by Elizabeth Leonard
Anyone who regularly reads the New York Times will tell you that law schools have gotten a bad rap recently. It seems like every week there’s another article about how law school is overpriced, graduates have very few “real world” skills and a JD is no longer a fool-proof path to a lucrative career. I disagree.
As someone who practiced law for a measly two years after graduating from Penn Law, I seem to be a walking example of everything that’s wrong with law school. But, I argue (once a lawyer, always opinionated!) that Penn Law taught me a wide range of skills that are useful on a daily basis as I develop The Blue Bridge Project, a small educational company that provides service learning opportunities for high school students.
I started Blue Bridge Project because it is obvious that students who have international exposure are better prepared for professional success. Many high schools are integrating internationally focused classes into their curriculum like “Modern Islam” or “Comparative Political Systems” but classroom attention is not enough. Students who have the opportunity to travel develop a range of skills that cannot be taught in the classroom like: how to exhibit cultural sensitivity; how other people view the American lifestyle; and how political processes impact everyday people. Blue Bridge’s mission is to expose students to these issues so that they develop a more nuanced and well-rounded view of the world and start on the path to becoming global citizens.
- Confidence – A significant part of starting my own business was having the confidence to leave the security of a full-time job and quite literally, follow my dreams. In the first week of Civil Procedure, I was asked “what kinds of cases do federal courts hear?” At that point—and I am not kidding—I didn’t know the difference between the federal and state court systems! Despite not knowing the answer, I survived. Plowing through the toughest days of 1L year and enjoying the remaining two years of law school (yes, it’s true, I liked law school!) gave me the confidence that I could build this business. I continue to tap into that confidence during the most challenging times when I feel defeated and frustrated. There is a real emotional component to running a business and I developed an emotional endurance in law school that has really helped me.
- Critical thinking – Law school taught me how to thoughtfully sort through a lot of information and quickly distill key points. As an entrepreneur, I utilize this skill daily. On any given day I am thinking through the pros and cons of various insurance packages, writing web content, negotiating with service providers and drafting business contracts. This is not dissimilar from the experience of preparing for class during all three years of law school. I spent hours at the library sorting through cases and concepts; in order to preserve my sanity (and maintain a social life!) I learned to efficiently synthesize all of this material. I could not get through my to-do list every day if I hadn’t honed those skills in law school.
- Crisp writing and concise speaking– Law school taught me how to write clearly and speak concisely. I practiced these skills during legal writing seminars, mock-trials in clinical settings and on issue-spotting exams. I use these skills daily in my work as an entrepreneur, whether I am drafting a one-sentence blurb for BBP’s homepage or on the phone with a parent. The ability to clearly and concisely express yourself is critical to disseminate your message and this applies universally, whether you are advocating on behalf of your client in a mediation or making a presentation to parents about summer programs.
While my path towards building an education organization is untraditional, I have acquired so many skills along the way. Each person’s decision to pursue a graduate degree is highly personal and I am certainly not advocating that law school is the perfect choice for people who don’t want to be lawyers. But for me, I have no regrets about my JD and use it to my advantage on a daily basis.
Elizabeth is the Founder and President of Blue Bridge Project (www.bluebridgeproject.com). BBP is the first international travel program to partner with local non-profits and offer post-trip guidance to help high school students apply their summer experience to their individual goals and future endeavors. Elizabeth has worked in high school student travel for over 8 years and has led students on trips around the world. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College, where she majored in International Relations and Spanish, and Penn Law School where she pursued public interest law. Elizabeth was the first recipient of the Penn Public Interest Fellowship and used her funding to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities as an attorney at Disability Rights Advocates.