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Q: I graduated from a Top 25 law school in 1996. My grades were not great (top 75 percent). I have done some investment banking, and I have spent a few years in financial planning. I did pass the Bar. I now want to practice law. I am considering practicing estate planning/tax. I would be looking for a junior associate position, yet most law firms are recruiting at law schools for these positions. I have not had much luck. How do I market myself to law firms? Is it too late for me? Better Late Than Never A: Dear Better Late Than Never: It may be too late for you to find a position at a large law firm. That does not mean that you can never practice estate planning/tax. You must be realistic about your likely options. When you refer to your not having “much luck” in finding an entry-level position, you attribute it to “most law firms … recruiting at law schools for these positions.” Limiting your universe of potential employers to large firms is an inherent problem in your job search strategy. You are correct that large firms are seeking law students to fill their first-year associate class. Most of next year’s entry-level positions are taken by students who were associates in their firm’s summer program; the firm fills any remaining positions through recruiting 3Ls during the fall. In addition, the firms are seeking candidates who have certain accomplishments, such as excellent grades or participation on a journal. Unfortunately, you do not fit their criteria. You express an interest in estate planning/tax, which seems to mean tax issues related to trusts and estates, as opposed to corporate transactions. If a large firm has a trusts and estates department, it is staffed by a very small group of attorneys. As a result, large firms have limited opportunities, if any, for attorneys who are interested in estate planning. Unfortunately, large firms do not fit your criteria. You must develop a strategy that goes beyond targeting large firms. This is true even if you are interested in pursuing a tax practice that is broader than trusts and estates. The large firms may have a few more openings in their tax departments; however, if you are applying to them for tax, it appears that your credentials are still not attracting their attention. By targeting small to medium-sized firms, you are likely to have more “luck.” Many of them are interested in hiring well-qualified attorneys, and at the same, they are often more flexible about grades if they perceive that your practical experience has overcome your academic shortcomings. In addition, if you can demonstrate the ability to bring in business, you can enhance your prospects. It is a very appealing skill which can assure a firm that you can attract enough work to justify adding an attorney. Research the firms. Networking with alumni and other contacts is an excellent way to get started. As always, it is the most effective means for making a transition. Sending or e-mailing can be part of your job search strategy, as long as you keep in mind that it is usually low-yield for several reasons: (1) If a firm has no openings, you have no further chance of expanding your contacts. (2) If the firm has an opening, you are competing with dozens of other candidates, many of whom will have direct experience in the practice area. You have a poor chance of being seen as a viable candidate if no one has paved the way for you to discuss your credentials with the firm for 20 minutes or more, and instead, the firm’s recruiter reviews two pieces of paper (your resume and cover letter that show fewer qualifications) in less than a minute. (3) A firm with an available position is inclined to hire a candidate who becomes known to it through networking, rather than go through a stack of resumes from complete unknowns. Before you start networking, think about whether you are interested in estate planning and related tax issues, or corporate tax, or other areas of tax, or all of the above. Then, you can develop an approach that emphasizes your transferable skills. As a financial planner, like many people in that field, you probably divided your time between bringing in clients and servicing them. Once again, business-getting is a significant asset. On the service side, you must have examined their finances and proposed investments. This probably included retirement and estate planning from a financial perspective. In your resume and cover letters, focus on the skills that would be useful from a legal perspective. Follow through during your job and informational interviews. Additionally, your investment banking experience may be helpful in making a transition to the extent that the work involved tax-related issues. You must also be ready to explain to employers why you are suddenly interested in practicing law and, specifically, estate planning/tax. Perhaps it is a logical progression from your prior experience, or it may have been the result of a specific experience that caused the light to go on. Whatever the reason, it must make sense to employers and it must be positive. If you approach it from the standpoint of disliking your non-traditional career path or a certain part of your background, you are likely to alienate interviewers. Prospective employers do not want to hire someone who is bad-mouthing former employers or is negative about his or her experience. You also diminish your qualifications so that it is difficult for employers to see you as a productive part of their team. To help make sense of your career move, and boost your credentials, find ways to gain background and practical experience. This can include CLE courses and volunteer work for organizations that deal with such matters as drafting wills and health care documents. An LL.M. in tax may be worthwhile, if you can afford it, and the degree will fill gaps in your background. At the same time, do not count on an LL.M. to increase your marketability to large law firms. Even if you have performed well, the advanced degree will not erase flaws in your underlying academic record as a J.D. student. Generally, large firms still look back to your earlier accomplishments and expect you to meet their hiring criteria. If you are truly interested in practice, it is never too late to seek a position. By marketing yourself properly, to the right audience, you give yourself the best chance of making a transition. It will take time and, perhaps, some “luck” in finding an employer that believes in your vision of yourself as an attorney engaged in estate planning/tax. Sincerely, Linda E. Laufer Linda Laufer is a career consultant and former practicing attorney.

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