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Legal Job Hunting Strategies

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Much of the literature in the career planning and placement field fails to offer alternatives to traditional job hunting techniques. Creative approaches to the process are seldom suggested even by experienced career counselors. But the truth is that not everyone will succeed following the traditional paths.

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Not everyone went to Harvard. Not everyone made law review. Not everyone has a daddy who will hire them no matter how poorly they do in school. In other words, something should be said for the benefit of the other 90%.

What problems do you face when you begin your job search without an instant network of relatives or pre-existing contacts?

For you, the task is to create contacts on your own. You have to work harder, longer, and smarter than your more fortunate classmates.

One of the most difficult problems a job seeker has to face is how to make contacts with prospective employers when he or she has no certain knowledge about what jobs are available. In such a situation, the individual must find the opening, or in some cases even create the demand.

This method of job hunting variously known as "pounding the pavement" or "beating the bushes" can be frustrating and dehumanizing. The percentages drop as soon as you go from jobs you know are available to those you think might be available. Still, much of the headache can be avoided by following a few simple rules.

Plan: if you have some idea about what you want, some priorities, and some system for your search, you will have overcome the major hurdle. Too many people start looking first, and ask questions later. This not only cuts down on efficiency, but also increases the likelihood of accepting a personally dissatisfying position. Your research and evaluation before you ever start to look for a job should be painstaking and thorough.

Persevere: Recognize the fact that you may not meet with instant success. Prepare contingency plans and keep looking. Retrace your steps from time to time, especially in areas with large lawyer populations. Whenever you get a lead from one source, follow it up. In fact, you should attempt to find leads even when your discussions with employers are otherwise unproductive.

Pick and choose: Blanket applications usually are not the best way to apply for jobs. Carefully drawn personal letters to employers are usually more effective.

Pull all your strings: Crass as it may sound, always try the easiest route — ask for help from family, friends, or acquaintances who are practicing attorneys. If you have an ice breaker, or a recommendation, do not hesitate to use it.

Work cooperatively: The idea of group and team interviews is more revolutionary. In the group interview, more than one person meets with a representative of a legal employer at the same time. Using a team approach, you and one or more other persons interested in the same type of practice go to a city together, but interview separately avoiding overlap. By comparing notes at the end of an interviewing day, the amount of territory you can cover will be multiplied. It is essential that you lay the ground rules beforehand, and start out with an attitude of cooperation.

Be creative: The greatest asset one can have in job hunting is a creative and fertile imagination.

Applying Long Distance

Most law graduates enter practice in the state or area where they went to law school. For graduates leaving the area after graduation, contacts with outside lawyers may seem limited.

Actually, the limitations only depend upon the amount of time and effort you are willing to spend. Applying long distance will require more research because you must base your decisions upon where you would like to live as well as with whom you could work.

The following comments suggest ways you can go about researching, finding, and applying for such positions:
  • Research desirable areas to live. Get newspapers and magazines from different cities. Write to the Chamber of Commerce. Find out about the economic, political, and environmental conditions in the area and then ask yourself if these conditions will be agreeable to you.
  • Contact local bar associations. A state bar will have addresses of local bar associations and their officers. Many times these people can help.
  • Read the bar journals. Almost every state has a bar journal, and many of these have a placement section.
  • Research some more! Try to find out who the legal employers are and how you can find potential openings. Even if you have lived in the area before, you have probably never looked for a legal job there. Check your placement office files. Check the Martindale-Hubbell to locate other graduates from your law school or your undergraduate alma mater. Watch the current job listings on your schools placement office bulletin board.
  • Establish personal contacts. Even if you do not have contacts within the legal community, you might know someone who does. Check groups with professional interests similar to yours, and if you have an interview that does not result in a job, always ask for other possible leads.
  • Apply for temporary jobs. It is easier to look for jobs if you live in an area than to try to do it long distance. Also consider positions like judicial clerkships to get you there.
  • Use letters of introduction. Some students have firm ideas about where to begin looking for a job upon graduation, but have no idea how to begin looking. When they arrive at their destination, they discover that a strange city can be an imposing obstacle to even the most daring individual. Many placement offices will provide a letter of introduction to placement offices at other schools in the area requesting that they provide names of persons who might offer employment or help you to get some feel for the local employment market.
  • Go there. Everything is easier when you visit a place personally. Despite the cost, an interviewing trip will demonstrate your interest. Many students make the ultimate commitment: Move to the area, take the bar exam, and keep looking until they find a job.

