By Alec Johnson, J.D. ’24
The first year of law school intimidated me for many reasons: intellectually challenging coursework, grades based entirely on final exams, and hundreds of new classmates—all of whom with fascinating backgrounds—caused me (alongside most of my peers) to enter 1L under tremendous anxiety. And while such concerns gradually faded as I grew comfortable in this new setting, one source of difficulty persists today: law school’s emphasis on theory.
Coming directly from the University of Minnesota with majors in finance and accounting, my undergraduate education and (brief) work experience revolved around real-world practicality: What is the net present value of this project? How will it impact the firm’s tax liability? And are there alternatives that offer a greater return or lower risk? Accordingly, the policy-based nature of law school coursework made for a jarring transition. Gone were the days of learning the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and applying them to concrete scenarios with objectively correct answers; instead, I was expected to study the underpinning of the law, questioning its premises and proposing improvements as needed.
This open-ended emphasis is not inherently problematic; indeed, plenty of lawyers—especially those from Harvard Law School—regularly conduct such inquiries through their roles as, for instance, litigators, judges, and professors. However, given my business background and plans to practice corporate law after graduation, I sought more practical learning when selecting my second-year coursework. And combined with my preexisting curiosity for the school’s numerous clinical programs, this interest caused one experience to stand out from the rest: the Transactional Law Clinics.
Trying clinical work for the first time, I was just as intimidated as when I began law school. While I understood the purpose of a transactional lawyer and the subject matter behind this program’s practice areas, how would I fare in applying such knowledge to ongoing legal issues? Additionally, due to my more reserved personality, the thought of directly engaging with clients and administering meetings (albeit under instructor supervision) terrified me. Nevertheless, I viewed the program as an excellent opportunity to preemptively address these shortcomings during law school rather than postpone them until after graduation. And it delivered.
As expected, my first few weeks in the Transactional Law Clinics contained many challenges: drafting precise contractual language, developing rapport with clientele, and even simply billing time all constituted tasks that I had never before performed despite their ubiquitousness in the corporate work. However, through repeated exposure to such responsibilities (and plenty more) with individualized feedback from my supervisor each week, I grew increasingly comfortable in the transition from a law student to a student advisor.
For instance, whereas I initially dreaded all client communications due to my then-constant fear of sharing incorrect advice, I have since found myself looking forward to such meetings as a much-needed change of pace from traditional law school studies. Guided by my instructor’s tailored feedback, I have developed the confidence necessary to fulfill clients’ requested services without perpetually second-guessing my results. This observation should not imply that I have grown careless in my work; rather, I have developed sufficient familiarity with both my clientele and their deliverables to recognize when I may assertively share conclusions.
Reflecting on the last twelve weeks, my cases at the Transactional Law Clinics have simply been too varying to pinpoint one “favorite.” Drafting a commercial lease for a startup café, developing a presentation on the distinct characteristics of the most common business entities, and updating a spreadsheet that calculates differences in tax liabilities between limited liability companies and S corporations are just a sample of my completed matters this fall. But, if anything, my strongest memories of the program stem from observing the development of my clients.
For example, one of my long-term cases involves a client intending to open a restaurant in the Boston area, and I have accordingly helped her create an operating agreement, draft a master contract for future collaborations, investigate the prospects of a trademark for her company’s name, and research the basics of franchise law. Beyond exemplifying the breadth of services offered by the Transactional Law Clinics, this matter enabled me to witness the client’s growth firsthand; during this semester alone, she acquired both a liquor license along with the keys to her business’s property, and her excitement to open the restaurant becomes increasingly palpable with each meeting. While my contributions concern just one small portion of her overall venture, I still had a sense of pride from seeing the client inch closer toward her entrepreneurial dream and express gratitude for my work. Naturally, the program (like most real-world practice) has its share of mundane tasks too. But the peaks of the Transactional Law Clinics—including the satisfaction gained from helping those who otherwise could not afford legal services—more than compensate for such low points.
I would recommend this program to anyone even remotely interested in transactional work. Law school courses successfully instill substantive doctrines and legal reasoning, but the field requires some skills that cannot be taught in the classroom (especially for transactional practice). Moreover, as evidenced by my earlier praise, the Transactional Law Clinics have provided many of my most memorable moments in law school and reaffirmed my passion for the profession. Unlike most classes that give just a single character of feedback through letter grades, this program offers constant opportunities for practical self-development through conversations with instructors, clients, and peers—all while simultaneously assisting disadvantaged groups in the community.
In total, this program has enabled me to cultivate many skills essential for successful transactional practice; from drafting contracts on relatively complex matters to simply maintaining organization when managing my caseload, I have gained indispensable insight from the Transactional Law Clinics that would have otherwise been unobtainable in school. Although I will be clerking and subsequently working at a large law firm in New York after graduation, these experiences have demonstrated firsthand the importance of small-scale, community lawyering. Accordingly, I hope to eventually return to this realm after graduation—be it through pro bono work or otherwise.