Prior to the 19th century, eager would-be lawyers never set foot in a brick-and-mortar school of law. Rather, they served as apprentices to established attorneys who instructed them in the lessons of the law through observation and hands-on experience.
Over the years, this model changed: Law schools were established, providing students with a formal curriculum focused on classroom discussion. As of the early 20th century, post-graduate education became a requirement for admission to the bar.
In the more modern legal times of the late 20th and 21st centuries, another trend emerged: Law students would enter law school and immediately upon graduation begin their first job at, more often than not, a private-sector law firm.
Law schools embraced the concept of modern apprenticeship in the forms of externships and clinics during law school. However, newly minted lawyers raced to begin their careers following graduation and typically relegated these experiences to the period of time before they were handed their diplomas. This was a stark contrast to other fields, such as medicine, where a post-graduate internship is the standard for a complete education.
But with the shift of the financial landscape over the past few years, a new trend materialized. The recruiting and employment patterns that employers and students alike had come to expect were disrupted by the Great Recession. The NALP Foundation estimates that somewhere between 3,200 and 3,700 students from the class of 2009 were deferred from their law firms.
Suddenly, the market was flooded with junior legal talent and the legal “internship” (used loosely here to also include fellowships, clerkships, etc.) was elevated to a new level — eagerly pursued by recent graduates looking to fill the time of a deferral, fill out the substance of a resume or obtain temporary employment.
And while judicial clerkships have been sought after for many years, the zeal with which students began to pursue these opportunities was unprecedented. Applications made to judges for post-law school clerkships via the OSCAR system nearly doubled between 2008 and 2009, the time when the economy collapsed.
Though these recent graduates certainly may not have wished for their careers to unfold in the middle of an economic disaster, there is a silver lining. Students and law firms alike are realizing there is a lot to be learned from post-graduate opportunities. Internship, clerkship and fellowship numbers continue to soar with stiff competition for these experiences. In fact, online judicial clerkship applications have generally held steady at the 2009 levels for the past two years, even as the economy begins to rebuild itself and deferrals are less common.
Many firms, including Saul Ewing, welcome the opportunity to see bright, talented lawyers return after a post-graduate clerkship or internship with polished legal skills and a mature perspective. Let the evidence speak for itself: Below are the lessons learned from two such associates.
Courtney L. Schultz, an associate in the Philadelphia office, spent a year as associate general counsel at Arcadia University from 2009-10.
While working in the general counsel’s office at Arcadia, I quickly learned to adapt. I learned something new about the law every day. My responsibilities predominantly included drafting university policies, providing compliance training programs, drafting, negotiating and reviewing contracts and advising the university on any number of matters of importance at any particular time. This broad range of responsibilities often required learning on the fly. Every day was something new, and I soon realized that it was pointless to plan each day — the plan always changed.
The biggest lesson that I took away from this experience is that until you try something, you have no idea whether you will like it or whether you will be good at it. Indeed, at the end of my summer at Saul Ewing, when it came time to rank my department choices, I had many interests, but litigation was not one of them. After spending almost a year at Arcadia, I realized that I wanted to take a second look at litigation. This was just one of a number of lessons I learned during my time there.
So, how does my experience translate into a how-to guide for first-year associates? A few thoughts:
• Make sure that your department’s assigning partner is aware of what practice areas interest you.
• Reach out to partners who do the kind of work you think you might like. This will show them you are interested in what they do and they will think of you the next time a new matter comes in the door.
• Don’t be afraid to try something new and a little out of your comfort zone — you might surprise yourself.
• It is important to acknowledge early in your career as an associate that in order to be an effective advocate you will be required to learn a great deal about the business worlds in which your clients operate. This knowledge is invaluable and will probably help you on another case in the future, so dive in.
At the end of the day, much of my advice falls into the category of being your own advocate. In the back of your mind, always think about whether you are getting all of the opportunities that you need in order to become the best attorney you can. If you are not getting those experiences, speak up and ask — no one can help you get what you want if you do not take the first steps yourself.
Joey Tsu-Yi Chen, currently an associate in the firm’s Baltimore office, served as a judicial clerk to Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Stuart R. Berger (then a judge on the Circuit Court for Baltimore) from 2010-11.
Now that I have nearly completed my first year at a law firm, I have come to realize that relationships are the key to generating business. Of course, producing high-quality work and evincing professionalism are fundamental to any workplace, but in a service profession such as ours, maintaining good client relationships for business development is a no-brainer. As a first-year associate, learning how to build rapport with clients can be challenging. Nevertheless, building relationships early in one’s career is critical and need not begin with paying (or even nonpaying) clients. In fact, developing this skill with other attorneys inside your firm, particularly senior attorneys, serves the dual purpose of both adding to your job satisfaction and establishing potential sources of work.
I did not begin practicing law immediately after graduating law school. Rather, I chose to spend a year clerking for a state court judge, who over the course of the year presided over both civil and criminal jury trials. As an aspiring litigator, I thought, “What better way to start my career than with an insider’s perspective of the court system?” It was here that I began forging important relationships with judges and clerks of that court. My judge was my client, and the other members of the courthouse, from law clerks to staff, were my colleagues. It was my job to represent and protect the interests of my client, not only within the judiciary, but also to the legal community at large. The judge relied on me to assist him, and attorneys looked to me as a point of contact for those cases on the judge’s docket.
Transitioning from law clerk to practitioner, while the face of the client has changed, the importance of relationships has not. As a junior associate in a law firm, particularly a first-year associate, your immediate client is the higher-level associate or partner in the firm who can give you work. To cultivate these relationships, be visible and proactive in your firm. Attending firm events and firm-sponsored events are great ways to show initiative and get to know other attorneys who could be potential sources of work for you or resources to assist your development as a lawyer.
Outside the firm, it is important to be active in your personal and professional communities, not only for work-life balance but also as potential sources of business development later in your career. Bar associations, for example, provide excellent opportunities to meet and network with others in the legal community. Get involved in your community, establish your relationships early, and allow them to grow and bear fruit for your practice.
Just as relationships are the key to building business, communication is the key to fostering good relationships. The adage that comes to mind is “knowledge is power.” In the workplace, people do not like surprises. The best practice is to keep your client in the know. Start by getting a sense of how much the responsible attorney wants to be informed regarding your progress on the assignment. Does your assignment necessitate progress “checkpoints”? Good communication can assist the supervising attorney’s decision-making — i.e., how he or she wants to use that information for the client’s benefit. A word of caution: Not all communication is good, however, and it is important to exercise common sense and good judgment regarding the information you decide to share and with whom you choose to share the information. As long as you are mindful of your audience, and tailor your communication accordingly, you will enhance your credibility with your audience and lay foundations for strong relationships.
Know Thy Neighbor
While the two anecdotes above make it clear that there is much to be learned during an internship, clerkship or other hands-on educational opportunity, they also shed light on another important lesson: Your colleagues are a rich source of advice and insight. Though you may not have worked in a judge’s chambers, the second- or third-year attorney in the office next to you may have. Draw on the collective experience of your peers whenever possible.
Joey Tsu-Yi Chen is a litigation associate resident in Saul Ewing’s Baltimore office.
Meri J. Kahan is the manager of attorney recruitment firmwide.
Courtney L. Schultz is a litigation associate resident in the firm’s Philadelphia office.