The Key Differences Between Legal Study and Legal Practice

The Key Differences Between Legal Study and Legal Practice

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Making the jump from newly qualified to actually practicing what you learned in law school isn’t an easy feat. Below Emma Jones, lecturer in law and member of the Open Justice team at the Open University, shares her thoughts on the key differences between studying the law, to applying it in an actual legal role.

Many law students plan to enter the legal profession once they have completed their academic studies and training. To prepare for the transition, it’s important to be aware of some of the key differences between legal study and legal practice.

Knowledge isn’t everything…

An integral part of being a law student is absorbing large bodies of legal knowledge – learning cases by rote, being able to reel off relevant legislation and managing to spell obscure latin phrases all tend to form a significant part of law degrees. However, the legal knowledge you gain during your studies, although important, is only one part of legal practice. Once you begin in practice, it’ll be taken as a given that you know the key principles in whatever area of law you’re working in.  The facts of particular issues that you are working on may require further research in a particular area, but that is where your legal skills come in…

… But legal skills are!

Having those broader legal skills really is crucial in legal practice. Being able to undertake legal research, interview clients effectively, write clearly and concisely and communicate complex ideas verbally are all relevant skills you are likely to draw on. Doing this will ensure that your client, and those around you in the workplace, have confidence in you as a legal professional. You are likely to have begun developing some (if not all) of these skills during your studies, but it’s when you move into practice that you’ll really see how crucial they are.

‘Soft skills’ are important…

Speaking of those around you, legal practice is very often about teamwork and collaboration. You may have completed the majority of the work for your law degree on your own but it is more likely that in practice there will be a number of you working together on an issue. You may also find yourself dealing with a range of support staff and other colleagues, such as expert witnesses, judges, even the families and friends of clients. As you progress up the career ladder, you may also find yourself having responsibility for supervising and managing others. In fact, being able to work with others is more than a so-called “soft skill”, it’s a fundamental part of being a legal professional.

… As is applying common sense!

When you’re studying, if you’re presented with a problem question, it’s usually a matter of identifying and applying the correct legal principles to reach a valid conclusion. However, in practice it isn’t always about applying the law, sometimes it may be that a more practical solution is needed. For example, if a client came to you with a faulty toaster, it would be pointless you advising them to sue the shop that sold it, because in reality the time and cost would not be worth the outcome. Similarly, a client may have a great claim in legal terms, but if the person it’s against is has no money or assets, the chances of actually recovering anything may be very slim.

You’ll need to think about your own position…

As a law student, you may well have worried about getting the right grades and meeting deadlines, but as a legal professional, you are likely to have a much wider range of pressures on you. For example, a solicitor in private practice will usually be expected to meet specific targets in terms of chargeable hours and billing, become involved in attracting new clients and, of course, avoid being negligent at all costs.

… But keep the client happy too!

Unlike being a student, when your main focus was probably on your own goals, in legal practice you have to focus on the client’s goals instead. That doesn’t mean mindlessly following instructions, in fact, it might mean telling your client something they don’t want to hear, or advising them against their preferred choice of action. However, at the end of the day, you need your client to be satisfied that you have understood their position, thoroughly considered all options, and done your best for them in an ethical and proactive manner.

If this makes legal practice sound challenging well, yes, sometimes it is. However, it can also be interesting and extremely rewarding. Putting your knowledge into practice may mean developing some new skills and perspectives, but it’ll also give you the opportunity to see, and contribute to, the law in action, and that is probably the most exciting difference of all!

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