Erin Binns is director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
If you’re looking for stories that graduates aren’t getting legal jobs, hit the blogs. But I recommend instead considering what you can learn from the gainfully employed. Their stories don’t seem to populate the Internet to the same degree. As noted by a working grad, “When would I have time to blog about getting a job? I’m busy working and trying to avoid malpractice in my first months!” Point well made. As such, I decided to share—on their behalf—job search stories of a few recent graduates who are paid, working lawyers. Their experiences, while unique, are symbiotic in that they emulate core traits of a successful job search in today’s tough market. These grads were ambitious, directed, willing to take risks, and didn’t capitulate to frustration and rejection.
Kate is employed with a state public defender’s office. Her story is best told in the e-mail she sent to me shortly after her first interview:
. . . I’m not sure I actually got this interview on my own. A couple of days before I got the call for the interview, I was at the public defender’s office working (even though I was done with my internship hours, I was still following through on a couple of cases) and there was a Cinco de Mayo lunch in the basement. My supervising attorney asked me to come. I wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to go but decided it might be a good idea for networking.
The 2nd chair of the Milwaukee Office and the head of the Waukesha office sat next to us. I had no idea who they were, but we chatted and when they found out I was a law student they ended up asking if I could help them do some quick research for a trial they were working on. I agreed and presented them my research a couple of hours later.
Then one of them asked me to send her my résumé and a list of the offices I was interested in so she could forward it to the hiring people in Madison. I’m pretty positive I would not have gotten the interview but for her because when I got the call there were only two interview times left—clearly I was an afterthought. Regardless, at least I got an interview!
Then, even though there were two rooms of interviewers, I got randomly placed in the room with one of the attorneys for whom I had done the research. Even he seemed surprised. What are the chances of that? Sorry for this long-winded e-mail but I just thought I’d share all this because I know I heard how important it is to network, but I really didn’t believe it until now.
Kate’s job offer is a direct consequence of her willingness to go above and beyond. Had she ended the internship when her required hours were met rather than staying to follow through on cases, she wouldn’t have found herself eating nachos in the basement. Had she not agreed to turn around quick research in the middle of final exams, she wouldn’t have had two more attorneys see her work—one of whom endorsed her résumé and the second of whom interviewed her.
“Not top 15 percent. Not law review. Not Moot Court. It was April. I was graduating in May, and I didn’t have an offer.” So when the Office of Insurance Commission (OIC) where Nathan had been interning for nine months offered him the opportunity to stay on after graduation—as a part-time, unpaid law clerk—he responded with “an enthusiastic yes.” Nathan “was happy to eat mac-and-cheese for a totally invaluable experience. I loved what I was doing. I had invested so much. People had invested in me, and I was working on cutting-edge policy related to health-care reform. I believed that if I loved the work this much something good would come.”
Two weeks after Nathan agreed to work for free, Nathan’s supervisor at OIC was having lunch with the general counsel of a major health-care organization and insurance provider. The GC shared that the only person on staff who really knew the nuances of the Healthcare Reform Act had just left. Two days later Nathan had a phone interview, followed by an in-office interview, and a job offer. Nathan is now a corporate compliance specialist. His position doesn’t require bar passage, but he is working on health-care reform and regulation every day, is already regarded as an expert in the field, and is getting compensated at a high-end, new attorney salary. And Nathan emphasized that “through the entire process, no one ever looked at my transcript. They cared about my practical experiences and soft skills.”
Nathan’s choice to maximize his internship placement combined with his willingness to accept an unpaid, part-time position for the immediate future reaped huge dividends. His decisions led directly to a full-time, nicely compensated job where his legal education is utilized daily.
Nicole is a contracts administrator for a company where she reports to the CFO. She can’t report to general counsel, because there isn’t one. Nicole is a de facto in-house attorney. In addition to managing the company’s contracts, she is the liaison to outside counsel and is supporting other departments on legal issues. She even hired a law clerk to assist her. There’s more to this story, though.
Nicole graduated with solid grades, great practical experiences, and no job. She returned home, studied, sat for, and passed a bar exam. She still had no job. Through informational meetings, Nicole realized her target market was saturated. So she moved back to the community where she attended law school. She perceived that legal job market to be healthier, and she had an existing professional network to call into action. Nicole signed an apartment lease without a job.
Nicole cast her net wide and considered positions for which a JD was neither required nor preferred, which is how she found the posting for her job. The company intended to hire a paralegal and the definition of the work and its accompanying salary was indicative of such. Nicole applied anyway and contacted someone she already knew and who was working for the company. He promoted her to his colleagues, and she secured an interview. Knowing she was over-qualified, Nicole deliberately tried to strike a balance in sharing an enthusiasm for the contracts administration work, while also highlighting the value-add of her JD. The employer was persuaded and redefined the position’s responsibilities, hiked the salary, and hired Nicole.
All three of these graduates dealt with rejections and frustration prior to securing their offers. But they remained committed to building their professional networks and were open-minded about where they might find great work. Be encouraged to take risks and remain flexible as to what might lead to a fulfilling professional career. A lunch in the basement, an unpaid clerkship, and a job posting for a paralegal generated happy endings for three graduates who were wise enough to see them for what they were . . . opportunities.
Vol. 41 No. 4