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10 Job Search Tips for Law Students and New Graduates

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First, let’s recognize that all job searches are stressful. The closer you are to graduation, the more pressure you likely feel. Along with pressure, you will probably experience a range of emotions including nervousness, intimidation, being overwhelmed, frustation, and—hopefully—elation at the end. Here are some tips to help you through the search and stay on track.

1. Pay attention to your mental state.

Recognize the stress your situation creates and find a healthy coping mechanism into which you can direct your stress. Without an appropriate outlet, job search frustration can creep into your demeanor. Negativity can turn off potential employers as well as those who are willing to help you. Don’t let such feelings prevent you from moving forward or sabotage your job search.

2. Get a game plan together for loan repayment

If you have debt and no job or job prospect, figuring out your options sooner rather than later is critical. In fact, some government positions require a healthy financial background for candidates, so staying out of default on your student loans is important for your credit history and your job search. Educate yourself on your debt portfolio and your repayment options. Schedule an appointment with the financial aid office to discuss your situation. Research options such as income-based repayment, income-contingent repayment, and loan consolidation. Equal Justice Works has published a guide entitled Take Control of Your Future: A Guide to Managing Your Student Debt. Check and see if your law library, Career Services Office, or Financial Aid Office has a copy you can borrow.

3. Make sure you pass the bar

Not all jobs require bar passage. Some jobs prefer a JD, but don’t require a law license. Even if practicing law isn’t your first career choice, passing the bar keeps your options open if you are still looking for employment after graduation. If you want a job as a lawyer, the single most important thing you can do is to make sure you pass the bar exam. If you are taking the bar, don’t assume that you can passively attend a bar exam preparatory course and magically pass the bar. After graduation, studying for the bar is your full-time job until you land employment.

4. Focus your search

While flexibility in a job search is important, “I’ll take any job I can get” is not a viable search strategy. By trying to be the most qualified candidate for every job, you weaken your ability to be the perfect candidate for the right jobs. Narrowing the job search can induce panic as students and grads worry they will choose incorrectly. Developing a job search plan is an important tool for staying on track. As part of your plan, define your search objective, make a detailed list of prospective employers, and then write down your qualifications and rationale for each prospective employer. This process not only helps you nail down your goals, but it also helps you refine your application materials and enables people willing to help you to provide actual assistance. For example, if you hand your contact a list of 20 employers you’d like to work for and that person has a contact at two, she now knows exactly who to talk to on your behalf. And, if you give them a copy of your plan, they know exactly how to pitch you to their contacts.

5. Consider additional training or certificates

Don’t dive into an LLM program or a completely different field of study simply to avoid a difficult job market. However, there may be ways to further your education that are practical and enhance your marketability. Some specialties, like mediation, require additional training before you can practice in that area. See page 26 for Student Lawyer’s feature article providing tips on doing a cost/benefit analysis when considering an additional degree.

6. Engage professionals

Both law students and new graduates need to be professionally engaged, regardless of their employment status. Attend bar association events and introduce yourself to new people. Don’t “hard sell” anyone or try to land a job at these events. Instead, concentrate on those people whose practice is of genuine interest to you. Talk to them about what they do. Learn about others in your area in the same practice area, topics of interest, current issues, etc. Arrange further conversations or informational interviews. When you authentically engage with others, they will remember you and be more inclined to assist you with your job search. Be consistent in your attendance to show your commitment and seriousness about the profession.

7. Brainstorm ways to generate income

Under employment is easier to explain (especially in the current economy) than unemployment and a job in the legal field is not the only way to pay the bills. Assess your skills and brainstorm all the ways you can earn an income. Contact temp agencies for positions that give you flexibility to continue searching and interviewing. Graduates should look into and consider document review. While document review gets a lot of flak for being tedious and unexciting, the truth is that there is always a need for it, it pays fairly well compared to other short-term employment options, and you are actually working in the legal field.

8. Volunteer or pick up a pro bono project

Students who would like to build experience but have been unable to find a paying position should consider an externship or working as a volunteer for a government agency or nonprofit. Not only will you get real experience for your résumé, but you will establish a network of practicing attorneys who can help in your post-graduate job search. One of the easiest ways for graduates to gain experience and contacts is to accept a pro bono case. The critical part of engaging in pro bono as new lawyer is that you must ensure that a mentor is assigned along with the project. This way, you’ll gain great experience, provide assistance to someone who needs it, and benefit from a mentor relationship that may last beyond the project. The best place to get started on a pro bono project is to contact your local bar association.

9. Beef up your résumé with publications

Lawyers are writers. Unemployment may provide you with time to write articles on the topics that interest you and a publications section is a great boost to your résumé. Start small—contact the local bar and ask about submissions for informational articles for their publications. If you are more ambitious, you could contact academic journals about their submission and publication standards.

10. Get creative

A former colleague of mine recently responded to a company’s advertisement seeking a paralegal. In reading the job description, it occurred to her that what the company really needed was in-house counsel. She applied, using both her cover letter and interview to explain to the employer what she had to offer and to pitch the idea of them hiring a lawyer. When they agreed in theory but balked at salary, she agreed to six months at the paralegal rate with a guaranteed performance review and salary discussion at the end of that time. A year later, she is officially their first in-house counsel, got a glowing performance review, AND a raise to a much better salary. Her creativity has resulted in a job she loves that wasn’t there before. While your story may not end the same way, it highlights the rewards that can come from determination and creativity in the job search. n

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