Information and Advice for Students

James Grimmelmann

This document contains my common advice to students: everything I find myself saying repeatedly. I’ve put it online to save you a trip to my office.

This document is out of date and pending revisions

Contacting Me

Start with email. I’m online a lot, I can respond quickly, and many questions are easiest to pose in written form. Phone is an inferior option, and there are some days that I don’t check my voice mail at all.

Before class is a terrible time to talk to me about anything other than why I should or shouldn’t call on you. I’m focused on preparing and my brain has room for almost nothing else. After class is better, but sometimes I need to run to another commitment, and I’m almost always too exhausted to give you the focus you deserve. If you want me to remember or respond to something, put it in email.

If you prefer to talk in person, the best thing is to visit me in my office. I post office hours each semester, and I promise to be in or near my office then. It’s fine to come in without an appointment, although if you don’t make one you run the risk that someone else will be there when you arrive. Email me to set one up.

If my office hours don’t work for you, then please email me to make an appointment at another time. Give me a range of options to work with. If you say only “Can you meet Monday at 6:00,” I will respond, “No; I teach then” and we will go back and forth. Instead, tell some days and times you could meet, and I will propose a specific time. Please respond quickly if you can; I am holding that time for you while I wait to hear back, which means it’s not available for someone else.

If we make an appointment, I expect you to be there, and to be on time. Missing appointments is a terrible professional habit, one that will land you in hot water with supervising attorneys and with judges. If you must cancel, please give me as much advance notice as you can.

Research Assistants

I sometimes hire research and teaching assistants. I don’t typically have very many tasks for them, and when I do, it’s often tedious scut work that needs to be done on a short deadline. I hire almost exclusively from the ranks of my former students. Grades and credentials don’t matter to me; I care about writing, organization, enthusiasm, diligence, and the intangible factors that will make for a good working relationship. If you would like to express interest, send me an email, and I’ll keep it on file for the next time I need assistance.

Papers

Sometimes I supervise Independent Study papers. I have learned from experience that the most important difference between students who successfully write good, prize-winning papers and those who struggle badly is good up-front planning. If your topic, research plan, and schedule aren’t clear when you start, things will only go downhill. Thus, I require students who would like to write a paper with me to provide me with a written proposal that contains the following:

If you give me all of these, and I have available time, and I believe that we can work effectively together, then I will happily supervise your paper. I am happy to talk about possible topics. I have learned, however, that if I take an early role in shaping the direction of a project, the quality of the end result suffers dramatically. To have the motivation to carry through the long research and writing process, you need to own the project.

You may have noticed that pulling together a proposal is likely to require some significant research. This is not an accident. There is no way to know what your thesis should be without doing at least some reading. Writing the proposal demonstrates that you will be able to do the independent work required, and pulling the proposal together will make it yours.

When I supervise papers, I expect you to keep to a schedule. Here is a typical version:

If I see that you are missing deadlines and are unable to get yourself back on track promptly, I will call off the Independent Study before you waste more of your and my time. This may seem like a harsh measure. I’ve seen enough papers, though, to know that you are better off cutting your losses than continuing to struggle with a paper that has gotten out of control.

Notes and Comments

Intellectual property and Internet law are excellent places to look for note and comment topics. They are fast-moving, which means that there are many developments worth writing. Because of the undeveloped state of the law, courts read and cite to student work with some frequency. And they happen to be intrinsically interesting; the cases often involve vivid and memorable facts. A side benefit is that it’s often less important to look for a specific New York angle to a topic; the law at issue is often national or international, and so automatically of local interest.

If you are looking for a possible note or comment topic, I highly recommend looking through the past year’s BNA reports. BNA officially stands for “Bureau of National Affairs,” and unofficially for “Boring, Nevertheless Accurate.” It publishes dispassionate and clear news items on recent cases and other developments in the law. I read them myself to stay on top of legal news, and if you are looking for recent issues that have not already been written to death by others, the BNA reports are a gold mine. In the areas I teach, you will want to look at:

The library staff will be happy to help you with accessing all three.

