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Selling Yourself for Your Next Legal Job

published January 30, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing

( 13 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)

What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.
The statement, "You are unique," may not strike you as particularly profound. Of course you are unique; you have been told so since childhood. Your many accomplishments set you apart from the crowd.
Selling Yourself for Your Next Legal Job

Unfortunately, many law students lose their confidence in their own uniqueness as soon as they begin to look for a job. They act like they are fungible. They talk like they have no special skills. Part of the reason lies in the law school experience itself while another part relates to the job search process. These two elements can combine to undermine your ability to sell yourself to employers.

Law school is a little bit like marine boot camp. The course of study strips away your old identity and replaces it with a new one as a lawyer. For better or worse, you will never be a "non-lawyer" again. During your first year, you learn that you are almost never right. By your senior year, you discover that despite years of studying legal theory and black letter law, you know little about practicing law. Unlike previous school experiences, you can put everything you have into a course and still not get the highest grade.

The job search process is tough on the ego, also. Whether or not this is your first experience looking for a real job, it doesn't take long to discover the debilitating effects of job hunting. You may find it extremely difficult to feel unique in the face of this adversity. Many law students have encountered little adversity in their careers, so the job search can bring a rude awakening.

What can you do to maintain a strong sense of individuality? First, the better you understand your own skills, interests, and values, the easier it will be to articulate to employers that you are not just another grain of sand on the beach. Focus on your skills in relation to the job you seek rather than to the skills of your class mates.

Second, keep in mind that this is not a new battle. Throughout your life you have confronted pressure to be ordinary, and the fact that you are where you are suggests that you have resisted. Resist again.

Third, always identify a nexus between what you have to offer and what you believe an employer wants. Finally, keep in mind that you only have to score once in this game to win. The wildcatter only has to strike one gusher to make up for all the dry wells, and you only need one job despite the fact you may apply for many more. Maintain that "wildcatter" mentality.
In order to market yourself, you must know the product you are selling. You need to know its strengths as well as weaknesses, its appeal to potential consumers, and its value in the marketplace. Whether you perceive this product to be one of a kind or one of 35,000 identical items produced in the current model year can have a significant impact on your ability to sell the product in the marketplace.

Identifying Your Target

Just as you are unique, each employer is unique. Sometimes that tmth is lost in the mass of employer lists and placement information. Your goal as an applicant is to identify an employer who needs someone like you.

This does not mean that you cannot apply for more than one position at a time. It does mean that you should learn enough about each employer to whom you apply to be able to articulate why that employer needs to hire you. This becomes almost impos sible to do with a mass mailing campaign.

Your school's fall on-campus interview program represents the largest single group of employers you can hope to manage at one time. The more carefully you dissect employer information the more readily you will be able to make informed choices about interview selection. This pre-selection or self-screening process on your part, whether you are interviewing on campus or going out on your own, will enhance your chances of being selected for an interview, being hired, and being happy after you go to work.

Books on the subject deal with techniques for researching employers. If you have followed the advice there, you should have a significant compendium about employers at your disposal. As you narrow your leads from classes of employers to specific organizations, you should seek increasingly detailed information about potential employers prior to the interview.
Some of the information will be in written form, prepared by the employer or compiled by some other source. Much can be learned by talking with your network sources beforehand. A great deal of information can be obtained orally and then confirmed or amplified during the interview process. You will be eliciting oral information from the interviewer. When you can anticipate the interviewer's answers about the organization, your level of sophistication will be perceived as interest in the job, while lack of knowledge is often perceived as disinterest by interviewers.

Talk to professors, students who have clerked for the employer, judges, other lawyers, and even clients before the interview. Not all of these people will be helpful, but some will, and they will give you the information you need. When you talk to contacts, know exactly what you want to find out and gel right to the point. Try not to telegraph the answers you want to hear when you ask questions (e.g., "Isn't X, Y and Z a good firm?"). Unless it is obvious or necessary, do not specify that you will be applying for a job with the organization. Just say that you are curious or conducting research.

