Why Life Experience Between College and Law School Matters

For years, there is one piece of advice I give prospective law students that hasn’t changed: take time off before you go to law school. Work, travel, volunteer. Do something that isn’t school. Experience the world, whatever that means to you.

So it didn’t surprise me when lawyers responding to our Foundations for Practice survey indicated that “life experience between college and law school” was helpful in identifying that a new lawyer has the foundations (characteristics, professional competencies, and legal skills) that they believe are important. Almost 30 percent said “life experience between college and law school” was “very helpful”; another 49 percent said it was “helpful.”

(By the way, you can explore the data for yourself here.)

Yet, we know that far too many law students do not take time between college and law school. I didn’t—and I wish I had. We even refer to students who take just a couple years off as “non-traditional.”

This could change, if Harvard Law School has anything to say about it. In a move to entice students to gain work experience before they enter law school, HLS announced it is expanding a pilot program for Harvard juniors to juniors from any college. The program lets law school applicants defer admission to the law school for two years, which “allows students to go and do something they love, and not to feel they have to build their résumé,” Jessica L. Soban, HLS’s Associate Dean for Admissions and Strategic Initiatives, told the New York Times.

While it’s great that Harvard wants its students to have the opportunity to do something they love, Harvard is getting a lot out of this deal as well. The same survey respondents who valued “life experience between college and law school” told us that the foundations they most needed in new lawyers were, predominantly, characteristics and professional competencies. They were things like conscientiousness, common sense, maturity, working collaboratively in a team, and exhibiting tact and diplomacy (see the full list here). They were things that may be best developed through experiences like those that prospective Harvard Law Students will now seek out before starting law school.

By encouraging applicants to engage in activities that will help them develop these key characteristics and competencies before they ever even come to law school, Harvard is ensuring that its graduates have yet another leg up. Well played, Harvard. Well played.