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Timing is everything — especially in the cyclical world of attorney hiring. Before last year’s bonus checks could clear, we shifted from the students’ market of skyrocketing salaries and recruiting perks to the employers’ market of law clerks checking their egos at the door and working long hours in hopes of a job offer. For those who feel slighted by lousy timing, this economic climate presents some challenges that may actually help in the long run. Here are some ways you can make the most of these uncertain times and still land the job you want. � Self-assess: If startups, dot-coms or huge firms are not begging you to work for them, stop and ask yourself what you want to do with your law degree. Dust off that admissions application essay and remind yourself why you went to law school in the first place. Perhaps you went to law school to open your own firm in your hometown; maybe you wanted to work as an advocate for victims of domestic violence; maybe you dreamed of becoming a U.S. Attorney. Reassess your initial goal, and do not let your classmates’ ambitions become your own. Some honest soul-searching now could save you a bundle in therapist bills later. Focus on what you want to do and not necessarily where. For example, determine if you want to work in private practice — the size and type of firm can come later. Consider what is important to you. Do you need to help people? Do you want to be in the courtroom? Do you want to combine your law degree with your previous work experience as an engineer? The next two steps of this plan should help you answer these questions. � Get experience: While studying the law is essential to becoming an attorney, learning to apply the law is just as important. Delve into the real world and get practical experience. This will help you in many ways. First, it will help you answer the crucial question: “What do I want to do with my law degree?” Spending a few weeks working on patent applications may change your plans for a career in intellectual property or you may be bitten by the trial bug after your first jury trial in the prosecution clinic. Whether you love it or hate it, working in a court, agency, firm, corporation or public interest organization will give you a better sense of what you want to do. Second, gaining practical experience will make you more marketable. Often a part-time job becomes a permanent job, or, at a minimum, it provides material for your r�sum� and something to discuss in your next interview. You’d be surprised by how many “there is no permanent offer available” jobs turn into just that — a permanent job. Simply knowing how to pronounce voir dire and to draft a summary judgment motion and to answer discovery will impress an employer — sometimes more than class rank. � Get in there: Do the work quickly and precisely, and you can become invaluable to a busy attorney. Many attorneys do not have the time to train new lawyers; therefore, a candidate who can come in and make herself indispensable will most likely get the job. Finally, understand that experience is not limited to high-paying clerkships. Consider working during the school year, with or without pay. Take advantage of your school’s clinics, trial advocacy programs and advocacy competitions to develop practical skills. Try to complete an externship with a court or agency. Ask a professor if you can be his research assistant. If corporate work is slow, extern for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Yes, you must pay for the credit hours, but you could not pick a better time to learn about securities regulation and enforcement. Volunteer. Ask any legal employer if you can work for free and most will be impressed with your motivation and probably hard-pressed to turn you down. Most lawyers are tired of young lawyers getting paid so much and should find an offer to volunteer quite refreshing. Remember that volunteering for an agency or judge and doing substantive work may be more impressive than a paid position as a file clerk with a firm. Also, pro bono legal service providers always are in need of volunteers, and the cases provide great learning opportunities. BE A JOINERReach out: Embracing your community often goes hand in hand with assessing your goals and getting experience. Take advantage of your law school network and your local bar associations to meet attorneys and build your reputation. If you do not know what you want to do or you need experience, ask your professors about different practice areas. Most of your professors have practiced law and can provide objective insight. Adjunct professors also can be helpful in this regard. Get a list of your college or law school alumni who practice law in your preferred city and visit with them over the phone or in person. (Hint: Lawyers love to talk about themselves.) Ask them why they chose their particular field, what they like or do not like about it and what experience helped them get there. Join your local bar associations and attend meetings and continuing legal education seminars about current topics. For example, the Dallas and Houston bar associations have a section for every practice area under the sun, and they are great about welcoming students. The people you meet at a young lawyers association happy hour, the professor for whom you researched, the firm where you worked as a clerk or the attorneys you worked with at the bar association Habitat for Humanity project may not be able to offer you permanent employment, but they all can serve as mentors, introduce you to other attorneys, and provide references about your work and your character. � Be persistent, flexible: Now that you have refined your goal, gained experience and made connections, you are ready to develop your specific game plan. Your law school’s career services office can help you attain your goal and give you specific information about hurdles or timing issues you should anticipate. You should work with a career services counselor every step of the way. He can advise you on how to narrow your options, get experience and network, among other things. For example, if your goal is to be a prosecutor at a district attorney’s office, a career services counselor should applaud the fact that you volunteered at a DA’s office during school and worked as a student attorney in the criminal defense clinic. The counselor would encourage you to apply to DAs’ offices in several counties and caution you that many district attorney offices do not hire until you’re licensed. Another example: If you want to work for a small bankruptcy firm, a counselor would certainly encourage you to take one or more bankruptcy courses, and perhaps corporate planning and secured transactions. In addition, your counselor should encourage you to take classes from prominent individuals in your area of interest. It would be a missed opportunity to bypass these classes. Get to know your professors, ask them about their experiences and listen to their advice. (Hint: Attorneys who teach do so because they like students.) Try to work for a bankruptcy firm during law school. If your grades are not stellar, take classes during summer school so you will have time to work during the fall and spring semesters. Often, school-year clerkships are less competitive and less GPA-focused than summer clerkships, but the experience you gain may be even more hands-on. At this point, your counselor should encourage you to ask your contacts for names of bankruptcy attorneys and firms and help you craft targeted letters to each. The key to making the most of your career services office is to start visiting it early in your law school career. The best counselor in the world cannot work miracles for a student who is graduating with no clue as to what he wants to do, no practical experience and no contacts in the community. With the exception of a student’s first semester, career services should be viewed as a required course every semester. It is never too late to start, but late comers may delay their success and will need extra doses of persistence and flexibility. EYES ON THE PRIZE So what about being persistent and flexible? Oftentimes a student’s goals may not match exactly with other circumstances, such as the state of the economy, an employer’s hiring criteria or a student’s personal situation. Here is just one example of how persistence and flexibility are essential to a job search. A student really wanted to practice appellate law. She did a volunteer clerkship at the Dallas Court of Appeals and learned that a judicial clerkship or briefing attorney position is an impressive credential in private appellate practice. She felt certain that the judge for whom she volunteered would hire her, but the judge unexpectedly resigned, and the other Dallas judges already had hired their clerks. She quickly applied to every appellate court judge in the state and was offered a position with the Texarkana Court of Appeals. She accepted it, kissed her 2L boyfriend good-bye and moved to Texarkana. She gained great experience, honed her writing skills and developed a life-long relationship with the judge. At the end of her clerkship, she went to work for the appellate section of a firm in Houston — a firm that did not interview her during on-campus interviews. (This is a true story — and that 2L boyfriend eventually became her husband.) This example and countless others show that achieving your goal may require short-term sacrifice or taking your second or third choice now to get your first choice later. Flexibility and persistence require that you think long term. If your goal is not immediately attainable, you should be willing to take a reasonable risk if it puts you closer to reaching your goal. Yes, the job market may be tightening a bit, but this economy does have its advantages. If these times force law students to assess their goals carefully, gain the right experience and connect with their communities, young lawyers will find greater satisfaction in the practice of law — and that is something that benefits our entire profession. Kelly Noblin is the assistant dean for career services at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in Dallas. She graduated from the law school in 1992 and practiced with Andrews & Kurth and Crouch & Hallett before joining the career services department in 1998. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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