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Finding Your Match in the Legal Profession: An Excerpt from The Best Law Schools' Admissions Secrets

published June 10, 2008

Joyce Putnam Curll
( 92 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
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<<Private firm practice is the most common venue, from the large, elite law firm to the small-town practice or even hanging out your own shingle. There are also small boutique firms in specialty practice or serving public interest goals. There are a myriad of government jobs at federal, state, and local levels, including regulatory, prosecutorial, and public defender positions. Within organizations are opportunities for in-house corporate jobs and work in nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.

The process of finding a job that best fits your personality and skills and provides you with most or all of your career-related needs and desires is one that will likely occupy your thoughts before, during, and after law school. You will want to explore many varied possibilities, learn more about yourself, and experiment with different techniques to find what best suits you. In most law schools, especially those at the top of the pecking order, the career services office is there to help you with your exploration, but it will be your job to take advantage of the programs or services they offer.


Most schools offer career-related panel discussions (often using their own alumni as panelists), presentations, and workshops. For example, Harvard Law School offers a series of panels called The World of Law, each highlighting an area of practice and an overview of the career path or paths to get into the area. Sampling the areas that interest you is a helpful way to understand them. This can be done through volunteer or paid work during the school year and during the summer.

Drilling down to the more individualized level, most schools offer self-assessment tools and individual advising to help students to develop personalized career strategies. Resume and cover letter writing workshops are offered at most law schools, and some go so far as to offer videotaped practice interviews with critiques by experienced advisers. Some provide alumni advisers, particularly for esoteric fields, and many continue their services to all alumni.

Typically, the career services offices do not work with first-year students until the end of their first semester or the beginning of their second. The reason is that students need time to settle into legal education before they start their job searches. As a practical matter, the office is typically so preoccupied with second- and third-year on-campus interviewing during the fall semester that any first-year student would get short shrift. It also makes sense that summer employers will want to see at least one semester of grades before they hire you for the summer, if they are planning to hire any first-year students at all.

Evolution of Interests

"A funny thing happened to me on my way to the ACLU...I discovered tax law (or bankruptcy or employment or some other specialty)" is a familiar refrain that has been heard throughout my career. I used to quip that 50% of incoming students wanted international law, 50% wanted entertainment law, and 50% wanted environmental law as a career.

Once you begin your legal studies, reality sets in, and your interests develop or change. My best advice to you is not to fight this but to embrace it. Your courses may alter your career goals and interests, as may your extracurricular activities. You may be influenced by an experience as a research assistant, an internship or pro bono placement, a summer job, or reading a book in or out of class. Your three years in law school are your opportunity to expose yourself to as wide a range of subject areas and areas of practice as you can imagine.

If you follow your heart in this exploration, you have the best chance of finding at least a good match in your career. Make attending whatever panel discussions, workshops, and alumni gatherings your school offers part of your schedule, picking up as much information as you can along the way. It may help you avoid mistakes that would divert you from your path to career satisfaction.

Summer Employment

In the second semester of your first year, you may experience your first on-campus interviewing opportunity. Depending on the demand for first-year law students by firms, you may find it easy to find employment through this mechanism. Your attractiveness to law firms may also depend on your experience prior to law school. Students who have been consultants or investment bankers or who have extensive experience in any number of fields will have the best shot at the jobs available for the first-year summer.

Statistically, the easier you find it to be employed through this program, the less likely you are to look at other options. The silver lining to not finding a high-paying firm job in your first summer is that you are more likely to try some other alternatives and to develop some job-searching techniques beyond presenting good grades and scores and passable interviewing skills. This could serve you well in the long run.

The summer after the first year is the most convenient time to explore a public service career. You may find an opportunity as a government or judicial intern or as a volunteer (or very low-paid worker) in a nonprofit or NGO. Even if you work as a volunteer, it is a good investment of your time if you want to explore this avenue.

You may be more likely to be paid, or to be attractive as a volunteer, if you have some previous experience or expertise to offer. If you have volunteered during the academic year for a particular organization, you could be first in line for a paid position. If you have a pro bono requirement at your school, consider fulfilling it during your first year, and it may also serve as your volunteer opportunity. They don't need the training time and effort if you are ready to hit the ground running.

Some schools, including Harvard Law School and New York University School of Law, encourage this exploration by offering summer grants to students seeking public service employment during the first summer. Other schools, even if they do not offer grants, will dispense with the requirement that students contribute to their education from summer earnings.

If you are not interested in exploring public service work and the on-campus interviewing program does not lead to a job, seek to build on what you have done in the past, adding a legal component, as you prepare to market yourself for more general opportunities. If you are interested in staying in the same city where your law school is located, seek a research assistantship with a faculty member or do the same at a law school near your home or wherever else you hope to spend the summer.

Consider going far from home and school if opportunity knocks. It provides the opportunity to experience another part of the country. Another alternative, available mostly to students with foreign-language ability and experience living in other countries, is a summer internship in a foreign law firm. English-speaking countries are open to all, but fluency in a foreign language will facilitate your going wherever that language takes you.