I am happy to talk about topics with you. I can help tell you whether a topic is likely to be feasible to write about, and also whether it is likely to be preempted. In general, the older and the more famous a case or an issue, the more likely it is that someone already has written what you would say, or will have by the time you’re done. There is almost nothing to be said about file-sharing and copyright that has not already been said dozens of times.

I am also willing to read drafts, but I don’t give close, detailed feedback. Instead, I look for structural issues, gaps in your reasoning, or perspectives you may not have considered. I will do my best to help you with specific questions if you ask, such as whether your critique of a particular argument is convincingly argued, or whether I agree with the way you have parsed a statute.

Mooting

Yes, I will give you a mock oral argument for any moot court competition in an area I know something about. I’m an aggressive mock judge: someone needs to help you prepare for loaded, surprising, and unfair questions. Email me to find a time.

Exam-Taking

Studets I have taught in the past have said that this short essay by John Langbein offers helpful advice on how to write a good exam.

The Institute for Information Law and Policy

If you are interested in the work of the IILP, the first thing you should do is sign up for the IP Society mailing list. You will receive announcements of upcoming IILP events, information sessions, new courses, and the occasional job posting. The second thing you should do is talk to Naomi Allen, in the IILP office, about affiliating. She will provide you with our most recent brochure and other information.

Course Selection for IILP Affiliates

You should take the introductory survey course in Intellectual Property as soon as possible. It is a gateway to almost every other course the IILP offers. In general, you should combine three things in your time at NYLS:

If you are interested in patent law, you should take every course you can with “patent” in the title. If not, you do not need to take any patent courses after Intellectual Property.

Course Selection (for all students)

My first and foremost advice is to do an externship or take a summer job or internship at a law firm. I’m consistently impressed by how much students doing externships grow in wisdom and maturity over the course of the semester. There is no better preparation in professionalism than actually working at a real job, for real attorneys, doing real work.

Take at least one class in family law. Every client has a family, and often their family situation will be intertwined with the concerns they bring to you. This is also an area of law in which fact-specific, equitable considerations matter enormously, and studying what courts and agencies do in cases where there are no right or easy answers will help you build your situation sense. Consider Family Law, Elder Law, and Survey of Mental Disability Law.

Take the basic course in Corporations. You need to know the essentials of how companies relate to their owners, managers, employees, and third parties. This is also the place to pick up the principles of agency law, which fill in some gaps left over from Torts and Contracts.

Take the basic course in Tax. You pay taxes, and so do your clients. You should be alert to the likely tax consequences of everything you advise them. This is also the best course in law school for teaching you how to read a detailed statute closely.

Take Administrative Law. You will deal with agencies, and you need to understand how they work. Legislation and Regulation is a good introduction, but it only scratches the surface. Better to circle back and learn about rulemaking, adjudication, judicial review, and so on in more depth and more carefully.

Try to take a class in commercial law. In addition to understanding better how businesses and law depend on each other, you will also gain valuable code-reading experience. Consider Bankruptcy Law, Sales and Negotiable Instruments, and Secured Transactions.

Try to take an upper-level class in procedure. The 4 credits of first-year Civil Procedure simply aren’t enough to cover all the important topics in sufficient depth. You’ll also find that revisiting procedure after taking a number of substantive courses gives you a fresh perspective on why it matters. Consider Remedies, Conflicts of Law, and Federal Courts.

Try to take a class in international law. It’s a cliché but true: we live in a globalizing world. You need to learn where international law comes from, how it’s enforced, and what areas of law it affects. Consider the International Law survey or any other international course in an area that interests you.

Don’t stress yourself about taking Criminal Procedure, Wills, Trusts, and Future Interests or Real Estate Transactions. It’s true that all of these are interesting courses, all of them are building blocks for their areas of law, and all of them are tested on the bar exam. But if you’re not going into those areas, they’re not essential. (If you plan to practice criminal law, family or estates law, or real estate law, then you should definitely take the appropriate course, and as soon as possible.) By following the rest of my advice, you’ll be taking plenty of bar-exam classes anyway.

