How Law Students Build Legal Careers

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Through my decade as a law school admission consultant, I have truly enjoyed watching hundreds of former clients as they begin their legal careers. In the next few weeks, on the Law School Expert blog, I will be highlighting some of their stories as inspiration for those of you who are just beginning your path to law school. With all of the headlines about legal jobs, confusion about legal specialties and areas of practice, and what is really important in choosing a law school, I hope to show you some examples of people who are doing what they set out to do when they started applying to law school.

The first person I would like to introduce you to is Tony Iliakostas, who is a 3L at New York Law School. He has spent his time in law school founding Law and Batting Order, a video blog of issues related to sports law, and interning for ABC News. Below is an excerpt of our interview.

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Tony, I really enjoyed working with you when you were applying to law school and after following you on Facebook throughout your time at New York Law School. I thought you presented a really great example of someone who (1) found a way to do what he set out to do in terms of his proclaimed area of interest in law; and (2) who never let his law school’s ranking get in the way of his opportunities. Thanks for agreeing to answer some questions for my readers, because I think you’re a great example of what people can do during law school to create a niche for themselves in the legal market.

First, tell my readers a little bit about why you applied to law school and how you chose New York Law School.

I’ve always been passionate about the law. I’ve envisioned the day where I make a case before a judge, advocate for my client, or even sit on the bench. Being a lawyer is quite different from any other profession because it requires hard evidence and knowledge of black letter law as well as logic and creativity. This is how I was educated throughout my life and I knew that law school was on the horizon for me.

When it came time to apply to law schools in the local NYC area, there was one law school that understood my struggle with the LSAT, and that was New York Law School. Here I am, less than 90 days from graduating, and attending New York Law School was among one of the best professional decisions that I have ever made in my life. It was here that I’ve learned to think and write like a lawyer. But most importantly, I have built my brand as a law school student, which I will get into more depth later in this interview.

Tell me what you set out to do when you started law school – what you thought you would do with your degree – and how you have altered/morphed that idea over the years.

When I began law school, I really knew that sports law, perhaps entertainment law, was in my future. I just wasn’t sure if I would go down the litigation route or the transactional route. That has somewhat shifted, as I would most likely lean towards the transactional route. I have also shifted my focus, as I’m particularly interested in working in intellectual property law within the sports and entertainment law world. My interests and focus changed after taking classes on intellectual property law and after my internship experience at ABC News.

Law and Batting Order has had 59 Episodes since you started it in 2011. Tell us how Law and Batting Order got started. What gave you the idea and what have you done with it through the years? What opportunities has it brought you? Can you quantify its reach/success/impact? You have some great stats on reach on the website – I stole some here:

  • June 30, 2013 was the premiere of #TheHuddle, which became the most viewed and most rated video in LABO history, with more than 8,000 views and 87 thumbs up.
  • Because of #TheHuddle’s overnight success, LABO amassed 10,000 views on YouTube on July 1, 2013.

I majored in communications and media studies at Fordham University. While I had an opportunity to intern at CBS News, I’ve always felt connected to sports communications or some derivative of it. I spent some time working in a sports public relations firm in NYC, and I realized that a career in sports was up my alley. Sports law is an incredibly niche and competitive area of law, because it’s not the kind of profession that you’re grandfathered into. You have to make great connections and get your name out there in the sports law world just to get your foot in the door.

With that in mind, the NYLS Sports Law Society hosted its 3rd Annual Sports Law Symposium in November of 2011. Having no idea how to get involved in the industry, I printed business cards and went into the symposium with an open mind and ready to learn. That symposium changed my life. During a panel titled “Breaking into Sports Law,” we heard from young up-and-coming attorneys about what they did to get into sports law. Darren Heitner, one of the panelists and someone who has become my mentor and friend, urged law school students to build their brand by doing something unique and creative. Whether it’s writing for a blog on sports law issues or organizing events, it’s all about deviating from the norm. I took this advice to heart because Darren, in 2005, started his own website SportsAgentBlog.com as a way of monitoring the trends in the sports agency business. Not only was his website a huge success, but Darren has gone on to own and operate his own sports agency (he’s been out of the agent business for quite some time), has served as a Forbes.com contributor for over a year, and will have his first book published on March 12, 2014, fittingly titled “How to Play the Game: What Every Sports Attorney Needs to Know.” Given Darren’s success, I figured that I should do something as creative, if not more.

