Finding a Job in Law School

job in law

Meet One, Two, and Three. One has been working at a congressional office for two-plus years, and she is going to be your classmate. She wants to be a federal prosecutor, but is open to getting some related experience at a place like the ASPCA during one of her summers.

Two will also be at orientation. Although he’ll be a couple days late, because he was originally wait-listed and was asked at the last minute to replace a no-show. Two has been at a desk job since he graduated from college a year ago. But he went to school part-time and so has a lot more real-world work experience than the average college graduate. Two wants to learn what people learn in law school. He’s undecided on actually being a lawyer.

Three is straight out of undergrad. She’s worked and/or volunteered every summer and semester since high school, and is ready for the continuation of college that she considers to be law school. Three thinks some kind of in-court work (this is called litigation, folks) would be cool, but also loves theoretical big think (where a line of class discussion might start with something like, “What is Discrimination?”), and is not sure how to apply this latter fondness to a paying job.

Then there’s you. Maybe you look like One, Two, or Three, or some combination of them, or maybe you’re an entirely different creature. This is one way law school can be incredibly diverse. You may or may not be worried about the following things, which are phrased as complaints to better foster recognition of your own thoughts:

            Everyone else knows what they want to do… And I don’t.

            What if I can’t find a job in law school? Ewww.

            What if I can’t find a real job, like after graduation?

            I’m not sure how I feel about firms. If I want to try it out, how do I pick one?

            (In a whisper) What if I don’t want to be a lawyer?

Well, read on. We’ve been there. (And your classmates are there. Don’t be shy.)

Everyone Else Knows What They Want to Do

They don’t, actually. But appearances (i.e. the recited responses to “What do you want to do?”) tend to be more influential here.

In reality, most of your peers are in law school because they want to practice law. (Or at least that was their thinking when they enrolled.) The law, however, is a diverse field, and many legal professions have incredibly little in common. It may not be possible for you to figure out what precise area of the law you want to conquer when you graduate. So it’s probably a good idea to employ a strategy that keeps your options open.

Knowing what you want to be will become increasingly important over the next three years. And you do eventually need to come to some sort of conclusion. But not yet. The process of finding out what you want to do and where you want to be is a self-reflective one. And it’s largely based on trial and error. So make the most of your two summers in law school. They can give you a very good indication of what type of work you may like, or not like, before you have to make a longer term choice.

What if I Can’t Find a Summer Job? Not to Mention a Permanent One?

The traditional route to getting a full time job after law school is by getting good summer experience.  In the end, however, not everything is in your control. So the best you can do is maximize your chances. After all, you can’t do anything about the economy. So let’s put that aside and think about what you can influence. What can I do to make myself a more attractive candidate? How can I impress prospective employers? How can I best prepare myself for a summer job at [insert type of organization or industry here]?

Summer #1.  Your first summer isn’t about getting rich, and it probably isn’t about getting a long-term gig. You should be looking for something that you will be at least somewhat interested in, that will give you some good experience (and hopefully a writing sample), something to put on your resume, and about which you can tell an interesting story come recruiting season for summer #2, which begins right after summer #1. Some common options for summer #1 jobs are:

  • Law firms:  If you can get this, great. It isn’t very common anymore (for 1Ls) as firms have tightened their belts. You may need to do some serious networking to find and land these at larger firms. Also try looking for opportunities at smaller local or regional firms where you have geographic ties.
  • Government agencies:  Federal is best if you can get in. State and local are good as well. These don’t usually pay as well as firms, if at all, but you can get some great experience and it always looks good on the resume.
  • Non-profits/public interest:  These will probably be unpaid, but still are an excellent experience especially if you are considering public interest long-term.
  • Research for a professor:  These usually pay something like $10/hour, but you can bone up on your research skills and get a recommendation from a professor if you do a good job. Hopefully, the topic will be interesting so you aren’t bored out of your mind combing through Westlaw the entire summer.
  • Take classes:  Don’t just sit on your behind. You should have something to tell interviewers about besides getting caught up on all your favorite HBO shows.

Summer #2.  The stakes will be a bit higher when it comes to finding your 2L summer job. In many cases, this job will be your springboard to a full time post-graduation job. A significant portion of the law school hiring universe (especially at the top law schools) is done by large law firms. If that’s where you want to be, you’ll have to start making those decisions just before you start your second year in a process called OCI (on-campus interviewing) hosted by your law school. Even if you’re not sure about firm work, many non-firm positions often require a couple years of firm experience along with the requisite training. And it’s much harder to get a firm job outside of OCI, so it may be a good idea to keep your options open and take this process seriously even if you are unsure you want to work at a firm.

