Every year on or about Dec. 1, recruiting coordinators at large law firms around the country brace for an avalanche of hundreds or sometimes thousands of resumes and cover letters from eager and hopeful first-year law students seeking lucrative summer associate positions. The resumes, we career services folks hope, have been crafted to best highlight undergraduate and post-undergraduate experience and achievements. The cover letters, again we hope, have been carefully drafted to avoid boilerplate and to emphasize the skills the student can bring to a summer associate position. Certainly, students need well-written cover letters and resumes. My concern is more with the object of the frantic pre-finals flurry of resume bond paper.
The likelihood of a student actually landing one of these first-year summer associate positions is very small -- slightly better if one is at a top-ranked law school, has a technical background or is a member of the too-small pipeline of diverse students. Large firms are leery of hiring first-years as summer associates because they are expensive and, usually, end up taking the permanent offer from their second summer employer. Geographical ties may make it easier to land one of these jobs but are no guarantee.
The key factors driving this frenzy are, of course, the money and the big-firm cachet. Law school, even at a state institution, is extremely expensive -- but is also an investment. The Pavlovian response to the Dec. 1 date of sending out hundreds of resumes and generic cover letters seems ill-advised on several counts, not least of which is that it is not fun to begin one's legal job search with a stack of rejection letters.
To focus so narrowly on large law firms is to ignore the plethora of opportunities available to first-year students. These opportunities are, generally, not as well-paid as the summer associate positions but can provide excellent experience. To look at the variety of options means to take the long view of one's career.
For example, judicial externships, while nearly always unpaid, give a student a behind-the-scenes view of how law is made. Students can observe good attorneys and not-so-good attorneys in court. They can try out clerking for a summer and decide whether they might like to pursue a full-time clerkship position after graduation. Having a judge as an ally early in one's career is a huge benefit. Students can also improve their writing and build on what they learned in their first-year legal research and writing classes. Finally, students may be able to get credit for the externship and make their second-year course load a little lighter.
First-year students could also consider performing research for a professor. They can explore an area of law that interests them and develop a close relationship with a professor who can then serve as a mentor and perhaps recommend them for jobs later on.
There are also myriad government and nonprofit opportunities from the ACLU to the SEC to the public defender to Lawyers for the Creative Arts. Students can put their first-year knowledge to use while helping people. Since these organizations are chronically understaffed, students will get a lot of "real world experience" and often a good deal of client interaction. How uplifting to realize that all of the theory from first-year classes can actually be used to make the world, in some small way, a better place! Be forewarned though: The fact that these jobs do not pay much or at all does not mean that students can wait to apply until April. Even if interns are not paid, the attorneys are giving their time and are able to supervise a limited number of students. Oftentimes such positions can be funded through a law school organization or a local bar association or even by a large law firm.
Smaller law firms provide excellent summer opportunities. While they may not have full-time openings for after graduation, students will learn more about the business of law, get more time in court and firsthand experience with individual clients than in a large law firm. Some practice areas are almost exclusively the province of small firms: family law, plaintiffs work, residential real estate, civil rights and union-side labor law. Students often obtain these jobs by picking up the phone and catching a busy attorney at a free moment.
Corporate legal departments hire first-year students as interns. Students need to keep in mind, however, that a corporation with 40,000 employees may have a law department of 20 attorneys. These departments are not set up for training and supervising interns. When applying, students should point out what they can do and, if hired, be proactive about finding work.
Finally, there is, I think, in most law students a desire to find out about some "dream" area of law in which it may be difficult to find a job right out of law school: working at the Smithsonian or for a sports agency or for a First Amendment lobbying group. Or perhaps work in a U.S. embassy abroad. The first-year summer is truly the time to open the box of jobs as wide as possible and take the risk of exploring one's dream job.
SOME FINAL TIPS
Plan for the summer financially as an extension of the first year of law school. It may be hard to make a lot of money during the summer after first-year, but it is easy to learn and to get experience.
After a summer job, you will have a better idea of what kind of law you want to practice.
With the exception of a few jobs with early deadlines, the month of December should be used to study for finals. After finals and in January you will have plenty of time to focus on the job search.
In finding your summer job, networking may be your most in-demand skill. Be shameless and use every connection you have to land a job. Working for a relative is not a negative.
While it is important for your career to get some kind of legal experience for the summer, the type of experience does not matter as much as your enthusiasm for what you did.
William A. Chamberlain is assistant dean, Law Career Strategy and Advancement, Northwestern University School of Law.