I have been employed as an attorney for two years, which is not enough time to forget how painfully monotonous it was to send out an endless supply of cover letters and resumes with little hope that any of it would result in a job offer. I remember my friend Nathan who applied to nearly a hundred law firms. By the end of his 3L year, he literally wall papered his front hallway with rejection letters.
But do not despair. You only need one yes from a potential employer, and there are lots of ways to help make that happen. Now that I am on the other side, calling law school career development offices to help our firm hire law clerks, I can see what a lot of people do right and wrong in seeking employment. Not that I have a monopoly on successful job search tactics, but I can say that I am happy practicing the type of law I always wanted to practice at a firm that is doing well. You can achieve this too, and if you asked me how to do it, this is what I would say:
1. Convey That You Are a Hard Worker
Nothing beats good grades and seeming intelligence like hard work. The nature of the practice demands it. Inevitably, nearly every single legal writing assignment requires you to first locate the numerous legal principles that may apply, read them, understand them, and then transpose that information into something your boss finds useful like a motion or demand letter. This process is only successfully completed, and repeated with each new assignment, through diligence and commitment to good work product.
I still remember one of our first law clerks who told us in straightforward manner during his interview that he would work his ass off for us. His grades were not as good as many others in the stack of resumes we had that day. We hired him though because we believed him when he said he was a hard worker. As it turns out, he was telling the truth; he was one of the best law clerks we ever had. When he decided that bankruptcy was ultimately more interesting to him than insurance litigation, we wrote him an excellent letter of recommendation to an Atlanta firm. He got the job and works there today practicing corporate bankruptcy.
The fact is that law firms are businesses; in exchange for competitive salaries we want attorneys who produce good work at a fast pace. So don’t let your mediocre grades convince you that a job is out of your reach. As it turns out, the actual practice of law requires many skills that were not tested on all those three hour exams you took each semester. Hard work is the most important one though. There are lots of smart nice people out there that are highly unproductive at work because they are also lazy.
2. Apply to Jobs You Actually Want
I know that most law students are simply looking for a job, in fact any job, to help them pay down their student loans after graduation. I understand that pressure, but before you spend countless hours like my friend Nathan sending resumes and cover letters all over the country to any and every job that comes up on the latest career development office positing, take a moment and really think about what you actually want to do when you get that J.D.
Between the civil and criminal systems, state and federal court, and all the various practice areas, there really is a place for everyone, but you need to think about where you want to be and why. Many lawyers are unhappy because they work in a particular area of law that does not suit their personality or skill set. I doubt they took the time to really research the specialty they got into beforehand, and now it probably seems like too much work to switch and start over somewhere different.
For your own sake, take the time to figure out the area of law that you think you want to get into. Then focus your search on firms or other organizations online that do what you want to do. Call them up and ask them if you can do an assignment for them. Who cares if it does not turn into a job, or if they say no, just call the next firm on the list. You need to actively pursue those people who are doing professionally what you want to do.
Moreover, chances are you will find some common ground and will work well together. From my perspective, it is a rarity to come across a law student that is actively seeking to practice insurance litigation in the personal injury context because they genuinely find it interesting. But I know they are out there because I was one of them. So when a law student comes to my office for an interview and they can speak intelligently about the personal injury cases I have and the insurance laws that apply, I am going to pay attention to that person.
3. Use Your Career Development Office
You need to go beyond just reviewing and applying to the latest list serve job postings. Go to your law school’s career development office and introduce yourself, establish a relationship, let them know exactly what you are interested in. They likely have some insight or resource that applies specifically to your interests.
For instance, I knew I wanted to be a plaintiff’s lawyer, but I rarely if ever saw plaintiff firm job postings. So I went to the career development office and asked why that was the case. I was told that plaintiff firms tend to be smaller, and also more unpredictable in terms of the pace and volume of work. The plaintiff practice may be quiet for months and then suddenly you have six trials come springtime. Often times they get so busy that they don’t even take the time to find help when they need it most. They just muster through until the next slow down period.
This information was useful because I realized that if I wanted to get a job with a plaintiff firm I would not be able to just sit back and wait for it show up on the list serve. I needed to find those jobs myself, and that is what I did. Through a connection I made during law school, I was introduced to an attorney who was a partner at a plaintiff firm downtown looking for some legal writing assistance. So I started clerking for the firm, working long hours and staying up late writing briefs and motions. After about four months, I got offered a full-time job. As in virtually all aspects of life, good people can lead you in the right direction, but it is up to you to make it happen.
In an effort to help other law students that find themselves in the same predicament, I maintain a list of what I consider to be some of the best plaintiff and personal injury firms in New Orleans. I encourage people to take the list and simply call the firms up, and see if they need help. I know that at least two people have found clerking positions by calling those firms on my list directly. Successful firms are willing to pay for good work, but sometimes they need help finding you.
4. Be a Joiner
All of those groups, activities, and other events that are sponsored by your law school and which take place outside of your daily class schedule have value. They not only can be interesting, but they are opportunities to connect with new people and build relationships. Having the ability to make connections with lots of people will only help your job search.
You certainly may meet someone that may help you find a job, but the real value is long term. Employers like people that have the ability to go to functions, network, and make connections because all of that has the potential to bring in case referrals and new business. Those students with the best grades can make six figure salaries right out of law school at a New Orleans firm, but someone that can bring in tons of cases or a huge new client is worth a lot more.
5. Application Materials Should be Well Written and Free of Mistakes/Error
Again, I’m sure this seems pretty straightforward, but you would be surprised how many applications I get that have spelling or grammar mistakes. I agree that in the grand scheme of life typos are of little relevance, but in the practice of law they do matter. My job is to convince defense counsel to settle a case for a substantial sum of money or face trial. If defense counsel thinks that I don’t know the difference between “their” and “there,” he is probably going to be less intimidated by my threats of litigation. Posturing and leverage via written motion practice is a large part of pre-trial litigation. So you need to be able to write well. Show me you can do that in your job application, and I will be much more likely to think that you will be able to write well in practice.
6. Follow Up on Your Applications
It sounds simple enough, but few students actually do it. I appreciate it when I get an email or phone call from an inquiring law student who previously sent us their resume and cover letter. The fact is that we are super busy, and it is much easier to put someone’s job application on the back burner as opposed to answering discovery, sending a demand letter, or going to trial. So do yourself a favor, follow up with a phone call or email.