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Finding Law Firm Employment

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It is extremely valuable to find a part-time or summer job in a law firm or in some business or profession closely related to law. At one time, such jobs were rare and they were usually obtained through an old-boy network. Favored students would find employment in law firms run by their parents, relatives, or family friends. The old-boy network is still there and it remains the only way to get such jobs in some firms.

Finding Law Firm Employment

But many firms are making conscious efforts to broaden the base from which they draw their part-timers. They ask professors for recommendations, participate in co-op programs and other campus employment services, and-perhaps most important-make affirmative action efforts. Some even advertise in local newspapers. If you are trying to obtain a part-time job and aren't able to invoke some family favoritism, your first stop should be your campus prelaw adviser or your academic adviser. You should also check the bulletin boards, electronic postings, and newsletters of your campus placement center. Look also for openings in the legal departments of large corporations; office jobs for such legal-service professionals as court reporters, videotapers, publishers and detectives; and jobs for regulated industries.

And you should persevere. Getting a job in any small business-and all law firms are small businesses, by corporate standards-is always largely a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Each year, it seems, one or two of my advisees obtain jobs in the Peoria-area legal community simply by knocking on doors and filling out unsolicited job applications. One young woman drew up a resume with the assistance of one of Bradley's job placement counselors, and sent copies to every law firm in the county.

If nothing else, working in a law firm for a few semesters will allow you to say that your ideas about what a lawyer does each day were not formed solely by television programs. Even though your job as a part-timer will largely be spent doing office busywork, you should also learn something about legal language and procedure. Perhaps more important, you'll begin to make the acquaintance of lawyers. Networking will occupy a large part of your professional life. Finally, you'll begin to learn about the unwritten codes of dress, manners, and customs that lawyers are expected to follow.

Law firm work may marginally improve your ability to get into law school in two ways. You may have the chance to do something responsible, and then you can write on your law school applications that you did research for appellate briefs, or helped lawyers conduct interviews, or- as one of my students did a few years ago-improved the computer program that the law firm used for account management. You will be able to write an interesting application essay about such an accomplishment, and your essay will demonstrate the possession of skills useful in law school.

Second, if you are a conscientious and impressive employee, one or more of your firm's lawyers will write useful letters of recommendation for you. This is a tangible end-product of mentoring, and can marginally improve your chances of admission.

One danger of law firm employment is that you may be left doing nothing but busywork. You can expect to spend some of your time making coffee and photocopying documents. Law firms need to have these things done. But if, after you have been there a semester, you conclude that your job isn't teaching you anything, you should consider looking for another one. Don't quit in a hurry if the job pays well and the alternative is flipping burgers for minimum wage. But look around and see if you can do better.

A second and even greater danger is that the reverse will happen: your job will become so enjoyable, and teach you so much, that you neglect your studies. The lawyers you are working for, who want you to put your time into helping them, may be especially seductive. They'll promise to help you get into law school, they'll brag about their influence back at the old alma mater, and they'll tell you how well their previous protégés have done. Remember, lawyers are especially persuasive people; they may be able to make you believe that your part- time work is the most important thing that you can do to get into law school.

Well, it isn't. You have to resist! Up to a point, legal experience is valuable and the mentoring and good will of practicing lawyers can never hurt you. But neither of these things will make up for poor undergraduate grades. If your mentor is serious about helping you, he or she will make it possible for you to study.

For both summer and part-time internships, the course instructor will monitor your performance. You will meet with him or her, discuss what you are learning, and eventually write a paper or two. Sometimes the instructor will meet with several interns at once. From your individual or group conferences, you should obtain some guidance about what to look for in your work experience. Sometimes the instructor will provide, or will require you to find, detailed information about the work of your agency or organization.

At work, you will do whatever needs to be done. In most cases, this will include that famous general office work. Expect (surprise, surprise) to make coffee. But like a co-op job, the internship is supposed to teach you something. Internship employers have even more of a responsibility to you because, unlike co-op employers, they're not paying you. Most recognize this responsibility, and some make extensive promises. The Illinois Attorney General's office is not an extreme example when it advertises that "typical internship assignments include: performing legal research in the law library; working with consumers who complain about unfair business practices; [and] assisting lawyers with case study and legal writing."

Hold them to their promises! As with co-op jobs, sometimes internships don't work out. But in contrast to co-op jobs, such complaints are rare. It's much more common for interns to complain that they are being worked to death. They're given responsible chores, all right-but chores that take much longer than their commitment of 15 hours a week.

The reason for this is that the government agencies that take interns are famously understaffed and overworked. When they obtain the services of bright and energetic young people-who, remember, are working for free or for very little-they load these volunteers with as much work as they will bear. Because of this well-known tendency, internships in public prosecutors' offices and similar government agencies are perceived by the law schools as extremely good experience. But as with all jobs, don't let the work interfere with your studying. If you can afford to commit the time, summer internships are probably better than part-time work in this regard.

Not all students can afford to spend a summer without earning money. For that matter, some have to forego even part-time internships because they need paying work. If you are in this position, ask the course instructor if some support is available, either from the agency or from the college. Sometimes small grants are available, or time for internships can be built into the college financial aid package. Also, investigate whatever internships you can find with business organizations. Pressure groups and similar private organizations sometimes provide better pay.

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