As law school graduations bring three years of study to a close, some graduates are still trying to find work. For those who didn’t land a position during on-campus interviews, it’s time to map out a pragmatic plan for a successful job search.
Rather than a scattershot approach, a successful job search requires serious focus. There are far more effective ways to tackle a job search in today’s market than email-blasting resumes to law firms and corporations. Emailing a resume to strangers rarely yields positive results.
Instead, the savvy job seeker will treat the search for employment like a full-time job, filling each day with thoughtful actions designed to achieve well-considered career goals. A law school graduate who needs to take a nonlegal job to pay the bills still should prioritize the legal job search. Here are five steps to success.
Step 1: Get real. The first step is an honest assessment of qualifications and needs. It’s time for a clear-eyed evaluation of your credentials and skills.
• Where did you place in your law school class?
• Is there a specific type of practice or industry that interests you?
• Do you have any other professional experience that you can leverage?
• What market or industry would benefit from someone with your qualifications?
• In what sort of work environment do you thrive?
• Are you outgoing or more introverted?
• What compensation do you need — not want — to cover your living expenses?
• In what cities would you consider working?
Step 2: Identify resources. Next, make use of all available resources. Your law school’s career services office can connect students and graduates with the school’s alumni and provide additional suggestions and individual counseling. Their job is to help budding lawyers find work; take advantage of their expertise.
Also, there are some great resources available through the National Association of Law Placement (NALP) like Choosing Small, Choosing Smart: The Job Seeker’s Guide to Small Law Firms by Donna Gerson.
Step 3: Be flexible. After engaging in some serious soul searching about the types of jobs that fit with your skills, personality and geographic parameters, then consulting available resources, it’s time to take concrete steps to achieve that goal. It’s important to stay flexible and be open to what may appear to be less-than-ideal opportunities, which nonetheless may ultimately advance your career.
Early in my career, I had to come in the office early on a Saturday morning to look through boxes of discovery documents that had just been produced to us in a large commercial case. I was complaining on the inside about the tedium of the task, when a partner burst through my door and assigned me an appellate brief for a major newspaper publisher. If I hadn’t been in the office, who knows if I would have gotten that assignment? The serendipitous opportunity steered my practice toward both media law and appellate law.
Nontraditional fields can present opportunities for job seekers. "JD advantage" is a job category created by NALP and the American Bar Association, and it lists jobs that do not involve the practice of law but for which employers prefer or require a law degree. Some administrative positions in law firms and corporations in the areas of recruiting, business development, practice management and professional development benefit from the expertise of individuals with law degrees.
Job seekers should be open-minded to alternative career paths and options in government, politics, public service and public interest work. Also, many law firms hire lawyers for temporary contract positions. This may lead to a more permanent position — or at least provide current experience and positive references — and can help pay the bills for a period of time.
Step 4: Reconnect and branch out. A polished, typo-free resume with excellent references is a must. (Make sure the references have agreed to offer their recommendations.) But it’s only the beginning.
A legal-job seeker’s time is then best spent building a network of individuals who know his or her story. Every informational interview is a good opportunity to get the word out about your track record and potential.
Now is the time to take advantage of any connections (through family, friends, clergy, etc.) to meet in-person with people who can provide advice about your job search.
This doesn’t mean constantly asking for a job. Rather, it’s an opportunity to seek out people who can provide insights and refer you to other individuals who may have more ideas for your job search. Connections alone will not get you a job, but they do provide the opportunity to be recognized and to tell your story, and that may lead to a job.
Don’t limit your outreach to lawyers alone. Talk with successful business executives and entrepreneurs who use legal services to get their perspectives. In this world of electronic communications, never underestimate the power of face-to-face meetings and conversations.
Step 5: Stay active and engaged. The job-search process can be discouraging, particularly in today’s economy. It’s important to stay professionally active and involved throughout the process.
A good way to do this is to join the local young-lawyers’ association. Many allow law students to join. Attending events and becoming active in these organizations is a great way for law students and law school graduates to expand their networks to include everyone from solo practitioners to lawyers in large law firms.
In addition, these organizations are involved in pro bono work, which is another way for law students and new attorneys to develop practical skills that will enhance their qualifications. People interested in a particular industry, such as energy, health care or media, can join local professional groups to expand their networking circles.
Although the current market brings unique challenges to graduating law students, hard work and perseverance have always been a recipe for success. Be diligent and flexible, and confidently ask others for their assistance. Eventually, you will get a job. Remember, you only need one.
Tom Leatherbury of Dallas is the co-head of the appellate practice group at Vinson & Elkins and the chairman of the firm’s talent management committee.