Harvard Law School has a program where students interested in this option begin their search late in the first term of law school and have a host of alumni-offered opportunities to choose from. Other schools with large international alumni populations and/or study abroad programs may offer the same.

Second Summer: The On-Campus Interview — Convenience or a Trap?

If it is ever going to be easy for you to find a job in the legal profession, the first semester of your second year is the time. If you are at one of the top- or second-tier law schools, law firms will participate in an on-campus interviewing program at your school. To satisfy their demand for new lawyers, law firms have focused on students who have completed their first year.

Competition is such among the firms that they seek to have a large number of participants in their summer programs, which become tryouts for permanent positions. Again, depending on the year and the demand for new associates at the firm, many to most summer associates will be made an offer to join the firm after graduation. Students who seek and are offered a judicial clerkship can take up the offer after completing the clerkship.

The on-campus interview program cuts two ways. For those who want to explore working for large- or medium-sized corporate firms, it is a great convenience to have the firms come to the school to conduct initial interviews. The student needs only to prepare a resume, dress as a professional, and show up for 20-minute interviews.

The firms invite those students in whom they are most interested to visit them for a day. Known as "callbacks," these visits are largely for recruiting, although not everyone receives an offer from a particular firm. However, many students will receive multiple offers and will have the opportunity to decide which firm they will join. Some students can split their offers, spending half the summer at one firm and half at another. Sometimes the split is between a firm and a public service organization or between two offices of the same firm in different cities.

For those students who are pretty sure they don't want to work at a large- or medium-sized firm, the on-campus program feels like a trap. The money is so good and the firms so eager to hire that only the rare person completely shuns the process. Those who do may be ambivalent about "missing the boat."

There are good arguments for the value of knowing what goes on in these firms even if you have no intention of making a career with them. If your career goal is to work in public service or in the government, the argument is that you need to know how the "enemy" thinks. Besides, what you earn during your second summer can really help to finance your third year of law school, reduce your future debt burden, etc.

Most firms make every effort to give the summer associates a good time, not working them too hard and having exciting social events as a part of the experience, and students may well be lulled into thinking that the summer experience is a true reflection of what it will be like after graduation. It is easier to start at a large firm and then move to a smaller firm or another area of practice than to do the reverse, and the second summer is where you first make that decision. If you go this route, keep in mind the cultural fit and the areas of practice and work to match your interests and personality with the firms which make you offers.

Judicial Clerkships

Judicial clerkships are a popular choice after law school, particularly for those students who have done well in law school and who want to keep open the option of teaching law at some point in their careers. Clerkships, especially at the federal level, are a prestigious form of continued legal education. They offer the opportunity to do research and writing and to work under the supervision of a judge, who in most cases is an experienced jurist. They present the opportunity to see what goes on in court from the judge's side of the bench and to possibly have an influence on the judge's decision.

The most desirable clerkships are in the federal courts, and some who have served in these clerkships have the opportunity to serve in the most prestigious of clerkships — for a justice of the Supreme Court. Students from the top law schools have the greatest opportunity to serve at the federal level, and the positions are in high demand. State courts are the next most attractive, with the highest court in each state attracting the strongest applicants.

Joint Degree Programs

The attainment of an additional degree, through a joint or concurrent degree program, does not necessarily increase your employment opportunities. It may help to focus your job search. If you intend to go into government law, a corporation, or the nonprofit sector, the additional skills you gain in a public policy program or from an MBA program may help you to find a good match in that direction. At the same time, the added education can send mixed signals to the large corporate firms about where your true interests lie.

Further Legal Education: The LLM and SJD

For most students the JD is a terminal degree, and immediate continuing education means a clerkship. Later in life, you may participate in continuing legal education programs but nothing leading to a degree. For a small number of JD students, however, continued legal education in the form of an LLM or SJD degree is an attraction. For the most part Americans limit their quests to the LLM degree, and most of the candidates for the SJD (or JSD) degree are foreign lawyers for whom the degree is like a PhD in law and will enable them to teach law, or become judges, in their home countries.

The most common LLM degree sought by Americans is in taxation, and numerous schools have substantial LLM programs in this field. Most of the other candidates for the LLM degree are foreign lawyers, although some Americans from the lower-level law schools do seek the LLM to enhance their credentials for the law teaching market.

Final Thoughts

Whatever road you take out of law school, consider the various directions in which it may lead and what your alternatives will be after your first job. Seek the advice of the career services professionals, your faculty mentors, your alumni advisers, and other members of the profession whose advice you trust. You may have to choose between following conventional wisdom and rejecting it to follow your own heart.

About the Author

Dean Joyce Putnam Curll served for 18 years as admissions and financial aid dean at Harvard Law School. During that time she evaluated more than 120,000 applicants for admission to the law school. She formerly worked in admissions for 16 years at New York University School of Law, serving as admissions dean.

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