You’re not a law student anymore. Ok, technically you are. But for students, if you are in your final semester of law school, it’s time to adjust how you view and market yourself. Legal employers aren’t hiring you to serve as an understudy. You’re being cast as a professional member of the team who will be expected to contribute independently to the organization’s work and client base in substantial ways.
You’re getting hired to be a lawyer.
Up until now many of you have billed yourself to employers and clinical supervisors as an eager student who can assist and support with thorough research and precise writing. Writing and research are forever relevant tools to our trade, but they aren’t enough to make you stand out in a post-graduate job search. You need to define yourself as a ready-to-practice lawyer on your résumé, in your cover letters, and during interviews.
Below you’ll find responses to career-related questions commonly asked by students looking for lawyer positions. If you’re not at the threshold of graduation, consider this column a road map to what’s in your near future.
What changes should I make to my cover letters when looking for post-graduate employment?
Employers are inclined to hire the candidate who is equipped to hit the ground running. Ditch the language in your cover letters that singularly touts your research and writing experience. Replace it with evidence of diverse practical skills. Highlight your capacity to do rather than to support.
The second paragraph of a cover letter is vital to establishing your fit with the organization and your propensity to excel as a lawyer. Draft topic sentences that promote your readiness. The following are effective paragraph starters written by students.
My hands-on experiences and successes working with family law clients at an area firm and a pro se family law clinic have prepared me to join your law firm and assume responsibilities on matters of divorce, custody, and alimony . . .
Over the past nine months I worked as a licensed student practioner with the Brown County District Attorney’s Office. This position, combined with my criminal law-focused studies, give me the substantive knowledge and courtroom experience to immediately contribute to your office. I have proven competencies in managing case files, employing good judgment, and appearing in court, including in a jury trial . . .
My on-point work in editing and drafting contracts in the legal department of a Fortune 500 company and my previous success in developing a book of business as an insurance agent have prepared me to achieve as an associate attorney with your business law team . . .
How do I compete against people with experience?
Employers often consider a range of experience levels when hiring. Unless you know the employer wants someone with zero years of experience, you’re not helping yourself by reminding the employer you haven’t practiced yet.
Don’t tether your candidacy to your student status by using phrases like: “As a recent graduate,” “As a student prepared to graduate in May,” or “While working as a law clerk.” You shouldn’t mislead employers or embellish your experiences. You should, however, be conscious of word choices. For example, once you’re admitted to practice, you can and should refer to yourself as lawyer or attorney.
Draft cover letters with a focus on your experience and skills rather than the fact you obtained these skills as a student. Compare the following paragraphs to better understand how this can be accomplished. The employer was recruiting candidates with zero to two years of experience.
I will graduate in May 2011 and am excited to assist you and your partners in your civil litigation practice. As a student, I took pre-trial and trial advocacy courses, which I excelled in and enjoyed. I also worked as a law clerk for a personal injury law firm where I saw all stages of the litigation process. My law clerk experiences will benefit me as I join your firm’s insurance defense practice . . .
The candidate reminds the employer four times in as many sentences that she is a student/law clerk. Word choices of “assist” and “saw” suggest passive participation rather than hands-on accomplishments. And the discussion of coursework prior to real-world training showcases her as a student.
The student’s rewrite read as follows:
I am excited to join your law firm as an associate attorney and to contribute to its civil litigation practice. I have legal experiences and training that position me to excel as a lawyer with your insurance defense team. Most notable is the year I spent working with a similarly sized law firm where I independently handled many discovery matters and worked closely with partners through every stage of civil disputes. I contributed substantially to forming and drafting arguments for an issue on appeal, which was decided in our client’s favor. Moreover, I developed working knowledge of electronic discovery matters. The foundation for my success in the law firm was the practical training I received in pre-trial and trial advocacy courses where I managed a case from filing the complaint through post-judgment motions . . .
How can I strengthen my résumé?
Critically evaluate your résumé. Are you using strong action verbs that denote those skills relied upon by lawyers in your field of interest? Manage, handle, draft, communicate, evaluate, determine, educate, direct, advocate, interpret, and argue are commanding. Words such as assist, support, help, and observe don’t have comparable implications of doing and achieving.
Once you are admitted to practice, make certain to include a statement of your bar admission on your résumé. Prior to being admitted, you can note the state and the date for which you sat for the exam and the fact that results are pending.
Affiliate with professional organizations, including national, state, and local bar associations and add them to your résumé. Joining organizations and attending their events tells employers that you identify with your professional community. It’s also great for networking!
Clean house on experiences and accomplishments that pre-date law school. You needn’t purge the document of all things undergrad. But consider the relevancy of your past experiences. An emphasis on undergrad and nonprofessional experiences highlights your lack of legal experience.
What do employers look for when hiring a lawyer?
Employers look beyond your immediate capacity to do the work when hiring you as a permanent employee. They’ll consider your candidacy in the larger context of the organization’s goals, clients, mission, reputation, and internal culture. (See the sidebar above for a list of traits employers frequently consider and value when hiring lawyers.) Strong moral character is notable in its position at the top of the list. It’s a trait that employers most frequently share with me and that students rarely consider. Prepare your documents and for interviews with the employer-identified traits in mind.
What can I do in interviews to stand out?
A quick way to separate from other candidates is to speak intelligently about the employer’s clients, work, and larger role and contributions in its local community. Research the employer and interviewers. Use the information to frame your answers and to ask relevant questions.
Articulating an interest in a long-term relationship with the employer will also earn you favor. Despite the transient commitment with which many young professionals regard their jobs, most legal employers, especially smaller law firms, want to hire people who plan to stick around. You can demonstrate a commitment to long-term employment by inquiring about the organization’s plans for your professional growth and development, the expectations they have for you regarding generating and retaining clients, and/or what they anticipate your role within the organization to be in the near and far future.
If you’re applying to law firms in smaller communities, expect that the firms intend for you to locate to and become part of the community. If you’re not from the area or have no obvious connections, you should research the community and be able to discuss what appeals to you about it.
Last year a student’s refusal to move to a small town was a deal breaker for the employer. The student shared her intent to live in a large city that was about an hour commute from the town where the firm was located. The hiring lawyer told the student they didn’t want to invest in her if she wasn’t willing to do the same in them.
Be ready to discuss your business skills and savvy when applying for law firm positions. The business of law is often ignored in law school curriculums, but it’s critical to your success as a for-profit lawyer. Your capacities to develop and retain clients, to promote a firm’s services, to advance its reputation, and to get clients to pay bills are important to a firm’s financial stability.
Frame your experiences and accomplishments in terms that complement the employer’s work and clients. Public interest organizations care that you have a passion for service and an understanding of their clients and mission. Be ready to talk about it.
It’s important in every aspect of your lawyer job search that you present yourself as a professional who’s ready to contribute. You may not officially be a lawyer until after you’re admitted to practice, but for purposes of your job search, you need to start promoting yourself as one today!
Employers regularly cite the below traits as important when hiring new lawyers.
- Strong moral character
- Good judgment
- Work ethic
- Potential to develop clients
- Evidence of practical legal skills
- Enthusiasm for the work and the clients served
- Passion for mission of nonprofit organizations
- Fit with the organization’s culture
- Connection to the community
Erin Binns is assistant director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
Vol. 39 No. 7