Vol. 39 No. 6
By Erin Binns
Erin Binns is assistant director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
Legal recruiting isn’t business as usual, and it hasn’t been for a while. In February 2009, I wrote a column for this publication titled, “how to get good legal experience in a Bad Economy.” Two years later the column’s advice is still relevant as the residual effects of the recession remain. But the legal market is by no means a bust. Attractive opportunities to refine your legal skills and to explore the practice of law continue to exist. You may just need to looeyond on-campus interviews and job postings to find them.
The path of least resistance in a job search—otherwise known as on-campus interviews (OCI)—is down to a single lane. Fewer students are riding the laurels of high academic standing, law review, and moot court to positions in BigLaw. But BigLaw has always represented a small percentage of legal employers and access has always been limited to a select group of students.
Job postings haven’t fully recovered either. In many markets, postings haven’t returned to the levels existing before subprime mortgages and government bailouts. Limited postings, however, don’t necessarily correlate to fewer available jobs. From personal experiences as a career counselor and in talking with colleagues throughout the country, it seems that small firms, government agencies, and public interest employers continue to keep decent pace in their recruitment of students and new graduates.
The more significant difference is in how loudly and widely employers are advertising their needs—if at all. Employers are showing preferences for hiring through word-of-mouth and personal recommendations and/or relying on their applicant pool to be created by students contacting them directly with cold letters and requests for informational meetings.
Many employers articulate the same two reasons for their clandestine hiring. They don’t have the time or the staff to manage big numbers of résumés that an advertised position might generate. And they’re more likely to meet applicants who are sincerely interested in their work and organization when they stick to candidates who proactively contacted them or who were recommended.
This is your call to action! Experiences and jobs are available, but they’re not coming to you. A below-the-radar strategy won’t work in this market. You need to be visible and proactive. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to introduce yourself to lawyers and judges in your professional community. Arrange informational meetings and attend events where lawyers will be present. Check out the upcoming presentations hosted by your law school and consider attending local, state, and national bar association programs.
You must also be proactive and aggressive in directing résumés to employers you’ve identified as attractive options. Partnering your résumés with employer-specific letters that articulate interest and fit is essential. The necessity of conducting a proactive job search isn’t novel to today’s market. According to data collected by the National Association for Law Placement long before the economy shifted, more students identified self-initiated contacts and referrals as job sources than either OCI or job postings.
Your ideal summer or post-graduate job may be elusive in the immediate future. This doesn’t mean it’s forever unattainable. Search for opportunities that cultivate parallel skills. Efficient and thorough research, concise writing, and precise editing skills transfer to every area of practice and to every legal setting. If you’d like to litigate business disputes, the rules of evidence and civil procedure are identical in the world of personal injury litigation. You can acclimate to the criminal system while working for a criminal defense firm as well as you can from the district attorney’s office.
Legal issues don’t occur in the tidy packaging of legal principles and rules found in curriculums. In real-world settings, areas of law collide and intersect in ways you maybe haven’t contemplated. You don’t have to be in a real estate firm to get access to property issues. A divorce proceeding can be ripe with complex issues of real estate, not to mention matters related to benefits, tax, and intellectual property rights.
And while it impacts the balance in your checking account, it’s irrelevant to future employers whether your summer work is paid or unpaid. The quality of your work product and your exposure to practice are the basis for your next job, not the number of hours logged in a week.
Cast your net wide. Search for chances to get your hands muddied in practice—any practice. You may be pleasantly surprised what you find. I have worked with numerous students who discovered they thoroughly
enjoyed practice areas they had initially pursued out of necessity rather than interest.
It’s not a new phenomenon that law students need to sacrifice personally to achieve professionally. Admission to law school has never guaranteed a specific professional outcome. You may have to sleep on mom’s couch, work a non-legal job for pay so you can volunteer with a legal service provider, relocate, or practice in an area of law that isn’t a first choice. Looeyond the immediate disappointment and embrace the possibilities offered.
Consider Joseph, who after graduation swallowed his pride and elected to move back in with his parents. He did this so he could afford to accept a job with an employer that offered him great work, but not at a salary that accommodated his debt and living expenses.
Hannah relocated to a remote, rural community for a summer to get access to the elder care work she wanted.
Amy sold her engagement ring (with the approval of her fiancé) so that she could pursue an unfunded public interest position.
accepted an offer to participate in a recruitment program where his fate for employment would be determined by a matching process over which he had little control. committed despite the fact that several of the employers were out of state or otherwise would take him several hours away from his wife and infant child.
In each of the above examples, the individuals sacrificed to their ultimate benefit. Joseph’s stint with mom and dad was short lived as he quickly achieved a level of professional success that allowed for financial independence. Hannah now works full time for the public interest organization she spent the summer with but in their urban office near her home. Amy’s summer internship directly contributed to her receiving an offer of full-time employment with another organization that she describes as her “dream job.” was matched with an employer in his local community where he had an amazing summer experience.
Of course, getting work that directly aligns with your interests is preferred, but it’s not career-ending if your summer or first job forces you to deviate from your script. All legal experience is good experience. Even if you determine after spending a summer with a litigation firm that you never want to see the inside of a courtroom, you walk away better directed and with refined skills. Your professional career won’t be forever defined by a summer experience or initial job.
Naomi found herself jobless after on-campus interviews in her second year despite having the “right” credentials and interviewing well. Once she moved beyond the ensuing depression that accompanied the rejection, Naomi recommitted to networking and put together a summer of great experiences.
Based on a recommendation, Naomi contacted the general counsel of a major league baseball team requesting an informational meeting. They met and immediately established a professional rapport that resulted in the general counsel’s creating a part-time position for Naomi. The general counsel came to think so highly of Naomi’s work that she offered to serve as a reference and has worked to connect Naomi with members of the legal community.
Naomi accepted a second part-time summer position in the legal department of a major company. The company never posted the law clerk position, but instead, the employer notified a few professional contacts inquiring as to whether they knew of a law student whom they would recommend. A recommendation in favor of Naomi was so strong the company interviewed only her.
It’s worth noting that Naomi didn’t secure either of these positions until after final exams ended. Naomi’s commitment to continuing her job search after copious rejections, her willingness to make herself known through networking and informational meetings, and her ability to be open-minded about how a summer experience could be constructed paid big dividends. Naomi’s story isn’t an anomaly. Students in every market continue to unearth great work in places they didn’t first consider exploring and on timelines different from those originally expected.
Rewarding and challenging legal experiences are out there for the taking! With ingenuity, open-mindedness, and a bit of patience, you can develop a strong legal résumé and build a cache of impressive legal experiences.
For guidance on developing contacts and drafting effective cover letters, check out the following articles: “The ABCs of Building a Network: Attend, Talk, and Nurture,” Student Lawyer, vol. 37, no. 3, Nov. 2008, by Erin Binns, and “Use Cover Letters to Tell Compelling Stories of Fit,” Student Lawyer, vol. 39, no. 3, Nov. 2010, by Erin Binns.
Build a Résumé with Diverse Experiences
Work full time, part time, or on a project basis for a law firm or corporate legal department.
Volunteer with a legal service provider or at an area legal clinic.
Enroll in clinical placements and internships offered through your law school.
Serve as a research assistant for a law professor.
Enroll in skills-based courses such as pretrial and trial advocacy and contract drafting.
Attend skills-based educational courses or participate in skills-based comptetitions sponsored by local, state, and national bar associations.