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14 tips to help you land your dream position

Career Advice

Think you’ve heard all the advice there is on getting a job? We think not. Here, experts in the field and lawyers who interview regularly offer their top suggestions for making real connections with potential employers.

While they’re at it, they also offer advice on what not to do. (Spoiler alert: Looking at your phone still happens in interviews, despite how many times you’ve heard experts advise against it.)

Don’t oversell yourself

Successful interviewing starts all the way back with your résumé. “One of the best tips I’ve received when it comes to interviewing is tied to the difference of what people put in their résumé or application and how they respond to that during an interview,” stated Andrew Taylor, director of Net Lawman, which provides legal document templates and services in the United Kingdom. “The worst possible thing any law student can do is to overblow their résumé or application and exaggerate on certain facts.

“A colleague of mine always used to write that he knew German, when in actuality he knew a few phrases at best,” explained Taylor. “It seemed to work until it stopped working. One time during an interview, the professor spoke to my colleague in German and, of course, my colleague didn’t have the slightest clue what the professor had said. It was an embarrassing experience that damaged his reputation on campus.

“My recommendation is that you play to your strengths, and don’t exaggerate,” he advised. “Stay honest.”

Don’t spam your résumé everywhere

“I had one student send her résumé to a bar association listserv with an email that simply said, ‘I’m looking for a job. I have attached my CV,’” recalled Melissa A. Kucinski, founder of MK Family Law in Washington, D.C.

“I had subsequent discussions with colleagues who told me that the ‘sloppy’ appearance of this cold-email was a turnoff,” she noted. “This student likely alienated any lawyer on that listserv—which included most members of our local bar. They’ll remember her name if there’s a later job opening and she applies. The email lacked substance and showed the least amount of effort possible.”

Update and use LinkedIn wisely

“Make sure your LinkedIn profile is clean and up to date, and grow your connections with other students, professors and attorneys as you meet them,” suggested Doug Bradley, president and founder of Everest Legal Marketing in Southern California. “Follow up with a private LinkedIn message on where you met them and something you remember about your conversation. When you graduate, you’ll have a pool of people to message regarding work, and you’ll have some warm leads with context as to where you met and what you talked about.”

Carlota Zimmerman, a lawyer, coach, and leadership consultant, agreed. “Understand that simply connecting to someone on LinkedIn is, itself, fairly meaningless,” she noted. “The magic happens when you reach out to those connections, giving them help and advice and asking to pick their brain. It’s better to have 100 LinkedIn connections that you actually help and vice versa than to have 5,000 connections stuck in some miserable job.”

Think long-term about your connections

Bradley also advised that you cast a wide net with your relationships. “The people you meet in law school may have some influence on getting you hired when you graduate if they get there first,” he explained. “There’s no use in making foes this early. Everyone should be considered an ally until you have to litigate against them.”

Also think about relationships beyond the traditional boundaries of networking. “Make friends with legal advertising reps,” he said. “There’s a whole industry of people like me who help law firms grow and know who the local players are. Often our clients will tell us if they’re looking to hire an associate, a clerk, a paralegal, or a student. I always jump at the opportunity to help my clients find a new employee or associate attorney since it adds value to my business relationships.”

Know what a potential employer does

This sounds basic, but students fall down on this tip all too often, said Brady McAninch, a partner at Hipskind & McAninch in Belleville, Ill. “Understand the firm you’re interviewing for,” he said. “Our firm does strictly personal injury, so someone coming in wanting defense experience would just not fit in.

“I practice close to my law school—Southern Illinois University— and we take on interns every year,” he added. “I’d say half of those we interview have done little to no research into the firm. With our bios on the website, that’s pretty easy to accomplish.

“I also saw that a lot at the bigger firms I worked for in St. Louis,” recalled McAninch. “The job market is smaller now than it was before, so I understand that people just want their first law job—no question. But employers can also be pickier, and laterals are more of an option now than they used to be. Fit is very important, and you should know whether you could fit before you interview.”