At this point, legal employers may be horrified at the prospect of thousands of law students calling everyone under the sun for background checks on them, but in reality few law students will take this advice. They will not have the time, consider it too intrusive, or simply believe that the return will not justify their efforts. Those of you who do dig beneath the surface will gain a decided advantage in the job search. You will be better prepared for interviews and can also use your research to eliminate many prospective employers or at least lower them on your priority list.

You do not need reams of information on each prospective employer, however. If you can articulate in a paragraph or less what makes this employer unique, you will generally have all the information you need to know. The best way to gather answers to your questions about an employer is through an information interview. This can be a formal appointment, a chance meeting, or a phone conversation during the pre-employment process to gather information.

In his book What Color is Your Parachute, Richard Bolles talks about information interviewing at an early stage in the career plan ning process. He suggests that you go to the person in the organization who ultimately will have the power to hire you for the pur pose of gathering information even before you apply. Then, when you come back to apply for a job, you will already have the infor mation you need to sell yourself and know your interviewer.

Even if you do not conduct, as Bolles suggests, a surreptitious pre-interview, many information interviews can lead to real inter views and jobs. Whether you are going directly to the organization or meeting with someone else, keep in mind the rules for any interview. Look good. Be prompt. Establish rapport. Question effectively. Listen actively.

Keep in mind what you want to learn and pursue that information assertively. If the interviewee does not have or know the information you require, ask for additional leads. Leave a business card or a resume, since sometimes people will have an idea after the interview and want to contact you.

Take notes during the interview, or as soon as you leave, because this information will fade quickly. Send a follow-up note or thank you letter if appropriate.

Finally, many of the individuals you meet can become part of your own network of contacts. By logging them into your database, you can build upon these contacts for future reference far beyond the employment process.

Contacting Your Target

Once you have written your resume and researched potential employers, you are ready to contact your target. You may be sending it to employers you interview through your placement office or in response to specific job notices posted at the placement office or in legal publications. You may also want to use your resume to solicit interviews with employers whose type of practice interests you and who are located in an area in which you would like to live. In many cases, a cover letter is a necessity. If your letter specifically targets the organization's needs, it can greatly enhance your chances of being hired.

Mass mailings to law firms, on the other hand, can be a costly and time-consuming task with little result. As direct mail advertisers know, a response rate of one for every 100 letters is unusually good. The approach you take and the language with which you state your interest can determine whether your letter conies to rest on the hiring partner's desk or in the trash can. You must use the letter to convey your interest in the type of practice a firm, corporation, or agency engages in, and your desire to become part of such a practice.

Your letter should describe how your skills and interest complement the firm's goals. It should reflect a little of your personality while getting its message across clearly and succinctly. Neatness, punctuation, and spelling are important. An error can eliminate your chances to be hired, especially if your letter is the only impression an employer has of you.
Several approaches can keep communications open. You may ask for an interview; you may even suggest a time. You might tell the employer that you plan to visit the office "unless it is inconvenient." It all depends on how assertive you want to be.

Do not neglect, however, to say something about a future meet ing as you are unlikely to get a job on the strength of your resume alone. Highlight one particularly strong point from your resume in your letter, but do not restate the resume in prose. In one sense, your cover letter should persuade the interviewer to turn the page to read your resume. Together, the cover letter and resume should pique the reader's interest enough to get you in the door.

A follow-up letter or phone call may be useful to assure that you are not forgotten. You walk a thin line between assertiveness and pushiness, so use your discretion.

On the following page are a general purpose letter of application and other letters likely to be useful in the job search. Remember, these are merely suggestions.

You must write letters in your own words if you want them to tally represent you and your interests. Word processing allows you to personalize letters quickly and easily, although most students simply use a word processing program to merge addresses with a boilerplate body. The problem with computer-generated letters is that they look and sound impersonal. Not surprisingly, many law firms react to such applications the way you do to junk mail. The more personalized your letter sounds, the better the odds.

