A number of Uni students are interested in law, but the field is not discussed often at Uni. While emails are sent out regularly about opportunities in other areas, such as engineering or math, law opportunities are hardly ever brought up. For students interested in or curious about law, this means that it’s difficult for them to learn more about the field.
One of the most important things to understand is the kinds of jobs available in the field of law. There are many, but three garner the most attention. In the courthouse, one may become a judge, who oversees and determines the outcome of cases; or a prosecutor, who represents the government, most often in criminal cases, and presents the case and evidence to the judge. Going in a different direction, one may choose to go into private practice, in which they are hired by clients to represent and aid them in court. (People may be the most familiar with that last option, thanks to TV dramas like ‘Suits’.)
However, people might know little beyond the fictionalized versions of these jobs. What is it actually like to be in law?
Anna Benjamin became the newest associate judge in Illinois’ 6th judicial circuit on December 12. Prior to her judgeship she worked at the law firm Meyer Capel.
“The best part about my job is being able to help in very concrete ways,” says Benjamin. “No matter what field an attorney is in, we’re all problem-solvers.”
Robert Jacobson from Tummelson Bryan & Knox, LLP says that one of his favorite things about the job, in addition to helping people solve problems, is “dealing with interesting people and situations”.
On the other hand, sometimes the job can be difficult. “When you love to help people, it’s really hard when you can’t,” Benjamin says.
Especially in family law cases, Jacobson says, “you sometimes see people not at their best, when they’re very emotional, and it’s understandable. . . . they’re not in a good place.” For that reason, he says “my least and favorite cases are usually divorce cases.” Sometimes it doesn’t work out, Jacobson says, but when it does, “you know you helped someone through a tough part of their life.”
As Ellyn Bullock of Solberg & Bullock, LLC puts it, it’s often “win-lose”, even if you try to settle. “You really have to communicate with your clients,” she says.
Additionally, lawyers are very busy, sometimes in different ways. In private practice, Benjamin says, you have many different individual clients, in contrast with the state’s attorney, whose client is in effect the State of Illinois.
“You have to be a business person,” she says.
Jacobson agrees that being self-employed “can be a headache.” However, he enjoys some aspects of it, like being able to set your own deadlines for your work. “The advantages of being self-employed, I think, outweigh the disadvantages,” he says.
Another path those interested in law could pursue is working at the courthouse. Lindsey Clark from the State’s Attorney’s Office says she was briefly in private practice.
“Some enjoy being their own boss,” she says. However, she likes her current job as a prosecutor. “Being in a bigger office, it’s nice,” she says. If you need help with something, she explains, there are people just around the corner. She also likes that at the State’s Attorney’s Office, people can freely pursue the certain subjects or types of cases that they are interested in.
Additionally, Clark says that “going to court is interesting. Different things happen all the time, different judges do different things.” In order to do her job effectively, she says, she has “a backup plan for everything.”
She adds, “But you also have to be able to think on the fly. . . . What if your witness goes on the stand and says they won’t talk? You have to know how to act with people.” As Jacobson puts it, “In court, you need to be able to process information and think on your feet.”
Dealing with this kind of unpredictability is one of the more difficult aspects of the job. “You have witnesses who . . . don’t do what they’re supposed to do,” Clark says. “We’ve had lots of gun violence . . . [witnesses] are legitimately afraid that if they say they saw a gun their family will be in danger.”
She describes how she got a call, early in the morning of the day of their trial, saying that one of her witnesses had been shot and was now in the hospital. “It’s tough,” she says. “It’s twenty four hours a day, when things happen.”
Clark says she thinks being in law has helped her evolve as a person as well. In high school and college, she says, “I was really quiet.” But “in the courtroom, you’re in front of everyone, you’re running the show. . . . [It] changes how you act around people.”
Other skills are also important. Reading comprehension and good writing skills were among the most oft-repeated qualities those interviewed cited as important in law. “There’s lots of reading,” says Clark.
Bullock agrees, saying that law is fundamentally “based on language”. She says that she majored in English Literature for undergrad because she is interested in language, and it’s why she got involved in law.
Public speaking abilities are important as well. But besides public speaking, Jacobson says, listening is also an important skill. “So much of law is gathering information. . . listening to your clients. . . . listening to the judges.”
Furthermore, says Jacobson, you have to be detail-oriented while also being good at multitasking, since “you have all sorts of cases at different phases of the process going on at the same time”.
If students are interested by these job descriptions, and feel that they have or are capable of having the above qualities, they may now be wondering what the next step is. The answer is simple, and a refrain many Uni students might have heard before: use your resources.
First, if you’ve decided you might be interested in law, you’ve already got an early start. While Jacobson says that participating in a job-shadowing program during ninth grade sparked his interest in the field, Clark says that she never intended to be a lawyer. In senior year of high school, she says, “I didn’t even know what a prosecutor was.”
So what did these lawyers do once they figured out they were interested in the field?
Jacobson says that “reading and writing and debate team . . . were all interests of mine to begin with” and contributed to the skills needed to be a lawyer. Benjamin agrees, recommending that students take advanced writing classes and participate in speech and debate team.
Uni does offer classes like Public Speaking and Nonfiction Writing, the former of which is available to sophomores and up, and the latter of which is available to juniors and seniors.
Additionally, students are recommended to visit and talk to lawyers. Students should take advantage of the fact that “our local area, we’re saturated with lawyers,” as Clark puts it. Benjamin says students should “talk to lawyers, ask questions.” She also recommends talking to pre-law societies in college.
Clark, Bullock, and Jacobson recommend sitting in on trials. “Every single day we have court at 1 PM,” Clark says. Every two weeks, there are jury trials. Even beyond attending trials, Clark recommends students to go talk to the judge and lawyer after the trial. It “happens very often”, she says.
As for internships at the courthouse, Clark says, “We have interns all the time. . . . judges have interns if [there are interns] interested.” Regarding private firms, she says you should “call them up” and try sending your resume.
In college, Clark says that law students can get a license to work at the courthouse. Benjamin says that there are many classes and extracurriculars that are useful for undergraduates interested in law. Jacobson has some additional advice about college that may surprise some.
“Don’t major in undergrad in something that’s law-related . . . major in whatever sounds interesting to you.” He says that above all, “be curious about things in general. Ask questions.”
Clark also mentions that people from the courthouse used to visit Uni and have a “Law Day”, in which they helped students conduct a mock trial. It’s faded away over the years. If there’s enough interest, though, who knows – maybe it can be brought back.