Where Are the Lawyers?

Lawyers often attend conventions, conferences, and institutes that focus on their specialty. If you are interested in a particular area of practice, go where the lawyers are. Many continuing legal education conferences are offered free or at reduced rates for law students. This approach may require you to be assertive in meeting people and arranging interviews or can offer informal opportunities to talk during breaks or discussion groups.

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Pitfalls for the Unwary

Three particular approaches to the job search deserve attention because of their ineffectiveness. These are the hat-in-hand approach, mass mailings, and putting all your eggs in one basket.

Hat-in-hand. This approach begins with a mental attitude that you will be lucky to find a job, any job. If you have to take what you can get, there is little reason to devote much attention to what you have to offer.

In the end you will probably find a job based upon a fit between your skills and the employer's needs. The hat-in-hand approach, however, can divert your attention to many openings for which there is no it, and little prospect of getting hired. A hat-in-hand mentality also tends to cause you to undersell yourself..

Mass mailings. Sometimes a corollary of the hat-in-hand approach, mass mailings represent an attempt to get a job by playing a numbers game. In commercial advertising, a direct mail ad campaign may go out to thousands of recipients. Most of these will not respond, but a small, predictable percentage who do will make the campaign profitable. A response rate of 0.5 percent is considered good, so 200 letters might result in one interview, 400 might result in two, etc. It is not just a question of financing such a campaign, but rather who will respond to a mass mailing.

All your eggs in one basket. Some law students want one job so much that they pursue only that position. Some students count on a part-time job developing into permanent employment. Others have received assurances that a job would be available for them when they graduate.

Not a year passes that virtually every placement director in the country encounters at least one desperate graduate whose plans have fallen asunder. Do not be caught in this situation. Even if you have a strong possibility for employment, check out others. Maintain alternatives in case your first choice falls through.

Timetable for the Job Search

The job search is made more difficult by the fact that the timetable for job applications is a complicated one. In fact, there are many different timetables for the job search. This is because different types of legal employment may require you to contact employers, interview, and make decisions at different points in time.

These scheduling anomalies can catch the inattentive law student by surprise. If you overlook critical dates, you may foreclose many job opportunities.

The following generalizations pertain to specific job markets:

Large Firms and Corporations

Large firms, corporations, and other employers that participate in the fall on-campus recruitment process at law schools typically do most of their hiring through campus interviews. This is true whether the firm visit your campus or not. They interview for summer clerks during the second year of law school, make offers to clerks at the end of the summer, and interview third year students for positions only if they do not fill all openings from the ranks of summer clerks.

This process takes place each fall and the dates can be affected not only by the particular schedule set up by your law school placement office for conducting interviews, but also by NALP guidelines concerning the acceptance of offers by employers participating in fall on-campus interviews. If you want to get a job with an employer that recruits through campus interviews, you must keep this timetable in mind, even if you do not go through the interviews themselves.

Small Firms

Small firms tend to hire new lawyers when they need them. Frequently when they need someone is yesterday, so the firm will require candidates to have taken and passed the bar exam.

Other small firms recruit almost exclusively from the ranks of part-time (as opposed to summer) law clerks. Thus, there is no magic time frame for small firm hiring, other than some early in the first year of law school until several months after graduation.


Most federal district and appeals court judges begin the clerkship selections process early in the spring semester of student's second year (third year for evening students). Although the interviewing process may extend through the summer and even into the next fall, many judges have completed their selection by early March.