Careers in Intellectual Property

There are a wide variety of career paths in intellectual property and technology law. Practitioners in the field are also often satisfied with their work. Partly this is because of the pleasure and sense of purpose that comes from working with creators and innovators; you will be helping them do things that directly make the world a better and more interesting place. Partly it is because the field is fast-changing, challenging, and intellectually interesting; while your work will have its share of tedium and repetition, there will be less of it than in some other areas of law. Even if you don’t go into intellectual property law yourself, some knowledge of basic IP concepts, and some sense of how Internet issues affect all areas of legal practice will be essential. In this sense, working with the IILP can help prepare you for almost any career in law.

You should not expect to start at your dream job. Almost no one hires new law-school graduates to go out and immediately start negotiating and drafting fifty-million-dollar movie production agreements. In particular, in-house work (i.e. for a company, rather than for a law firm) is extremely difficult to obtain. It is much more common for attorneys to work for three, five, or ten years at law firms that work with an industry before shifting to an in-house job. Your ideal first position should be one in which you work for smart, experienced attorneys who will serve as thoughtful mentors and guides. Your training isn’t complete when you graduate law school; it will continue for your entire career.

You will have to strike a balance between specializing and being a generalist. No one wants to hire a lawyer who knows only intellectual property law. On the other hand, you can make a stronger case for yourself if your resume tells a story about your passion for and experience in the area you plan to practice in. It is much better to have a job, even in the “wrong” area, than a gap in your resume. Not only will you be gaining valuable experience, it will help demonstrate your work ethic. At the same time, as time passes, the choice you make will inevitably lead you to build up expertise in an area and make it much harder to find work doing something different. The right answer is different for everyone; you should have these trade-offs in mind as you choose which opportunities to pursue.

You do not need a background in technology to do intellectual property work. Copyright and trademark law are about creative expression and marketing, respectively, not technology. While computers and the Internet are substantially changing copyright and trademark, the same could be said of any area of law. Most lawyers working in these fields have no specialized technical training.

Majoring in science or engineering in college is a big leg up in doing patent work but it is not required. Lawyers teach themselves new bodies of law and new facts all the time, as required by their cases. If you are willing to do the same on technological topics, you, too can do patent law. Even someone with a background in computers will need to learn some chemistry if working on a drug patent; a technical background is not an all-or-nothing thing. The important exception to this point is that, for the most part, only students whose undergraduate major was in science or engineering are eligible to sit for the patent bar. You can do patent transactions or patent litigation without being in the patent bar, but you can’t draft and submit patent applications unless you are.

Job Hunting

Finding a job is hard work under any circumstances. The economy is not helping. Comparatively speaking, however, you are better off than students at many other schools. The collapse of on-campus recruiting left students at other schools at a complete loss; they simply didn’t know how to go out and look for a job. But you and your predecessors are scrappier and harder-working than students elsewhere. The vast majority of NYLS students have always gotten their jobs by sending out applications and pounding the pavement.

The number-one quality that will get you a job is hustle. Stay alert, keep on your feet, and when you see an opportunity, move to it at top speed. It will be frustrating for a long time to be sending out applications, doing brief screening interviews, and talking to everyone you know, without visible signs of progress. But then, on a day that so far will have seemed like all the rest, you will get a lead, and because you will follow up on it with energy and enthusiasm, you will impress the right person, and then everything will come together. You make your own luck. (Once you land that job, by the way, hustle is also an essential personal quality for a good lawyer.)

Remember that job hunting is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t tire yourself out early; don’t get frustrated if things don’t start happening immediately. Keep yourself active and hopeful; do everything you can to keep moving and gaining useful experience. Determination and the ability to bear up well during a long project (like a multi-year lawsuit!) are attractive qualities to employers. Apathy and bitterness are not.

I cannot emphasize highly enough the importance of networking. Employers who post job openings receive dozens or hundreds of resumes. If the only thing you are doing is sending out resumes and waiting for the phone to ring, it will be hard to make yourself stand out from the pack.