If you have maintained a card file or database of potential employers, you are now ready to begin your letter-writing campaign. If not, you will have to do some research. The length of your letter is not as important as its content, but as a rule, keep the letter short and direct.

The first paragraph of your letter should indicate why you are contacting a particular firm or organization. Your primary reason will usually be the nature of its work as evidenced by its clients, professional affiliations, and the like. But perhaps a speech or a position taken by a member of the firm struck a responsive chord in your own view of the profession and its goals. Or you may have been referred by someone to the organization or established your own contacts in the firm. Regardless of what your reasons are, be sure the first paragraph of your letter describes them.

This first paragraph is important because you are asking a busy lawyer to take the time to review your application. It should indicate that you have taken the trouble to become acquainted with the firm and that you know enough about the organization to believe it might be interested in you. The fact that you have done this kind of research indicates that you are serious about seeking a position, and is also subtly flattering to the organization.

If you send your resume to an alumnus of your own school, you should still indicate why you chose that particular firm or organization, and ask that your letter be passed along to the individual responsible for hiring decisions.

The second paragraph of the letter should expand on your reason for contacting the firm by pointing out some part of your back ground or experience that you feel might be relevant to the firm's needs. Generally, you will refer to your resume at this point in the letter (e.g., "As my enclosed resume indicates....")

There may be other background information not shown on your resume that would be important to employers. For example, if you contact a firm with a large number of Spanish-speaking clients, you could mention that you have studied Spanish for eight years or speak Spanish at home.

The third paragraph should indicate how to contact you and arrange for an interview. Be as specific as possible. If you will be in the law firm's community during a certain period of time, state when, and, if possible, give a local address and telephone number to reach you during that period. Repeat addresses and telephone numbers from your resume to encourage action.

Employers understand that you cannot sit by the phone 24 hours a day. The following statements are entirely appropriate:
  • "I will be in class most of the time, but I have arranged for an answering service to accept appointments for me."
  • "I will call your office to confirm the time you find most convenient."
  • "The person answering the phone has a complete schedule of my time commitments and will be glad to arrange a convenient time for you to meet with me."

If you have been farsighted enough to arrange an interview schedule to meet at the convenience of employer, that thoughtfulness will not go unnoticed.

The appearance of your cover letter is just as important as the content. With desktop publishing software, you can create your own letterhead at a fraction of the cost of printing. Keep the appearance neat and conservative, using quality stationery in white or cream. Proofread everything. A single typographical error can be the kiss of death for your application.

As you send out your letters and resumes, note the dates on file cards (see sample on page 141) or on a computer database. As replies are received, note the dates and the nature of the responses as well. If you do not hear from an employer within a reasonable time, use follow-up letter or phone call. If you are not sure what is reasonable, consult your placement director or some other knowledgeable person. If your application will be under consideration for several months or longer, periodic communications from you may help keep your application fresh, but try not to become a pest. Keep working on your file cards, increasing the number of cards and the amount of information on them. In addition to providing further contacts for your letter-writing campaign, the cards will be essential at the next step-the interview.

Interviewing Your Target

Is there a magic formula that guarantees a successful job interview? An elixir to cure knocking knees, sweaty palms, and a blank mind? Unfortunately, there is no such cure. Interviews involve a complex interaction between the people involved, reflecting the various values, needs, and personality traits of each. By arming yourself with knowledge of the employer's needs and preferences, as well as your own strengths and weaknesses, you will have a better idea how to con duct the interview and what questions to ask.

A successful interview is not necessarily one that results in a job offer. It is, instead, one that allows both the employer and the potential employee to discover what the other wants, what goals are important, what working conditions are most desirable-in short, to gain an honest impression of whether or not a working situation would be mutually satisfactory.
This is not easy to discover in the limited time available in the interview situation, and to avoid any misconceptions, both parties should be entirely honest. An important rule is to be yourself. Otherwise, you might find yourself in an uncomfortable employment situation.

