“The lawyers I’ve talked to said I have to choose a path and stick to it!”
“Everyone else seems to know exactly what they want to do, but I don’t have a clue.”
“My professor told me I need to pick a concentration, but I have too many interests!”
“I’m afraid to apply for that externship because I don’t want to get pigeonholed.”
One of the most common concerns I hear from first-year law students who don’t know what they want to do after law school is that everyone is telling them they must choose a career path right away and stick to it. I disagree completely!
Outside of a select few practice areas—like criminal law—there is no need for the majority of law students to select a career path their first year.
Law school is the time to explore
The wealth of opportunities provided by law schools today empowers students to make informed choices about their careers in a way that is possible only with a variety of experience. With placements in government, the nonprofit sector, private firms, corporations, and the judiciary, students can get a taste of it all and discover their personal preferences, motivations, and passions. On the flip side, students unsure of what they want who do not explore variety during law school risk making employment choices out of alignment with who they are, which can lead to burn out, conflict, or just plain boredom down the road.
So how exactly should a student without career clarity “explore” in a meaningful way?
- Be open to various placement opportunities. When recruiting season rolls around, consider everything! Each employer type has its perks, and the only way to truly know whether something would be a good fit is to try it out. The same goes for various practice areas: most students enter law school without a solid understanding of the sheer breadth oflegal issues and how lawyers address them in the real world. Even the briefest exposure to a particular practice area can spark a developing career interest.
- Take advantage of student and professional associations. Beyond actually working in the field, thriving student and professional associations can teach you about various career paths through substantive programming and networking. Examples of programs include: a panel of local practitioners discussing their path into the field and emerging trends; a recruiter presenting on the field’s recruitment process and important resume attributes to focus on; or a debate discussing developing law in the field. Participating, even passively, in these association programs can give you a glimpse into particular practice areas and possibly connect you with attorneys in the field for mentorship.
- Network, network, network. One-on-one informational interviews with local alumni are invaluable, especially for law students who need more information before choosing a career path. Ask genuine questions about the attorney’s experience and what advice they have for you as you explore the field at this stage in your career. The goal is to get on file with folks who may help you in the future. And for that reason, staying in touch is crucial! My favorite suggestion: as you update your resume over time, send your new and improved resume to your contacts and tell them how excited you are over the newly added entry.
Experience on one side can help you realize and articulate your commitment to the other side
Many law students aren’t sure which “side” of practice will resonate with them and worry that future prospective employers will have an issue with them “switching sides.” Here are examples, however, demonstrating how working for one side can help you realize and articulate your commitment to the other side:
- Criminal Law: Working for the District Attorney’s office made you recognize your empathetic side towards criminal defendants. Or working for the Public Defender’s office made you realize how sympathetic you are towards victims and that you actually want to dedicate your career to protecting the public as a prosecutor.
- Civil Litigation: Representing personal injury plaintiffs made you realize how much you really believe in tort reform and the need for strong defense lawyers. Or working on the defense side made you realize you no longer want to represent large corporations but would rather advocate for the individual and consumer rights.
Every single legal job offers transferable skills
Most legal positions focus on research, writing, verbal communication, critical thinking, and analysis. While the opportunities law students secure vary greatly, the fundamentals tend to be similar. Students and recent grads get caught in the weeds when they think about the work they’ve done. A career coach, however, can help you visualize the bigger picture and paint broader strokes when describing your work and identifying transferable skills.
Moving around to find your ideal employer is pretty typical these days
While some employers may still be put off by this, by and large, legal employers are not concerned when they see from a resume that a candidate has moved around. Employees these days tend to be looking for new great opportunities at all times; long gone are the days of staying in one job because you’re “supposed” to.
The big take home? If you know what you want to do coming into law school, that’s great! And if you came in without a clue, that’s also great! Law school is a time to explore possibilities through field placements, professional association membership, and your new alumni network without worrying too much that moving around will hurt your chances with future employers. Most importantly, though, figuring out what you want as a law student before committing to one particular path increases the likelihood of success and fulfillment in your career down the road.