Ed. note: Frank H. Wu is the Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He shares some of his thoughts about legal education and the legal profession here on Above the Law from time to time.
I recently visited with a group of young alumni who had excellent advice they would offer to themselves if they could travel back in time: that is, advice likely useful to students today. The three of them, all under forty, were associates ranging from junior to senior at an excellent firm in Century City, the development created from the Fox Movie Studios backlot that boasts the highest concentration of entertainment lawyers anywhere in the world.
As more recent graduates, they possess the street cred that professors lack. I agree with everything they had to say. And they displayed the sort of “on the one hand . . . on the other hand reasoning” for which law teachers are famous or infamous…
They all agreed that, as they progress within private practice, they have realized how important it is to network and develop more than technical skill. They have observed how the service partner, who works for the clients brought in by others, is treated, which is not well, and they predicted that such a professional perhaps even faces extinction. They are more aware than they would like to be of the necessity of business development. The most experienced of them wondered what had become of her classmate who only studied and never seemed to leave the confines of the residence hall, convinced — erroneously — that such a strategy would guarantee success.
Yet they also noted, sitting on the other side of the table during interviews, that candidates must bring an excellent writing sample, a determination to work, and as little of a sense of entitlement as possible. A student who offered at the outset big talk about rain-making would not be taken seriously. They have seen more than their share of applicants who are smart, but not smart enough to back up their claim to be that special snowflake.
All of what they said makes sense. Every lawyer must be competent in her analysis and capable of communication. That is the minimum. Since there are so many members of the bar, however, it is merely the minimum. The condition is, as logicians say, necessary but not sufficient.
People like to do what they are good at doing. For the students who ask for my recommendations about starting their careers, I am a contrarian — actually, for anyone I’d have the same suggestions. If they are better at academics than socializing, then they need to force themselves to leave the library now and then; but if their sole strength appears to be their charm, then they need to hit the books.
The dichotomy between book smarts and street smarts is both false and harmful. The very few individuals who are lucky to land a position without the ability to do the work do not keep it without acquiring the expertise. The talented people who in fact can do the work do not continue receiving more of it without expending effort at what might seem frivolous: giving that speech, showing up at the reception, and exchanging pleasantries.
Finally, the lawyers volunteered another warning worth relaying. Even though they all love their work, and each of them has spent almost all of his/her career to date at the same place, they observed with adequate humor that their successors clamoring to become entertainment lawyers were enthralled by an illusion. Their work was essentially commercial litigation. It happened to involve movies, television shows, studios, and a few celebrities. But in essence it was the stuff of other business disputes: contracts, torts, employment, insurance, and so on, with not much hanging out with the stars.
I appreciated their candor, and I said to them as I left that I would share their thoughts. Although none of us can return to the past, all of us can guide the people who are the next in line.