Before you attend an event, identify for yourself the value you bring

“A big problem is that many people at networking events are nervous and overwhelmed, so when meeting people, they tend to vomit their life stories and then stand there, shaking, smiling, as if to suggest. ‘OK, we’ve spoken for two minutes; you know I’m desperate for a job. We good here?’” stated Zimmerman. “Simma down, kid.

“Know your networking goals so you can work backward from those goals to achieve them,” she advised. “There’s a big difference between wanting to meet a thought-industry leader, for example, because you believe you bring something specific, and wanting to meet that leader because um, you need a job. Know what it is that you’re looking for and why—Why you? Why the synergy of you and this company? Why you and the synergy of you and this particular team? What do you bring to the table?”

Know basic etiquette and rules for an event

“As you come close to someone you want to meet at an event, say, ‘I don’t believe we’ve met,’” said Adeodata Czink of Business of Manners. “Get to the point. When you’re done, say, ‘It was so nice chatting with you; I won’t hold you up any longer.’

“Make sure you have one hand free for a handshake and business card,” she added. “Therefore, you shouldn’t have a plate in one hand and a glass in the other. And before each piece of food you put in your mouth, look around to see if there’s someone approaching you.”

Have your elevator pitch ready, and make it memorable

One of the best ways to win people over quickly is with an elevator pitch, reported Taylor.

“An elevator pitch is a short summary of the main points you want to ‘sell’ to someone,” he said. “It should be used as an introduction to others and represent your core values and beliefs. It should also be concise, to the point, and at least a bit interesting.

“Let’s imagine there’s a law student named John Smith who, in his free time, plays video games and watches crime shows,” explained Taylor. “Apart from that, he’s interested in criminal law. He also volunteers at a pet shelter. Here’s how I imagine his elevator pitch would go: ‘Hi, my name is John, and after years of being interested in criminal procedure, I’ve decided to pursue criminal law. My hobby is helping animals and people who work with them. So if you’re in need of a hard-working pair of hands used to long shifts, I’ll be thrilled to start.’”

If you attend a networking event, make it worth your and others’ while

“I always suggest that students attend bar association networking events, such as the bar’s yearly holiday parties or annual awards dinners,” said Kucinski. “You rarely meet other lawyers sitting idle in a CLE lecture hall, but you’ll meet them with a glass of wine in hand chit chatting about their holiday travel plans.

“Also, people remember how you make them feel, not what you say to them, so interpersonal skills are key,” she added. “One of my students took this suggestion of attending bar networking events to heart and decided she was going to ‘pop in’ and ‘hand out her CV’ and then ‘leave.’ I suggested to her this would be a turnoff.

“Networking is an art,” noted Kucinski. “Most of my law students have excellent grades, superior extracurriculars, and a wonderful CV. What will distinguish them is the interpersonal connection—is this law student someone I want to have at a law firm picnic, invite to my home for a BBQ, grab lunch with, or spend the next 5, 10, or 20 years working next to on some really difficult issues, late into the evening and on weekends, seeing them more than my own family?”

Zimmerman agreed. “The best networking is a true conversation,” she contends. “Instead of reciting to me your so-called passion and a thousand other meaningless buzzwords, I’d be so much more interested in learning about you as a potential candidate for joining my network. Why are you in this line of work? In this area? What sparked your professional journey?”

Frederick L. Shelton, CEO of Shelton & Steele, which advises law firms on mergers and lateral acquisitions, puts it another way: “The first thing I teach attorneys about networking is what not to do,” he said. “Don’t be ‘that guy.’ You know the one. He walks up to you and engages in small talk. Then he sizes you up while his eyes dart around the room as he gives you his elevator pitch. Finally, he shoves his card into your hand, grabs yours, and heads to the next target.

“At the end of a networking event, ‘that guy’ will proudly display the cards of 50 people who won’t remember their brief encounters with him— at least not positively,” said Shelton.

“Nowadays, people want authenticity. Meet a few people who are worth meeting. Then be prepared.”

Know what not to discuss in an interview

“Don’t mention that you’re interviewing with other law firms—that’s a big don’t and a common mistake,” according to David Gerszewski of the Citadel Law Firm in Chandler, Ariz. “In fact, don’t interview for all the firms available. Choose the ones that practice the type of law that you want to learn, and focus on those.”