After the symposium, I decided that it would be best to start my own sports law blog and update it frequently. However, after doing some comprehensive and thorough searching, I was discouraged because every sports law blog I found was a written blog. If I had any shot of making my name in the sports law world, I had to be better than half of the sports law blogs out there. But then I took a closer look and realized that none of the blogs were video blogs. In addition, I had experience in high school and college filming, and I had a camera lying around at home. I figured it would be incredibly creative to make the very first sports law video blog on the Internet. I spent much of November coming up with a name for my blog, designing a logo, and building a website before Law and Batting Order was officially launched on December 23, 2011.

In its two-year history, my objective with LABO has remained the same: to provide law students, lawyers, and the Average Joe the most comprehensive sports law news they’ll receive anywhere. That means breaking down the legalese in a judicial decision or in a statute and explaining what it means in plain English. So for example, this past summer, one of the biggest headlines was when former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with obstruction of justice prior to his first degree murder charge. While all the news outlets were reporting this, no one explained what “obstruction of justice” means, at least in the Massachusetts jurisdiction. That’s when I stepped in. I’ve done this with almost every single episode of LABO and it has paid off dividends.

LABO has served as a reliable resource to those in the sports law community. It has allowed me to network with some of the most brilliant minds in sports law, including my very own mentor Darren Heitner. I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing some prominent names in sports. I interviewed Ted Sundquist (the former GM of the Denver Broncos), Mark Fainaru-Wada (an ESPN investigative reporter who broke the BALCO scandal that created drug-testing in Major League Baseball), and even US Olympian DeeDee Trotter (see all videos here). These were people I never imagined connecting with, but I was persistent and managed to sell my brand to them and they were willing and open to joining me on LABO as guests.

I also attribute the success of LABO to social media. It is an immensely powerful tool. My viewers have been very supportive, and they have constantly shared my material with members in the sports law community. Without their support on Facebook or Twitter, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m currently in.

How has LABO led to other opportunities for you? What opportunities? And how?

In addition to helping me network with sports law and sports business professionals, I have been recognized for my work with LABO by many publications and other media outlets. Most notably, I was featured by an online law blog called “The Student Appeal” for my work with LABO. In addition, I was interviewed for the very first time on local public television here in NYC on a show called “Today’s Verdict with David Lesch.” I was even solicited by Pace Law School’s IP Sports and Entertainment Law Forum to write an article and, in May 2013, I officially became a published author.

I never like to toot my own horn, but it became very clear that I was unlike the average law student. I wasn’t on law review and I certainly wasn’t in the top 15 percent of my class. However, I networked with many people and built a brand and an identity in law school that will at the very least give me some recognition as I walk out the doors of my law school and enter the real world.

How have you incorporated your passion for sports law into your activities, endeavors, and studies as a law student?

Sports law has been my life and central career focus since I began law school. It was a no-brainer that I wanted to play an active role in my school’s sports law society. During my second year of law school, I played an active role in my society’s social media team. I became Vice President for the 2013-2014 school year. I was also co-chair of our society’s 5th Annual Sports Law Symposium, which just occurred on February 21, 2014.

Additionally, just as I am passionate to learn about new trends in sports law, I have always been passionate to learn in the classroom. Admittedly, constitutional law wasn’t my bread and butter. Yet, do you know how relevant it became when I learned about the supremacy clause, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington, and the legal implications it could have on athletes and teams that are in those states? It suddenly became an interesting topic. This is just one of many examples of how my curiosity to learn about the law has applied to my interest in sports law.

Tell us about your internship experiences – how did you get to work for the network? How did LABO differentiate you? In your experience, what were the defining factors that got you into ABC News?

My internship opportunities weren’t served to me on a silver platter. In fact, not only did I have to keep LABO consistent and going, but I had to make sure that I was at the top of my academics game from beginning to end. After my first year of law school, I had the distinct honor of serving as a research assistant for my torts professor, who has a deep passion for media and its role in the law. Then, I satisfied New York State’s 50-hour pro-bono requirement by volunteering at a battered women’s legal service firm called Sanctuary for Families. These opportunities certainly primed me for perhaps my best internship experience to date, which was at ABC News Rights and Clearances.

I actually found the job on my birthday, on April 5. By then, I had sent out easily over 80 resumes and cover letters to the legal departments of sports teams and leagues as well as law firms with a sports law practice requesting internship opportunities for the summer of 2013. I only got five responses, all of them saying, “thanks, but no thanks.” It was hard because I know after talking to upperclassmen in law school that your internship after your 2L year can potentially define your career opportunities after graduation. I knew it was imperative to make a big splash and find a great opportunity. So I rethought my strategy and decided to apply to the ABC News Rights and Clearances internship after finding it on the Disney Careers website. I figured that I had nothing to lose. Sure enough, on April 8, I got a call back expressing interest, I went in for a two-hour interview on April 12 at the Rights and Clearances office, and on April 16, I got the job.