Your school undoubtedly will have special procedures for applying to judges for clerkships and should you miss this window your chances of getting hired are diminished considerably.

Clerkships for state judges generally lag behind federal clerkships. Consult the court in the jurisdiction where you will be applying.

Government Agencies

Government agencies are often influenced by budget cycles which run for a year beginning in September or some other annual date. Even agencies that try to recruit through on-campus interviews do not know how many openings they will have until the following spring or summer.

The armed services, Foreign Service, FBI, as well as graduate law programs have their own application deadlines and beginning dates for training/educational programs.

Government Jobs for Lawyers

It is important to look for application deadlines and hiring patterns whenever you conduct research on legal employers. Be sure and note this information on your file cards or database.

Many students ask how long the job search should take. Of course, the answer depends on many factors. Assuming that you have done all the necessary background research, prepared a resume and committed time to the job search, you should plan on several weeks of sending out applications. This assumes that you will be doing things other than looking for a job, and that you will not send out all your applications at once. You will be responding to old applications as you send out newer ones.

As a mile of thumb, you should expect to hear from employers about two weeks after you send your letter. If you have not heard anything after four weeks you might want to follow up with a second letter or phone call. If you have not heard anything within six weeks, you probably will not. Unfortunately, some employers lack the staff or simply the courtesy to respond to students who contact them.

If your initial efforts are not successful, this stage of the job search will continue. Weeks can easily turn into months. As a rule, if you have actively pursued legal employers for three or four months without a positive response, you should probably go back to the drawing board. Your career counselor may be able to pin point problems that hamper your success.

When an employer becomes interested in you, the next step is to schedule a screening interview. It normally takes two to four weeks to contact you, schedule the interview, and conduct the interview. Even where the law school placement office serves as a facilitator for the interview scheduling, there is some delay between the times you first sign up for interviews, and the
interviews are held.

Since you may be talking to a number of employers on different dates, this stage of the process normally lasts for several weeks. Most law students find that there is a natural limit to the number of interviews they can endure when not pressed to do so by necessity. If they begin to receive positive responses to their first interviews, many law students cease contacting new employers until their initial interviewing is completed.

After the screening interview, you can expect to wait two to three weeks before hearing from the employer. The time frame may be extended if the employer conducts a national search with many applicants or reduced if the search is limited to two or three individuals. Allowing another two to three weeks for employers to make decisions, you should expect to have offers in hand within three to four months after you started the process. So if you plan on going through fall on-campus interviews, the process will start in mid-August and you should be finished by mid-November.

After you receive one or more offers you should have some time to make a decision. Since employers want you to decide as soon as possible, most students want to extend the time frame to maximize their options. Some employers expect an answer on the spot. (Federal judges are famous for this.) Although these matters are generally subject to negotiation, a sense of fair play and reasonableness on the part of both employers and candidates should put limits on the time frame for making decisions.

You may find yourself cut out of the process at a number of different points. If you have not taken the time to initiate new applications before older ones are rejected, you may find yourself at some point back to square one facing another three or four months of job search. It is probably fair to say that your job search will not go as well as your wildest hopes, but will go better than your gravest fears. A job search of three to six months is not unusual; one extending beyond nine months is atypical.

The timetable for part-time job searches, because of the temporary nature of the employment and the quick turnaround of the openings, is generally abbreviated. And a job search for a highly technical or specialized position may last a year or more.

For the substantial number of law students who go through the on-campus interview program at their school to find a permanent job, the process takes a good portion of the fall during the second and third years of law school (third and fourth for evening students). Although it is possible to skip second year interviews and look for a permanent job during your final fall in law school, a majority of positions offered through on-campus interview programs are the result of summer clerkships obtained during the second year.


Different legal jobs as well as law-related jobs can be expected to follow different cycles. Small firm hiring does not follow any cycle at all. Your research into potential employers should include the timing of the application process. If getting a job requires being in the right place at the right time, you can significantly enhance your chances by figuring out when the right place and right time will occur.

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About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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