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Bringing “It” Up: Defining the (Employment) Relationship


By Emily Acosta, Rachel Jennings.

We’ve all been there in romantic relationships—wondering “Are we ‘just friends’ or more than that?” At some point, to avoid the uncertainty and uneasiness, you decide to have the “define-the-relationship” talk with the person you’re dating. You want a committed relationship, and you hope they do too!

You may recognize those same feelings of uncertainty while working as an intern or law clerk. You wonder “Am I ‘just a law clerk’ or is there full-time employment potential here?” Particularly, 3Ls clerking in small or midsize law firms or at legal aid organizations may find themselves wondering if their efforts are leading to post-graduate positions or if their employers have no intention of extending a full-time job offer. Just like in a romantic relationship, it’s best to “define-the-relationship” with your employer early.

This article provides proven tips for how to have a successful “define-the-relationship” conversation with your employer.

Research and set reasonable expectations

What do Jennifer Siebel, Elisabetta Canalis, and Stacy Keibler have in common? None of them married George Clooney. If you’re dating a man with a history of never settling down, there’s likely no marriage proposal coming. You can still have the “define-the-relationship” talk, but if you’ve done your research, you know there’s a good chance he never wants to get married.

Similarly, before you have the “define-the-relationship” talk with your employer, ask yourself, “Has this employer hired law clerks for full-time post-graduate positions in the past?” If your employer hasn’t hired a recent graduate in several years, you should adjust your expectations accordingly. Sure, Clooney might put a ring on it, but as dating guru Greg Behrendt has said, you’re probably the rule, not the exception.

Be sensitive about when and where you begin the “define-the-relationship” talk, and know your audience.

Does your supervisor prefer to communicate via e-mail? Does she have an open-door policy, or does she prefer to set up a meeting in advance? Is there a hiring partner or recruiting coordinator with whom you should speak?

Starting off on the right foot is important; if you don’t know or are unsure of the appropriate communication style, ask an associate or staff member. Most people want to be helpful, so you only stand to benefit from their insight.

Also, timing is key. Don’t start this conversation on the eve of a jury trial or filing deadline. Likewise, if you know your firm extends full-time offers in May, expect that if you ask about full-time employment before then, you might not get a definitive answer. In sum, think carefully about when, where, and how you begin this conversation.

Be direct, be positive, and express clear interest

You want full-time post-graduate employment, and you need to know if that’s a possibility. Don’t assume that if you work hard, your employer will automatically hire you. Directly, express interest in a full-time position.

Be specific and clear. If you set up the meeting with your supervisor in advance, mention that you want to discuss possible post-graduate employment. Ask your supervisor to meet for a performance review and ask to discuss post-graduate job opportunities.

Be positive. Tell your boss you enjoy your job, highlight your accomplishments, and ask if you have a future with the organization.

Be prepared for the best and worst-case scenarios

Before you have this conversation, make a list of the best and worst-case scenarios and plan for each. If there is no possibility of post-graduate employment, have an exit strategy and think about the next steps.

If your employer doesn’t have a definitive answer at that time, establish a time line for yourself, evaluate your job options and interests, and plan accordingly. Review the pros and cons of staying in that position without guaranteed post-graduate employment, and expand your network of contacts to keep other employment options open.

Follow up

If your employer is unsure or unclear about post-graduate employment opportunities at this time, ask when you should follow up, and then do it! Maintain an open, running dialogue about the possibility of post-graduate employment.

The “define-the-(employment)-relationship” talk may seem daunting, but clear communication, with a bit or research and a positive attitude, will help you have a satisfactory outcome. Good luck!


Vol. 42 No. 7

Emily Acosta is an associate at Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, Ltd., in Chicago. Rachel Jennings is a career development advisor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.