What appealed to me about this job is that it’s purely intellectual property work, specifically copyright work. I know I’ve said that I want to work in sports law, but I’ve zeroed in specifically on intellectual property law as a particular avenue that I am interested in working in as well. ABC News Rights and Clearances is fully devoted to making sure that any third-party content that the network uses, such as photos or videos, is cleared for use.

Looking back at the process by which I was selected, I’m certain that LABO was one factor that earned me the internship. As I said, I may not be on law review, but I sure knew how to differentiate myself from the ordinary law student. I showcased my brand to the people at ABC News and they appreciated the value of it. But I also think my background in communications and media studies was relevant. Yes, anyone can work in network news, but you need to know what it takes to work in such a fast-paced environment. Thankfully, I’ve had experience working in a newsroom and I think that was another factor that earned me the internship.

Do you ever feel like attending NYLS is an obstacle you have to overcome? How big of an obstacle? What does the competition feel like as a NYLS student? Has being from NYLS helped you in surprising ways in terms of the support you receive there versus someone at another law school?

I never thought attending NYLS was an obstacle. Sure, the school had been under much scrutiny over the years, but partially because the media wrote blatant lies about the school and its reputation. Perhaps NYLS should have carried out a better crisis management plan. Not to mention that everyone and their mother rated NYLS as a third-tier law school, sometimes fourth-tier.

However, I must say that NYLS is no different than any other law school. NYLS is the oldest private school in New York City. Yet, it has less endowments annually than Columbia or Fordham. So what? As far as I’m concerned, I’m still learning the same contracts law cases that John Smith is learning over at Harvard. Additionally, NYLS has a stellar list of faculty and staff that are accessible and down to earth to talk to. Plus, at NYLS, I’m only four blocks away from all the NYC courthouses, including the federal courthouse. Can it really get any better than that?

Many people may care about what law school you attended, but I think it’s irrelevant. It’s more important to pay attention to the most important factor: how will you utilize that law degree? I am so certain that the education I have received at NYLS and the resources that I have utilized in my three years there will prepare me for what’s to come when I enter the real world. I can guarantee that.

What are your plans for the future? Any regrets? Any advice for people who are choosing a law school? What is important in this choice? How can people make the most of the opportunities they have at any law school?

My plans, God willing, are to graduate in May, take the NY and NJ bar exams in late July and enter to workforce. I’m currently looking for work opportunities. In a perfect utopian society, I’d love to stick around at ABC News Rights and Clearances. I have become so acquainted with the course of business there. Plus, I love working in-house. I’m working for the interest of one client: the network. Although I do hope that I have the opportunity to work in sports law, as I have worked very hard to reach that goal. One of my biggest goals is to have some years in practice and ultimately become a legal journalist. Ever since starting LABO, I’ve always thought that it has the potential to cross platforms from the Internet to TV. I think people are interested in learning about the law, and if they can learn with a fun platform like LABO, I think it could be really successful.

I look back at my law school career and don’t have any regrets. Every moment was a learning experience that motivated me to become a better student, worker, and thinker. For those of you choosing law school, do not be discouraged about your LSAT grade or even your transcript. At the end of the day, those are just numbers. Rather, pick a law school where you will acclimate well and learn. And most importantly, sell your brand during the admissions process. You are your best salesperson. If you successfully showcase yourself to the admissions office, your path to getting enrolled in law school will get easier.

Once you’re in law school, I’d highly recommend narrowing in on a particular area of law or niche that you’re interested in working in. Once you’ve done that, invest time working in that area of law. So if you’re passionate about criminal defense law, I’d recommend attending criminal defense networking events hosted by your school or local or state bar association. I’d also do a rough Google search for criminal defense attorneys in your area and connect with them via email. Even use social media! Half of the attorneys I met in sports law were solely thanks to social media. It’s a very powerful tool – if it’s used correctly. And it goes without saying that you should pursue internships in the area of law that you’re interested in.

Any parting words?

I can’t stress enough how important it is to build your brand in law school. Be unique. Be creative. Do something that the average law school student hasn’t done. Yes, I may not be on law review, on moot court, or in a high ranking in my class. But, I have made fantastic connections in the sports law community and I have built my brand in the sports law world that is revolutionary.

Also, if you’re applying to law schools, do not be discouraged by law school rankings. They can only be so accurate. Do your due diligence, investigate and research the schools that interest you, and if you like it, go ahead and apply.

I am always looking forward to connecting with students, so if you ever want to connect with me, please do! I’m a real person like you. You can find me on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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