Networking doesn’t just mean that you should be talking to previous employers and family friends, although you should definitely be doing that. It also means that you should actively be working to make contacts with lawyers in the profession and immersing yourself in contexts where you will be able to meet and learn from practicing lawyers. Your professional success will depend on your network of colleagues and friends. You will send them referrals, and vice-versa. They will tip you off to legal changes, local practice wisdom, professional development opportunities, and job openings. They will also help to make the profession a friendly, welcoming place; you will look forward to the CLE seminars and annual meetings where you catch up with these familiar faces.

You should start your networking now. As you identify your desired practice area, start looking into its professional associations. The ABA has sections devoted to every area of law. So do the state, county, and city bar associations. They have deeply discounted memberships for law students. Join, and look out for events. Go to a talk or to a breakfast roundtable. Listen to what topics lawyers in your field are worried about, and to their stories from their practices. Introduce yourself to some of them. Ask them about their professional pathways; if they are friendly and helpful, ask them for career advice. They are the people you will become. You shouldn’t be expecting that a lawyer you meet at one of these events will simply offer you a job, but building contacts will help you hear about opportunities and increase the chances that when something does come along, you will be well-positioned to pounce on it.

You should also be starting to keep up with developments in your chosen field. (When you are in practice, this will be an absolute necessity!) Find the important blogs in your area of law and read them regularly. Look for major trade publications, news sites, Twitter feeds, and so on, and keep up with them. You will be much more interesting in interviews if you can express an informed opinion on the issues that are relevant to practitioners.

Career Services can help with many things, including resume and cover letter reviews. In particular, they can point you to resources for researching firms. The Martindale-Hubbell directory is a very useful way to build lists of firms in your target practice areas. Also, don’t underestimate the value of looking through firm websites to gain an idea of how they see themselves.

The purpose of your cover letter is to explain how you can help the firm, not how it can help you. “This position will allow me to further my interest in music law” is a weak argument on your behalf. “I am closely familiar with new media licensing agreements from my Music Law course and have extensive experience in drafting them from my externship at ROFL Records” is much better.

Your current cover letter is almost certainly too long. It should, if possible, show that you know enough about the firm you’re applying to to write a personalized, complimentary letter. It should call attention to any especially impressive things in your experience and training. And then it should stop. Saying more can only hurt you, because it increases the odds you will make a mistake or do something else to cause the reader to move on to the next application in the very tall stack in front of him or her.

Your resume should be letter-perfect. I strongly recommend using bullet points to describe your job responsibilities, with no more than four bullet points per position and no more than one line per bullet point. Start each item with an action verb in the correct tense, and be specific about what you did. Do not include anything unless you can talk about it in a way that will be interesting and make the interviewer want to hire you. Don’t list Word, Excel, Lexis, or Westlaw; all they do is make the reader think you didn’t have something more impressive to say. Better to leave “skills” out entirely.

Letters of Recommendation

I regularly write letters of recommendation and serve as a reference for students, and almost always say “yes” if asked. Before you ask me to write on your behalf, consider how effective a letter I can write for you. I am much more able to say specific and positive things if you have been active in class, I have supervised you on a project or externship, I have evaluated your written work product, or there is some other reason I know you and your work well. If you got a worse grade in my class than in your others, another professor might be a better choice, or a supervisor from work.

If you would like me to write on your behalf, please contact me as far in advance as possible before the deadline. Give me a copy of your current resume, and tell me everything I need to know about the application, including what you are applying for, how I should address the letter, how it should be delivered, and when it is due.

I prefer not to write general “to whom it may concern” letters of recommendation, for two related reasons. First, letters are more effective when they are tailored for a particular position. Second, many recipients don’t believe that letters of recommendation are fully objective unless they are also confidential.

In particular, I am happy to give advice on and write recommendations if you are applying for clerkships. Start thinking about this early; clerkship applications should not be rushed. I will need your list of judges well in advance of the deadline.

Professionalism

Professionalism is a big topic, and not something that can easily be taught. But some things can be emphasized, at least. I highly, highly recommend the two-part “Secrets of Superstar Associates” from the ABA Litigation Podcast. Almost all of these tips apply, no matter what you do in law.