Vol. 39 No. 5
By Carla J. DeVelder
Carla J. DeVelder, a former law school associate dean with experience in student affairs and career development, is in-house counsel in the insurance industry in Omaha, Nebraska.
It is the fortunate law student who manages to make the planets align in such a way that he or she is attending the law school of his or her choice, which just happens to be located in the city from which he or she hails and in which he or she plans to live and practice after law school. For those individuals, a whole host of job search issues (networking opportunities, integrating into the bar, articulating their interest in a geographic area, etc.) become moot, allowing for a singularly focused job search.
For most, however, things are a bit more complicated. Our top-choice law school is far flung from our top choice city of residence and our studies have taken us far away from where we grew up. Such scenarios do make a job search an extra challenge. With some planning and creative effort, these challenges can be conquered and the long-distance job search can be successful.
Many law students, eager to enter the profession and gain meaningful experience, cast too wide of a geographic net, declaring, “I will work anywhere.” While the spirit behind that statement is admirable, effectively executing such a broad search is almost impossible. A meaningful long-distance search requires additional time and costs that just can’t be borne when spread across the entire United States. Choose a locale (or two) based on your career goals, personal interests, or family connections. Think about what practice areas dominate certain locations. For example, if you are interested in government jobs or lobbying, focus on Washington, D.C., or a state capital. If you want a career in entertainment law, think about concentrating your job search on Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville. If you are choosing based on family connections, research the local legal community as to practice areas and type of employers. Let your research drive you as you select coursework, become active in extracurricular activities, or pursue externships and internships.
ARTICULATE YOUR PLAN
Once you’ve chosen your location, be able to articulate why it is your choice. Most employers will want to know why you want to work in their city as well as why you want to work for them. Practice your response to both of these questions. If your reason for either one is tenuous, you will weaken your chances of getting the job. As you articulate your reasons, think in terms of both quantity and quality. If your sole reason for job searching in San Diego is because your girlfriend lives there, you need to create additional connections (quantity). If your sole reason for job searching in Charlotte is based on North Carolina’s great outdoor activities, you need to create connections to your professional goals, not just your personal interests (quality).
Be ready to combat employer fears at the outset of your application as some employers won’t bother to review or contact an applicant who shows no connection to the area. Integrate this information into your application materials wherever possible. Consider using the local address of a family member on your résumé to indicate a connection. A couple of rules on this practice: Make sure to discuss this with the family member in advance (to get permission and to make sure they alert you to any correspondence sent to you at that address) and do not lie if asked about the address. If an employer questions the local address on your résumé, let them know that this is a family member’s address and that you are using it as a transition address while you relocate and find a permanent place of your own. If you are returning to the town in which you grew up after extensive time away, consider adding your high school back into the educational section of your résumé to highlight your roots. Of course, every cover letter sent should contain a line or two describing, in both quantity and quality, what connects you to the area.
When interviewing, discuss your relocation plans in a concrete way that makes an employer realize that your intentions are serious, even if you are not offered a position with that firm. For example, saying “Well, if offered this position, I will probably move right after the bar exam” does not instill confidence in an employer that you are committed to their area. Instead, be able to discuss the details of your plan, such as “I’ll be moving to Minneapolis right after my law school graduation. I’ll be staying with family at the address on my résumé while I study and sit for the Minnesota bar exam. I’d be available to start a position with your firm after the bar exam is over.” A statement like this gives an employer a higher level of reassurance that your plans really do include a commitment to their locale. While taking care not to name-drop, make sure that you convey your involvement in the local legal community to your interviewer. Be able to talk about issues or individuals who are impacting the practice in that area.
MAKE YOURSELF A LOCAL
If you aren’t a local, the next best thing you can do for your job search is to make yourself as local as possible. You can’t go back and relocate your childhood, but you can certainly take steps to impact your current and future status in your community.
Join local bar associations. Many state and city bar associations allow, for a nominal fee, law students to join the associations. If your target city does not, contact them and ask them to consider it. Once you have joined, make sure to list your membership in the professional associations section of your résumé. After that, be as involved as you can be from afar. Make sure to read the newsletters or online bulletins and reach out to the authors of articles that interested you or pertain to your career goals. Be knowledgeable about the current leadership of the association and the current issues and events. When possible during semester breaks, attend bar functions to network.
Spend time there. Make sure you are familiar with and spend time in your target city. You want to let employers know that you know what the area is like and that you are comfortable there. If you are job searching in a particular area of the city, spend time there as well. If all the law firms are in a particular area, know which trains take you there, the nearby lunch spots, and the local watering holes. This will show your familiarity with the city and give you topics of conversation while networking.
Arrange networking opportunities and interviews during your visits. If you will be in your target city for spring break, start contacting employers three weeks in advance to try to arrange interviews. Send your cover letter and résumé first and follow up with a phone call as your trip approaches. Employers will get an opportunity to meet with you with a minimal monetary commitment, which may prompt them to revisit your application materials and take you up on the offer. Fill holes in your schedule with networking opportunities such as meeting contacts for coffee and advice on the job search.
Work there. If at all possible, gain work experience and professional references in the area. Look for summer positions that will help you get your foot in the door. Investigate and create spring or semester break opportunities. Positions or projects for such a short duration are usually not advertised or even contemplated by employers. However, if presented with such an opportunity, many will be interested. This is especially true if you volunteer, so reach out to legal aid societies or lawyer referral services. The goal here is to get actual experience in your geographic area, so maintain flexibility in practice area. Offer to work long distance upon your return to law school, possibly doing project- based research or writing work.
FIND YOUR RESOURCES
As you integrate into your new community, you will quickly discover local resources. However, do not hesitate to ask along the way to make sure you aren’t missing any opportunities. Many local bar associations have job postings, either online or in printed newsletters. Check with your law school to see if there is an alumni group in the area or to get the contact information for one or two alumna in that city. Ask those individuals who else you should talk to or what other resources might be available. Stop in the career services office to discuss possible reciprocity with a law school in that area to tap into local job listings for students and lawyers.
Perseverance and consistency are vital to a long-distance job search. Your credibility with employers will be bolstered by consistent follow-up. Make sure you continue to express interest and nurture your network, strengthening and deepening your connection to the area. In doing so, you greatly increase the chances that an employer will look beyond the local law school applicants and take a serious interest in you.
Carla J. DeVelder, a former law school associate dean with experience in student affairs and career development, is in-house counsel in the insurance industry in Omaha, Nebraska .