Vol. 40 No. 6
Erin Binns is director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
“There just isn’t a wow factor.” This wasn’t quite the reaction the student was going for when she submitted her résumé for a job. The student’s grades were impressive—top 15th percentile—so she was befuddled when she didn’t even get an interview. In following up with the employer, the student learned it was her lack of involvement in law school activities and limited practical experiences that deflated her status as a candidate.
The lawyer viewed her “idleness toward all things but academics” as calling into question her genuine interest in wanting to actually practice law and her capacity to handle the many responsibilities of being a practicing lawyer, which “extend far beyond comprehension and application of laws.”
The candidate who ultimately got the job had a GPA that hovered around the middle of the class. But he “was more of the complete package,” noted the recruiting lawyer. His résumé included leadership positions and law school activities where he collaborated with or managed others, and he had worked in a variety of legal settings doing everything from filing documents to drafting briefs. In sum, “he seemed more equipped to succeed.”
Academic performance alone—no matter how stellar—doesn’t showcase the myriad traits that hiring committees value. An interviewing public defender reiterated this when sharing, “a GPA doesn’t tell me anything about the capability of a new lawyer to walk into court and argue a motion in our client’s favor.”
Employers hire for a broad range of skills and qualities—time management, enthusiasm for the work and organization, professionalism, initiative, client development potential, business savvy, personality, good judgment, leadership, communication skills, attentiveness to details and deadlines, high moral character, a sense of humor, self-confidence, creativity, trustworthiness, and community involvement, among others.
It’s your responsibility to build a set of experiences that showcases a multifaceted candidacy to employers. The present market demands it. And if you’ve entered law school after a professional career or if you continue to work while attending law school part-time, don’t get too comfortable with the bankability of your prior and/or nonlegal accomplishments. Employers will still want to see success and involvement in legal-related activities. Take initiative early in your law school career to accumulate experiences that will allow you to bill yourself as the “total package” during your next interview.
A quick way to construct an impressive résumé is to take advantage of what’s at your doorstep. Get involved in law school organizations, including associations, journals and moot court, enroll in skill-building courses, and grab hold of opportunities to engage in lawyerly activities.
Join and lead. You needn’t be an über joiner of every law school activity and organization; however, you should select activities and participate in organizations that you intrinsically value and that complement your professional goals.
For example, if you’re contemplating a career in trademarks and copyright, joining the Intellectual Property Law Society and working toward a leadership role in the organization just makes sense. Doing so has layers of benefits. As an addition on your résumé, the organization immediately serves the purpose of highlighting to IP employers you have an established interest in their work, you value being involved, and you manage time effectively beyond the classroom.
Moreover, most student organizations tend to offer opportunities for mingling with area lawyers. Take advantage of these moments to build your network of contacts by attending events and introducing yourself. Even better, assume the responsibility of organizing and facilitating events that include lawyer participation. The lawyers (e.g., possible future employers) will then experience first-hand your professionalism, and communication and organizational skills.
All things in moderation! The quality of your contributions is more important than the quantity of organizations listed. Allocate your time prudently when getting involved in law school activities. You still need to achieve academically, gain practical experience, and carve out time for a job search. More effective than listing general membership in 11 student organizations is sticking with a few that really do match your interests and goals and contributing to these organizations as a student leader.
Seek opportunities to take initiative and develop new programs for an organization and/or move to a national scale through involvement with the ABA and other professional associations. Law student liaisons for the ABA’s varied practice sections are well-positioned to connect with lawyers from coast to coast.
Enroll in skill-based courses. The seminar I took on the theory of law and economics was a fantastic intellectual journey, and I know my friend enjoyed law and pop culture, but neither course did much to prepare us for practice.
Be cognizant to balance course selections. Courses based largely on theory and courses that explore intersections of law and other disciplines have their place. But equally important are courses that permit you to refine and focus on the practical components of being a practicing lawyer. Trial advocacy, pretrial advocacy, advanced procedure, contract drafting, client skills, negotiation, and advanced writing courses are skills-based courses that can give you an edge as an applicant.
Enrolling in skill-developing courses lets you sit before interviewing employers and say, “I’ve done that and here’s an example,” while other candidates are left pontificating about their skills in the abstract.
Amass legal experiences. The been-there-done-that crowd has added value to legal employers who need new associates and law clerks to make immediate and meaningful contributions. Demands from clients for efficient and cost-effective solutions no longer support a culture where young lawyers are slowly mentored into the profession. Most legal employers are operating with fewer staff than a few years ago and need substantive contributions from every team member.
Employers are likely to favor applicants who have a demonstrated aptitude for the actual practice of law and who have perspective regarding the many hats worn by for-profit and not-for-profit lawyers. Employers are looking for some assurance that the individual they hire is more likely than not to excel in the position and to enjoy the work.
Take advantage of workshops, competitions, clinical placements, and internships. Pursue law clerk positions with an eye toward the skill-building benefits rather than the prestige of the employer, the pay, or the nature of the work. Review a contract, draft a complaint, organize a trial binder, respond to a discovery request, talk with a client, attend a court proceeding, prepare a proxy statement, conduct due diligence.
And recognize this isn’t all for the résumé. A residual benefit of pursuing practical experience for the sake of a well-rounded résumé is that hopefully along the way you’ll be able to assess and identify what areas of practice you find most gratifying.
The job market is competitive and will remain so. Give yourself an advantage by taking hold of opportunities throughout law school to develop interpersonal, professional, and practical skills.