If you are at a top law school, you will probably have a job lined up when you graduate. Big firms hire primarily out of the top twenty law schools.  If you aren’t at the top of your class, however, building relationships with attorneys while you are in law school will help you find the job you want, so don’t just be a student; get connected to firms and their attorneys.

Most top law school career centers are primarily set up to funnel you into big firms, so trying to find the right job in law in public interest or government opportunity will require a lot of leg-work on your part. If you aren’t looking to work at a big law firm or if you are attending a lower tier law school, you still have opportunities, but you will have to be more proactive. Also, keep in mind that small and mid-size or regional firms also need young associates, but don’t usually come to OCI. These are great opportunities, but you will need to get out and find them yourself.

What if I strike out?  If you can’t find a summer legal job, first, keep looking. Opportunities will come up throughout the spring and summer (especially non-paying positions), but you need to be on your toes and be aggressively looking.  If that doesn’t pan out, find something else (i.e. a non-legal opportunity), so at least you have something to occupy your time and put on your resume. If all else fails (and/or if you’re bored), pursue your own legal project. You don’t need to be enrolled in a course to write a well-researched paper.

Keep in mind that fear can be a great motivator, and job searching is one area where it is particularly useful. Channel the fear into applying early and often. And don’t opt out of applying just because the employer requires hard copy applications. (Meet Post Office. It’s probably down the street, or down that other street.)

Applying for jobs, though, is not enough. There’s this thing called networking. While seeking out prospective employers certainly falls under this umbrella, paper and email is not enough. You are your best sales tool. You have to be going out (physically leaving the house, although phone calls are good too), and meeting potential employers and attorneys in general, whatever their field. Here’s where LearnLeo can help.  Our Career Portal is designed to connect you to law firms early, so that you can proactively manage your job search instead of waiting for your job to come to you.

If I Want to Be at a Firm, How Do I Pick One?

Every firm is different. Some are more different than others. But we don’t want you to get ahead of yourself.  First, let’s change the premise. Stop putting pressure on yourself to “decide” exactly where you want to be and what you want to be doing. This is about, initially, your first summer (three months maximum). Then it’ll be about your second summer. This will be one of your first legal jobs, but it won’t be your last. So keep an open mind and stay tuned for more information. We will be writing a series of articles on how to choose a law firm.

What you need to know now is that the official process doesn’t start until the summer after your first year with OCI. During the OCI process you and your fellow students will most likely be hanging out either at your school or at a hotel for two, three, or four days in a row. Interviews usually take place in study rooms or hotel rooms, and interviewees rotate every twenty minutes or so. Depending on your school, you may have very little control over the firms you meet with. If your school uses a bidding process, listen to your career center’s guidance on bidding strategy (they do this every year).

What if I Don’t Want to Be a Lawyer?

“Alternative” can be a dirty word. So let’s call a non-lawyer career something else. How about Something Else? Great.

An initial thought to keep in mind: Once you don’t become a lawyer, it may be difficult to change your mind. Meaning, if you do non-attorney things for a few years and then suddenly remember 1L year more fondly than you had previously, resulting in a sudden desire to fight for justice, in court or otherwise, this is going to be difficult. It’s a lot easier to stop being an attorney that it is to start practicing law after you have done something else. Also, it’s possible that your “I don’t want to be a lawyer” instincts are actually just “I don’t want to work at a law firm” instincts. Foregoing a legal career can be highly rewarding, especially if “legal career” equals “big firm job” in your mind; but there’s a lot more to the law than big law firms. So try to articulate what it is you’re trying to avoid (if anything).

So you don’t want to be lawyer. You want to do Something Else. Here are some things you should know about walking, running, and/or skipping down that path.

First, your law school career office won’t be able to be as helpful if you aren’t looking for a law job. If you’re thinking consulting, that may not be an option unless you’re at a top five law school or are getting a joint degree. Thus, you will need to make up for this by doing more of the job search on your own. But don’t give up on the career office. Career office counselors often have diverse backgrounds, and you never know how they may be able to help; so make sure you consult with them about your non-law options. Also, try some cross-listed classes. Most law schools have classes that are taught in conjunction with the business school, policy school, or other graduate field. These can give you a good outlet into other opportunities and mix you with people exposed to non-legal occupations.

Just because you’re settled on a non-legal career, that doesn’t mean legal positions won’t be incredibly valuable experiences. Put another way, trying for a summer firm job – if that’s at all attractive to you – may still be a good idea.

You will also need to be a good networker (i.e., relationship builder). Start working on this your first semester, and continue for the rest of your career. Your first year, talk to anyone that is at all interesting to you. Professors, fellow law students, guest lecturers, alumni, and family friends are all solid places to start. But try to network your way into other fields. Most cities have business organizations that meet on a regular basis (unlike law students, these folks really know how to network). Attend some events and meet some people—that’s likely how you will find your non-legal opportunity.


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