The Legal Beat
Some Words To The Graduating Law School Class
Posted on Thursday May 16, 2019
Friday concluded Commencement Week here at Vanderbilt Law School, which was a much better collection of days than Moving Week, which I suffered through the week prior, or the Groundhog Day-esque Infrastructure Week continually pushed by the White House with results that are both hilarious and depressing. Parents and other family members of the graduates filled the halls, often grinning from ear to ear, trying to take in as much of the law school experience that their loved one has lived through over the last three years. This legal education by osmosis often takes the form of a near constant stream of picture taking, both selfie and otherwise.
Perhaps not surprisingly, each Vanderbilt Law commencement takes me back to my own law school graduation 11 years ago. While the constant state of sleep deprivation that comes from having multiple kids under the age of four is rapidly destroying my cognitive ability, there is still much I remember about those days in May 2008. While my parents’ visible pride in my achievement is something that I will always cherish, even without the aid of numerous pictures that were taken, what jumps out first and foremost is my post-graduation family dinner at Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune — which unlike much of the Manhattan from my time in the city, is actually still up and running. And I didn’t even get the chicken! It might surprise someone to read that a dish as simple as radishes, butter, and salt could stay with a person for over a decade, but it has.
The other portion of that graduation whirlwind that sticks with me more than a decade hence is the graduation speaker. As is typically the case, the folks here at Above the Law have done an excellent job gathering the names of law school commencement speakers from across the country. The NYU Law Class of 2008 was addressed not by a civil rights icon such as Andrew Young, or the modern-day equivalent in Bryan Stevenson, but rather, by then-New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram. And while not a close personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Milgram shared some excellent insights with the several hundred newly minted attorneys gathered in front of her that day. The story of attempting to cancel out the stress of attending NYU Law by becoming an apprentice pastry chef at Le Cirque, as Milgram did, spoke to the importance of not becoming too singularly focused while in school, a lesson that carries over well into legal practice. Most memorable was Milgram’s simple tip to respond to an email within 24 hours of receipt. Even if that response is a simple note that you are busy at the time and cannot respond in full until later, it lets the sender know that you have seen their message. While my track record has not been perfect, it is a rule I have tried to follow in the subsequent decade.
Here at Vanderbilt, our commencement speaker is not a high profile name from outside the university, but rather, a member of the faculty (not staff) chosen by the student body. There are some limitations in place to prevent the same faculty member from addressing the students year after year, something that may well be called the Ed Cheng Rule. While I am not addressing the assemblage of students, family, and friends, perhaps not surprisingly, my mind has wandered to what I would say.
Both because it is what I deal with each day and is the subject of this column, I would probably hue relatively close to issues surrounding legal employment. First and foremost, my message would be that law school graduates in 2019 need to be flexible. I am in my fourth job since my law school graduation, and while that might speak more of me than of the legal market in general, I do not think my path is atypical. While there are some graduates who will take the bar exam this summer, start in Biglaw a couple of months later, and then stay at that same firm for the next 40 years, that will probably not be the typical experience. Indeed, while it was never easy to follow the idealized path to law firm partnership, it is becoming even more difficult in the present day, despite law firms generating more and more revenue.
Second, and related to the first point, explore that which interests you as an attorney. There are A LOT of different areas of the law, let alone ways that you practice law or even work in non-legal capacities. You might start your career as a private practice bankruptcy attorney, but do not feel as if that is to what you must dedicate the next several decades of your life. If you love bankruptcy work, then keep on taking other projects in that vein, but if you are looking for more, look for other types of work. That can be at the same firm, just with practice groups/attorneys, or it can be in a wholly different organization. While spare time is a precious commodity for junior attorneys, try to stay a part of as many organizations as possible and keep in touch with your law school classmates. While the professional opportunity you have been waiting for might well fall in your lap, chances are it will take a bit more work.
Finally, take care of yourself. These last three or so years likely had moments of high stress. I wish I could tell you that it was all downhill from here, but the fact of the matter is that just is not the case. Whether in private practice, government, public interest, or something else altogether, chances are that you will be working on tight deadlines for demanding clients. Unhealthy habits can quickly pile up: sleep deprivation, drinking to excess, a diet that consists mainly of items found in a vending machine or that can be delivered via Postmates. The Freshman 15 can quickly be surpassed during the first few months of practice. While it can be difficult, try to be mindful and make some time for yourself. Working in Biglaw? Your office probably has a relatively nice gym. While ideally, one would get out of the office to exercise, if that is not in the foreseeable future, take advantage of what is likely right below you. For those not in Biglaw, even finding some time every day to take a walk outside can have a remarkably positive effect.
So go forth Class of 2019. You will not remember the entirety of this day a decade from now, but you might be surprised how much sticks.
Nicholas Alexiou is the Director of LL.M. and Alumni Advising as well as the Associate Director of Career Services at Vanderbilt University Law School. He will, hopefully, respond to your emails at [email protected].