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Ask the Hiring Attorney: How can I sound qualified?

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Q: Many practice areas are highly technical, involving finance or science or international work, for example. If I am interested in one of these areas but lack the relevant background, how do I sound as qualified as possible for the position?

A: Thankfully, substantive knowledge is generally not a condition of employment for entry-level lawyers. Employers typically don’t expect current law school students and recent graduates to have much substantive or working knowledge of practice areas, especially those entry-level lawyers who have had little or no work experience. (It would be different if you were a second-career student or otherwise had substantive experience. Then employers would reasonably expect you to know quite a bit!)

Your first challenge isn’t to sound more qualified; it’s to become more qualified!

There are several ways you can make yourself more qualified for a position in a highly technical area of law. First, you should take relevant courses are available to you at your law school. For example, if you are interested in representing financial services institutions in your career, even if your law school doesn’t offer many classes directly related to financial services laws and regulations, you likely have access to classes like corporate law, securities law, corporate bonds, corporate governance, corporate tax, business formation, federal taxation, and similar coursework that will help give you a greater understanding about how businesses work, as well as some of the particular issues facing financial services institutions. If you’re able to take courses at your law school’s sister schools – like a business or management school – then do so!

Likewise, if you’re interested in international law, then you’ll want find learn as much about the practice area as possible.

You might also volunteer to be a research assistant for a professor who writes on relevant subjects, particularly if you have a professor in your law school whose scholarly interests focus on the practice area you are interested in. You might further try for an internship in a law firm that specialized in that field or an internship in a company in the industry you are interested in representing or that likely requires the type of legal services you wish to provide.

Assuming you don’t have time to gain substantive or hands-on experience before you apply and interview for such a position, there are still steps you can take to become more qualified. Here are some steps you can take to learn more:

  1. Follow any relevant business news as well as legal news to understand what trends and issues are facing these clients and the law firms that represent them.
  2. Learn about the federal and state agencies that regulate the industry or industries you are interested in.
  3. Read (or at least skim) treatises, hornbooks, academic articles, and practitioner publications to better understand the relevant law and regulations.
  4. Join the student sections and specialty sections of bar associations. Read their publications and attend their events.
  5. Mine your alumni networks or find local attorneys in the practice area to whom you can introduce yourself and ask for information interviews. Ask them about what they do and what advice they have for you to break into the practice area. LinkedIn is a great tool for research, as well as a platform you can use to introduce yourself.

Don’t forget that you’ll also need a clear and compelling answer as to why you’re interested in the practice area for which you are applying. While an employer or interviewer might not expect you to have an “in-the-trenches” understanding of the practice area, she’ll certainly expect you to have a specific reason for your interest. Explaining why you want to work in a practice area in which you have no experience may be as big a challenge.

A version of this article was originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. Reprinted with permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Shauna Bryce Shauna C. Bryce is a graduate of Harvard Law School with 20 years in law and legal careers. As a nationally recognized lawyer career coach, she works one-on-one with executive-level attorneys in Global 100 law firms and multibillion-dollar businesses in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, as well as regularly presents to groups of lawyers, career coaches, law students, and others. Her advice column, Ask the Hiring Attorney®, inspired by what general counsel and partner-level clients said they wish they had known while they were in law school, was originally published by Bloomberg Law. She’s the author of the How to Get a Legal Job® series and Bryce Legal® Career Advice for Lawyers blog.