I don’t like using clichés, but that does seem to be the question on a lot of law students’ minds. I talk to many students at the start of each year who are questioning whether to keep their current job when they are back in classes, or are concerned about looking for one during the semester. In my opinion, there are a few things to consider when deciding whether or not to get, or keep, a job during the school year.
There are many aspects to consider, the first being where you are in your legal education. If you are a 1L, you have plenty of things to worry about – adjusting to a new school and an entirely new method of learning, meeting new people, keeping up with your readings and preparing for final exams. Adding a job on top of that would likely be too much, and your grades may suffer as a result. Many 1Ls are concerned about getting a head start on building their résumé , but future employers are much more concerned with the grades you received as a 1L, rather than where you worked. You aren’t expected to work during your first year, so don’t give yourself unnecessary stress by trying to maintain a job as well as your grades. (As an aside, according to the National Association for Law Placement rules, the Career Development Center cannot even give you job-hunting advice before November 1st of your first year).
Now, full disclosure here – I did work during my first year of law school. But not in a high pressured legal environment where I was expected to give part-time hours while carrying a full-time course load. I taught tap and ballet to 3-5 year olds, 3 hours a week. Not exactly stressful, or time-consuming. In fact, it was a nice break for me – it was fun, it got my mind off of studying for a few hours each week, and it gave me some spending money at a time when I was relying on student loans for pretty much everything. So, if you have a job that only takes a few hours of your time each week, gives you a much needed respite from the daily grind of law school, and that you enjoy – feel free to stay there once school begins. (Hey, maybe you are the type of person who finds it relaxing to clerk at a law firm – more power to you if you’d like to do that for a few hours each week!)
However….be honest with yourself! If you feel like you have taken on too much, and you start dreading these times you go to work because you know you just have SO MUCH you still need to do for school, it might be time to quit (at least temporarily). And any job should be put on hold during finals, because you need that time to focus –without interruption – on your exams.
For second and third year students, it’s a different ballgame. Now is the time when you can (and, during your third year, should) start looking for work. But it’s still important to be honest with yourself – if you find that you are having a hard time balancing work and school, it’s better to drop the job and concentrate on your grades. You have time to build your résumé during the summers; don’t sacrifice your grades to add one more job to the list. The ABA rules state that a full time law student should not work more than 20 hours per week while attending school. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should – think about your work habits, your course load, and your time-management skills. 20 hours a week is a lot! If you stick with the old rule “two hours of prep time per one hour of class,” and you have a typical 15-credit semester, you are talking about 30 hours of prep time and 15 hours of class. So, 45 hours need to be devoted just to school. And if you are involved with law review, moot court, or anything other extra-curricular activity or club, you can add a few more (ha! more like “a lot more”) hours onto that. All of that before you can even think of adding a job into the mix. Maybe you are extremely good at time-management and multi-tasking, and this doesn’t sound so bad for you. Or, maybe you should consider picking up a job for only one day (or two half days) a week. 8 hours of work is much more manageable than 20!
Personally, I had too much on my plate during my second year of law school to even consider getting a job, but I did work during my third year. On top of a full course-load, being an articles editor for the Pace Environmental Law Review, and being a Dean’s Scholar, I began work as a legal assistant at the firm I would ultimately work for after graduation. But I started slowly – just a few hours a week until I was sure I could handle it, eventually building up to two full days (approximately 16 hours). It was what I could manage, and it worked for me. And I was always able to put the job on hold during finals, which was extremely important and helped me keep my stress levels to a minimum.
I’ll leave the actual career counseling to the professionals in Career Development. And of course, the same standards do not apply if you are an evening student and working full time during the day. But from an Academic Support standpoint, my bottom line is this – a job is great, it will give you experience and build your résumé, both of which will help you in the long run. But while you are in law school, remember that your main job is being a law student, and it’s important to give it your all to excel at that job before you take on anything else.