Tales from the Law Library: My Life as a Research Assistant
Most 1Ls, by May, are really quite excited by the prospect of not having to step into the law library for three months. For me, however, the end of exams marked the beginning of three more months in the library – though not as a student, but as a research assistant. Every summer, a small army of 1Ls is hired by various faculty members to assist them with their academic projects. This assistance ranges from original research to drafting language for articles to footnoting books to updating new editions of casebooks, and is the definition of “substantial legal work.”
The job is unique among 1L summer options, and has very defined ups and downs. Instead of trying to explain it all narratively, here are the three biggest pros and three biggest cons to being an RA for your 1L summer. I enjoyed it immensely! But it’s worth knowing what you’re getting into.
1) You set your own hours.
If you, like me, are heading to BigLaw with all of its attendant lifesucking time constraints, consider the benefits of spending a summer waking up whenever, working whenever, and not working whenever. Depending on your professor, of course, you might have a more formal work arrangement; for me, so long as the work got done, the time in which said work was done didn’t matter. I cannot stress enough how much of a gift this was! I telecommuted from Michigan for a week, I took a day off to visit friends on Long Island, I randomly “stepped out” for walks in Central Park or to see shows or to explore the city I had lived in for a year but neglected to see (because apparently 1L is time-consuming). You won’t find this flexibility in any other 1L job, other than perhaps funemployment.
2) You learn a ton of law.
I worked for two professors over the summer. They were working on completely different projects: education rights for the poor and domestic intelligence collection. As I wrap up the summer, I can say with a high degree of certainty that I legitimately “get” most of the major topics in these areas – enough at least to say I’ve decided to write my student note on a topic in the education field and have written literally hundreds of pages of material between the two professors.
The RA program, by necessity, breeds mini-experts. You will spend forty hours a week immersed in your professor’s area of the law, and by the end of the summer you will be conversant in those subjects. Use it to your advantage! I have friends who designed their Fall schedules in part to capitalize on their summer work; we’re all writing notes or taking seminars or taking doctrinal courses related to what we did over the summer, and we’ll have a substantial head start over our colleagues in those classes.
Furthermore, if you feel like Lawyering didn’t teach you everything there was to know about legal research (protip: it doesn’t), being an RA is better than a billion WestLaw training classes – even if it doesn’t come with free food and prizes. By the end of the summer you will be a researching machine, capable of great feats of terms-and-connectors-ing, cite checking, and footnoting. Sexy? Certainly not. Useful? You have no idea.
3) You meet faculty.
I had the privilege of working for two incredible professors this summer, both of whom went out of their way to get to know me and the way I work. One spent an hour with me just talking about life, law, and career advice – while she should have been packing for a two-week vacation. The other literally walked me through class selection (which, thanks to NYU’s byzantine auction system, was a huge boon) and even went so far as to recommend a doctor to me when I fell ill over the summer. Both have provided an enormous amount of support above and beyond just providing feedback on the work product I turn in to them.
Being an RA is, in my opinion, the single best way to establish a relationship with faculty members at NYU. You will work very closely with your professor on a project that (hopefully) is of mutual interest – you learn a ton, and they get a ton out of the arrangement. They have a vested interest in seeing you succeed, since their name will eventually be attached to the work you perform for them, and you have a vested interest in making a good impression. The end result? Close mentoring relationships that will outlast the summer. While I don’t pretend my experience is universal across RAs, I will walk away from my summer job with two professors to whom I can go for advice for the rest of law school. That’s no small thing.
1) You set your own hours.
Ever wondered whether or not you have the self-control necessary to sit, by yourself, in a library and work for eight hours straight with no accountability, aware that your professor isn’t expecting anything remotely resembling a final product for months? As an RA, you will almost certainly discover the answer to this question. Let’s just say it took me a while to get there.
2) It’s lonely in here.
Ah, the law library. Or the Furman study room. Or, frankly, your bed. The workplace of an RA may vary across individuals, but one facet remains constant: this isn’t exactly collaborative work. Both of my professors had two or three other RAs on their payroll; my interactions with them can be counted on one hand. There are some notable exceptions (Arthur Miller’s RAs all chill in a reserved room in Vanderbilt Hall all summer, surrounded by his legendary treatise as they work on its updates), but this is generally solitary work – I received my projects at the beginning of the summer, and those projects were unrelated to the projects of my colleagues.
That said, the school does a good job at getting the RAs together and out of their respective cubbyholes. Every week for most of the summer, the RAs had a lunch on Wednesday (free food!) where we could get together and socialize, as well as hear a speaker on topics ranging from note writing to judicial clerkships to academic careers. They were enjoyable! But they were the exception to the rule.
3) This feels suspiciously like law school.
I won’t sugar-coat it. While colleagues will be working for policy shops and legal aid offices, researching for briefs or helping draft court documents or any of the other myriad things 1Ls do over their summers, you will be spending a lot of time with a Bluebook and an open WestLaw tab on your computer’s browser working on academic material in an academic setting. Perhaps you’re interested in a career in legal academia – great! This is a taste of what it will be like. Perhaps, however, you will – like me – wonder whether or not law school actually ever ended. Consider whether or not you need practice as a break from theory when deciding whether or not to take a professor’s RA offer.