As a law student, I figured any work experience was good experience. Eh, that wasn’t smart. Looking back, I see that my mindset was akin to believing that any donut is a good donut. And that’s not true. We all know a glazed donut is amazing but a jelly donut is not. Jelly donuts are just weird.
My advice to you is to carefully pick the internships and jobs you take as a law student. Don’t settle for the first thing that comes along and don’t get experience in only one practice area. Instead, focus on finding jobs that will help you develop general lawyering skills.
Let me show you how NOT to do this.
During my 2L year, I clerked for the Seventh Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. After that, I started an internship with a workers’ compensation judge. When I finished there, I started clerking for a workers’ compensation firm. Eight months later, I left the workers’ compensation office to resume clerking for the workers’ compensation judge.
That’s all I did. Nothing but workers’ comp. I tried to learn a single area of the law because I planned on working in that industy after graduation. But when I left law school, there were very few jobs in that field.
So what happened? Um, I kicked myself for creating a resume that smelled like nothing but workers’ comp. When I was done with that, I spent months with a career coach trying to find ways to sell my resume to employers, none of whom cared about my workers’ comp experience.
I was very grumpy during this time.
What you need to do is what I didn’t do. Think big picture. Law school is supposed to prepare you for being an attorney capable of going into any field. Don’t limit yourself to just one. I suggest you really take the time to determine what foundational skills you must build as a law student. Then, figure out what opportunities will help you build those skills.
As a quick side note, I was offered a position in a Consumer Law Clinic at my law school, but chose to go with the workers’ comp firm instead. By doing that, I passed up on a great opportunity to gain experience working with my own clients and appearing in court. Because at the time, I didn’t see the big picture, I lost out on the chance to build essential (and basic) litigation skills.
Before you accept a position, think about what the job has to offer. And think about what lies beneath the surface.
Consider an advertisement from a powerful law firm looking to hire a file clerk to assist legal secretaries for $20 an hour. What are the pros and cons?
The position clearly comes with good money, but what else? Networking opportunities with big-time lawyers? Probably not. In this case, the big-time attorneys are likely to delegate their work to secretaries who then turn around and ask for your help. There’s a good chance you’ll only interact with secretaries and copy machines. I doubt you’ll rub elbows with shareholders and partners.
And for the record, there’s nothing wrong with working with secretaries. My point is that you need to have realistic expectations for connecting with people who have clout.
So you can cross networking off the list, but what about the benefit of having the powerful firm’s name on your resume? Not worth it. Scanning papers in the basement of a prestigious law firm is nothing to brag about. Plus, the firm’s shareholders and partners (who probably won’t ever know you exist) are unlikely to pick up the phone when a prospective employer calls them for information about you. What good is the name then?
Now consider an advertisement from a solo practitioner who is looking to hire a legal intern to help with a growing personal injury caseload. Hint: you should be excited about this opportunity. In this situation, there’s probably more work than the attorney can handle on his own. That means he’ll need your help preparing for hearings, mediations, and trials. As his intern, you’ll probably draft legal documents, do research, and take notes during meetings with clients.
This is the kind of experience you want as a law student. This position with a solo practitioner is a learning opportunity that puts you in the middle of the legal process. Here, you’ll get actual litigation experience, and as a bonus, a definite job reference from someone who is familiar with your work. You may even get hired on full-time if you prove to be helpful.
Now that you have an idea about what kind of work experience is good, what else do you need to consider?
Once you start moving from one employment to another, find progressive experience. Start this process by writing down what you’ve done for your previous employer(s). Figure out what responsibilities you’ve had in the past and what skills you’ve learned or used. After you’ve determined these things, find internships and jobs that will give you even more responsibility and use your skills in new ways.
It’s important that you don’t repeat your experiences; don’t take on a job you’ve already done. If you were a file clerk for firm A, don’t apply to be a file clerk for firm B. Or, if you’ve interned with a specialty firm (think firms that do nothing but foreclosures or debt collection), don’t go intern with another one. If you do, you’ll end up with a resume like mine.
You may also find it useful to check for commonality between experiences before you accept a new one. If you intern with the circuit court in the probate division, then intern with a small firm that specializes in criminal defense, and then work in the legal department for a bank, your experience will be all over the board. None of your experiences will be extensions of the others.
You should set an overarching career goal and find experiences that will help you meet that goal. For example, a student who wants to litigate full-time after graduation should find work experiences that expose him to litigation in various major practices areas. By so doing, the student prepares for his dream job without specializing in a specific field. This goes back to the point I made earlier, as well.
If you take the time to find work experience that is right for you, it will pay off after graduation—literally. If you can’t find a job as a law student after working with a career counselor, you may need to disregard this advice. But, in general, I highly, highly suggest you learn from my mistakes.
Good luck with your job search and be patient! The right opportunities will come along. I’d promise you they will, but I’m an attorney, so I can’t do that…
Until next time,