The primary goal of any interviewee should be to become more aware of the dynamics of the interview situation, and thereby to control it. An interview can be any face-to-face meeting between an employer and potential employee to discuss the employment possibilities of the former with the latter. The dynamics of the interview are the interactions, both verbal and non-verbal, between the interview participants. They will constitute each party's basis for evaluating the interview.
In order to control the interview, you must recognize which aspects of your background to emphasize and establish specific objectives to accomplish during the interview. Because of time limitations inherent in the interview situation, it is important to select and control the information you give the interviewer.

The primary area under your direct control is the attitude with which you approach the interview and your mindset. Imagine yourself as an investor approaching a prospective banker. You have funds to invest, and the banker has services to offer. In such a setting, the banker will naturally have questions regarding the amount you wish to deposit, the percentage of return that you expect, and the length of time the bank would have use of your funds.

You, in turn, would want to know the advantages and disadvantages of the various forms of investment the bank has to offer, the degree of safety of your funds, and the types of services you would receive. What should result is a businesslike exchange of information aimed at reaching a mutually satisfactory arrangement. If that could not be achieved, you would then proceed to consult with other bankers along the same line. The typical interview lasts 20-30 minutes and consists of a greeting, a discussion, and a closing.

There are generally one to three interviewers. But remember: an interview may not be a formal one in the office or at school; it may occur during a chance meeting at some other place.

One thing that should be avoided at all costs is tardiness. You should be on time or a few minutes early whether the interview is at the law school or at the employer's place of business.

A conservative, neat appearance is generally advisable. In both dress and demeanor you can come on too strong just as easily as not strong enough. It might be necessary to purchase a new inter viewing wardrobe to project a professional image. The expense may be considerable, but you should think of it as an investment. Once your attire has been selected, you can then concentrate on the most important aspect of preparing for an interview-knowing the employer. Review your file card or database on the particular prospective employer.

You may also want to see other sources of information, like a corporation's annual report. Your placement office may have a complete description of a law firm on file for you to consult. A government agency may publish a brochure that describes in detail the work of the agency including the work of its legal department. Too much information is better than not enough.
As you review the information you have collected, formulate the questions you would like to ask regarding the organization and its opportunities for you. Jot them down. Include the names of people to whom you may be speaking. Oral introductions can be hard to recall, but once you see a name in writing, remembering it is much easier.

While the interviewer is sizing you up during the greeting phase of the interview, you should be aware of your reaction to the interviewer as well. Researchers have found that people develop strong and often lasting impressions about the appearance, attitudes, values, and abilities of other people within the first few minutes after meeting them. If you feel an initial dislike or uneasiness about someone, move more slowly into the interview and attempt to ascertain why you feel that way with direct or indirect questions. If a first impression is favorable, adopt a more informal stance, or approach the interview itself more aggressively.

While good eye contact, a firm handshake, a memory for names, and a big smile are helpful, too many people get so wrapped up in carrying out these functional activities that they lose all spontaneity, as well as the ability to think quickly. They may come across as shallow and rigid. It is more important to be relaxed and natural at the start of the interview than to perform some kind of ritual.

The types of questions asked in an interview situation often address what kind of law practice interests you, what substantive knowledge you possess, and other goal-related questions. Not only will the employer want to gain an accurate impression of your goals at this point, but you will have an excellent opportunity to discover whether the employer is doing the kind of work you would find challenging and enjoyable.

Honesty is vital at this stage of the interview, or you are likely to create an image of yourself which you would not be comfortable living with should you eventually go to work for the employer. For example, if you indicate that you are interested in doing research, this is probably what you will be doing if you are offered a job. The potential employer may evidence some interest in your past employment experience, academic qualifications, and interests. You are, for the most part, in control of the direction the questioning takes at this point, since you have drafted your resume, and it reflects those points you want to discuss. It is important, both in the resume and in the interview itself, always to stress those facts about yourself that you consider outstanding - those that in some way separate you from the other interviewees. If you are honest and straightforward, you are much more likely to discover an employment situation in which you have the freedom to be yourself and do the things that you enjoy.
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