operate professionally in the workplace and have an understanding of how offices are run. For this type of work, check out temp agencies in your area, as that is often the best way to find short-term work quickly. -Shawn