How To Start a Legal Career

The best time to start preparing for your legal career is while you're still in law school - during your very first year, as a matter of fact. But it's a long way from Torts class to a thriving practice with (paying) clients. This article will lead you through some simple steps you can and should take to get your career off to a flying start the minute you have license in hand. 

  1. Be active in your school's clubs and group activities, but be selective. Choose only those activities that you are sincerely interested in or concerned about. Don't sign up for the "Golfer's Legal Society" when you can't tell a putter from a five iron. (This is also good advice for networking as a practicing attorney down the road!)
  2. Your grades are your highest priority. Don't let anything get in the way of making the highest grades you can possibly make. Your first associate's position, as well as your summer jobs, will be dictated in large part by your ranking in your class. Bottom line: grades count. A lot.
  3. Try out for law review and Moot Court. Second only to grades in terms of how important they are to future employers, these two activities are "musts" for big-firm jobs, but they're impressive points on any resume.
  4. Get to know your future colleagues very well - especially the second and third year students. They'll be the best source of information around when it comes to what the local firms are really like.
  5. Take advantage of everything your Career Services office has to offer. Sign up for the videotaped practice interview sessions, the resume workshops, the image seminar - all of it. Take this process seriously, and realize you can't afford to say "no thanks" to assistance when it's offered. The legal profession is simply too competitive to leave it to your winning smile and awesome cite-checking abilities alone.
  6. Compete for summer jobs, and do your best to get a good one. Far from being simply nice options to have, a summer job with a firm is your best entrée to a paying position as an associate. If you do good work, and fit in well with the firm culture, there is no reason that you should not expect an offer of employment upon graduation.
  7. Use your summer position as a tool for evaluating practice areas. The legal profession is simply too complex these days not to specialize. While there are such things as general practitioners, the vast majority of attorneys will find the need to specialize in one area of the law, or to carve out a niche practice that focuses on a particular subject (motorcycles, for instance, or aviation). It's almost impossible to know what area you would be happiest in without some exposure to what the legal life is really like in that area.
  8. Don't hesitate to volunteer your time, even after you graduate. If you're interested in criminal work, find a high-profile criminal trial in your state and beg the lead defense attorney to let you help her for free. You'll get access and experience that will be invaluable later on - not to mention how impressive it sounds in an interview.
  9. If your goals lie more in the public interest arena, look for summer jobs as an intern in an agency of interest. Alternatively, find out which firms practice in that agency's jurisdiction and appear before it, or opposite it, and apply for a summer position there. You can often find out the most about an office or firm by working with someone who frequently opposes it. But be careful that you don't present an image as an enemy to the agency - first impressions are hard to shake.
  10. Treat finding your first associate position as a full-time job. Keep excellent records. Put in a full day's work making calls, sending resumes, going on interviews, etc. Most of all, don't give up. Helpful tip: If you've only sent out 100 resumes, you aren't doing enough.
  11. Join bar associations. Your county or region will typically have a bar association, as will your state. You can also join the American Bar Association or other national practice-oriented groups. Don't just pay your dues and sign up, though. Get involved. Ask to be placed on a committee of interest. Attend meetings, and offer to help officers with their administrative duties or group projects.
  12. Write articles. This is one of the best ways for an attorney to gain a reputation as an expert in his or her field. Don't just focus on law reviews. Look for publication opportunities in bar newsletters, consumer publications, and your local newspaper.
  13. Learn how to deal with the press early. Make yourself a valuable resource to local reporters, and you'll find yourself quoted in articles. Then, the next time a partner in a law firm has a crisis involving that issue, you might get a telephone call for assistance. That could lead to contract work or an offer of employment.
  14. Learn how to network effectively. Networking isn't schmoozing, randomly collecting business cards, or hitting up your friends for work. It's building relationships. It's helping others by looking for and steering them towards opportunities that are right for them (and for which they'll repay you later). It's building a community of support, of which you are a vital (but single) link.
  15. Conduct informational interviews. You're not looking for a job here (but carry your resume so you can hand one out if you're asked). Instead you're seeking advice and information only. Make a list of people who practice in the area you'd like to be involved in. Ask for 15 minutes of their time. Bring a list of questions, and listen to their responses. Ask what their day is typically like, how they got started in that practice area, where the majority of their clients originate, etc. It's not a time to sell yourself, but to be an information sponge. Soak it all up.
  16. Being selective is just as important as being assertive in seeking your first position. Don't hesitate to cross a firm off your list if you can't stand the loud-mouthed partner and the office is a mind-numbing 45-minute commute away, or if you're a free-spirited environmentally-conscious liberal and the associates all volunteer for "Republican Lawyers for Nuclear Energy" on the weekend. You aren't going to be happy, no matter how well they pay you. Cross it off, and move on to look for a firm that's a better fit with you. After three years of law school, it's the least you deserve!

 

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