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Getting Your First Job as an Attorney: Advice from the Trenches
by Rona M. Lum, Esq.
First, let me address the obvious. If it is your dream to obtain a position with a "silk-stocking" firm, hit the books well before entering law school. Be focused on your goal and do your due diligence. Excellent grades, a high score on the LSAT exam, and demonstration of your maturity and character through involvement in meaningful extracurricular activities are requirements for being admitted into a tier-one law school.
Notice that I mentioned "tier-one law school." You must be mindful of the realities of the situation. The "silk-stocking" firms have their choice of candidates. As far as attorneys are concerned, the supply exceeds the demand. Competition is fierce. Regardless of your future plans, during law school it is imperative that you keep your grades up and participate in activities to complement your academics such as moot court, law review, and internships.
Also, enroll in preparatory courses or do whatever you feel is necessary to pass the bar examination on your first attempt. Statistics indicate that your chances of success decrease with each subsequent attempt, so make your first attempt a success.
For the vast majority of us, a position with a "silk-stocking" firm may not be a dream or even a reality. Nonetheless, there are many opportunities for a great first job for a new attorney who is well prepared. On this point I would like to share my personal experience with you. For me law school did not immediately follow completion of my undergraduate degree. I decided to work and travel before continuing my education. The nine years between college and law school was time well spent.
Just prior to entering law school, I worked for an insurance company in its commercial claims division. In this position my responsibilities included handling hundreds of claims that were in litigation. I was required to work very closely with experienced litigators from several law firms.
Throughout my employment with the insurance company, I worked hard, proved my worth, and made the necessary contacts in the legal field. In fact, I was encouraged by many of the attorneys to pursue law as a profession. The contacts that I made directly led to my internship as a law clerk and my first job as an attorney with a well-respected firm.
Now, let's discuss the arduous application and interview process. I dare say that this can be a very intimidating experience. Once again, preparation is critical to your success. Having been on both sides of the situation, I offer the following advice:
- Determine the law firms that you are interested in applying to. Then do your research. The majority of law firms have websites that you can access to educate yourself on the history of the firm, the members of the firm, and the firm members' practice areas. No prospective employer wants to be interviewing a candidate who has no idea what his or her firm is about. Be prepared for this question: "Why are you interested in our firm?" Also, seek information from sources such as other attorneys and law school professors.
- Prepare a professional resume. You are applying for a professional position, so present yourself accordingly. In most instances the submission of your resume is your first contact with a prospective law firm. First impressions are very important. Make yours a good one! Consider seeking advice or even hiring a professional writer to prepare your resume for you. It may cost you a little money, but this is your future we are talking about. Before sealing the envelope, check and recheck your resume. Are there any typographical errors, misspellings, grammatical errors, etc.? If so, fix the errors. A sloppy resume is an indication of a sloppy mind and lack of attention to detail — not good traits for an attorney to exhibit.
- Anticipate the interview questions. If you are lucky enough to be asked to appear for a personal interview, be prepared! Put yourself in the interviewer's chair. What questions would you ask someone interviewing for a job with your firm? Some common questions are (1) "Why did you decide to go to law school?" (2) "What did you enjoy about law school and why?" (3) "Do your grades accurately reflect your abilities as an attorney?" (4) "If you are not offered this position, what are your future plans?" and (5) "What do you have to offer our profession and our law firm?" If you are not familiar with the interview process or have never been on a job interview, go through a mock interview with a family member, friend, or colleague.
- Appear professional. Whether you like it or not, your appearance matters. As an attorney, you will be expected to meet with clients and the public and, depending on your area of practice, appear in court. On many occasions your appearance is all that people have to initially rely on when determining whether they will entrust you with their legal matters. Invest in the appropriate business suit, shoes, tie, and accessories. I am not suggesting that you spend thousands of dollars on your wardrobe, but appearing at an interview wearing a worn-out suit or scuffed shoes will not convince the interviewing attorney to hire you. The devil is in the details.
- Express your appreciation. Regardless of whether you are offered the position, send a note of appreciation immediately after the interview. Remember that the attorneys who have interviewed you are busy professionals who have taken time out of their schedules to meet with you. The simple gesture of sending a thank-you note demonstrates your appreciation of this fact and also provides you with another opportunity to get your name in front of them. Besides, it is just proper business etiquette to do so. It will make you stand out from the crowd. I have interviewed numerous professionals and paraprofessionals during my years of practice, and I can honestly say that the vast majority of job applicants fail to follow up with a thank-you note.
I have heard many horror stories involving young attorneys who were fired because of their inability to get along with the staff. Remember: you are not working alone. You need the cooperation of the paralegals, secretary, and other staff. Their support is invaluable to a new attorney. You may have the law degree, but they have the experience and established relationships with the law firm.
If you have properly prepared and established a solid foundation for yourself, you have laid the groundwork for a successful legal career. As Robin Crow said, "being willing to do what others will not will always give you the competitive edge."
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