Another off-limits topic is the work schedule, said Erin Hargis, a partner at Rosenberg & Gluck in New York. “Don’t ask if you can work from home unless the position is being advertised as such,” she stated. “Also, don’t ask what the hours are or how many vacation and personal days you’ll receive. You’re taking the position to work and learn and should be willing to put in whatever time is needed to get the job done.”

Oh, and most talk of money is taboo. “Don’t ask too much about money,” noted Gerszewski. “Remember that money is a consequence of your work. You should show interest for the position and opportunity first.”

McAninch agreed. “Don’t make it clear money is your goal,” he stressed. “Money is important, yes, but fit is equally important. While we’re interviewing each other, it’s important that you don’t get off on a bad foot. Also, don’t negotiate in an interview. There’s time to do that, and it’s not in
the initial interviewing process.”

Look at people you’re speaking with

“It goes without saying, but make eye contact,” said Hargis. “We’ve held countless interviews where the candidate doesn’t look you in the eye. Some even employ the bad habits of pen clicking, gum chewing, or looking at their cell phone during the interview process.”

Put some serious thought into the questions you ask. “Ask questions that don’t sound canned or stock for every other employer you’re talking to,” advised Courtney R. Beller, an attorney at Fennemore Craig in Arizona. “For example, ‘I understand your firm represents several major retail developers. How has the financial climate affected the scope of legal services you’re providing them?’ Employers want to hear that you know not only what they do but also that you’re thinking about how the outside world impacts them and their clients.”

Also be prepared to speak about critical issues of the day. “Figure out what the hottest topics of discussion are among attorneys, general counsel, and within the C-suite,” recommended Shelton. “For example, if I meet attorneys who can intelligently discuss cybersecurity, blockchain, legal artificial intelligence, or anything that’s more than small talk today, I’m much more likely to remember them.

“Whether you’re at a networking event or a chance encounter, your ultimate goal is to make such a positive impression that when you call someone later, they remember you as the sharp new attorney who knew so much about nanotechnology or whatever,” he insisted. “You can’t do that if you don’t keep up. At our firm, we have a saying: ‘It’s better to have the cards of five CEOs who remember you than of 500 random people who
don’t.’ Think long-game strategy.”

Written thank yous aren’t optional, and you should spread those around liberally

“First send an email thanking the people who interviewed you,” asserted Darcy Miller, a lawyer, career expert, and founder of Pin & Pivot. “Send it within the first 12 hours of the interview. These days, people look for rapid responses, so don’t miss that opportunity to reach out quickly. “At the same time, write a handwritten thank you note,” she stated. “It’ll make you stand out more than just about anything you’ll do during your interview process. And send them to everyone who helped you during the interview process.”

Be humble, and be reliable

“Even if you’re the best student in your law school class, remember to be humble,” recommended Gerszewski. “You’ll know very fast that you don’t know how to practice law.”

Checking your ego will in fact serve you well long after law school, according to Joe Bogdan, a partner at Culhane Meadows in Chicago. “I think the most important tip for a law student—indeed, for a person—is to be reliable. Everyone makes mistakes, but mistakes are understandable only when they sit at the feet of someone who’s generally believable.

“There are a million subparts to this,” added Bogdan. “For example: Be on time; do what you said you were going to do by the time you said you were going to do it; take responsibility for your words and actions; and so on.

“I’ve seen unreliable people do great things that got discounted because of their source—the unreliable person,” he stated. “And I’ve seen reliable people do average things that garnered far higher praise than deserved for the same reason.

“In the classroom, a dog-ate-my-homework claim from an ‘unreliable’ student is immediately discounted fully to zero, whereas the same claim from a reliable student is at least considered,” said Bogdan. “In law school, there will be blips on your radar. You want faculty, staff, and administration to know that those are exception, not the rule. This is particularly important in law school, but it also applies in business and in life.”

G.M. Filisko G.M. Filisko is the editor of Student Lawyer Magazine. She earned her law degree in 1998 from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She practiced civil litigation at two large Chicago firms until 2005, when she became a freelance writer and editor.