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The banker Walter Wristen once said that good judgment comes from experience and that experience comes from bad judgment. Unfortunately, most first-year law students have little experience searching for a job, so their judgment is extremely limited. Surviving three years of law school leaves little time to learn the tricks of the trade necessary to become successful in today's competitive legal job market. First-year students lean into the job hunt head against the wind with the huge handicap of inexperience. Three years later graduation rolls around, and only then, if ever, does the average law student know how to secure a position in a law firm. Many law students believe that because they were successful undergraduates, securing summer associate and post-law school employment will be a piece of cake. And the most common mistake students make during the job search is relying too much on their placement director or career services office to get a job. But there are steps you can take to avoid this naiveté as your law firm job search gets under way. It will be much easier for you if you map out your search from the beginning.
Timing is everything. I know you've heard that adage before, but first-year law students, like their more experienced peers, will fare better in their job search if they pay attention to a timetable. It is vital to understand when, as well as why, you should perform specific tasks related to your job search. Here's the basic job search timetable for you as a first-year student:
Not surprisingly, recruiting professionals report that each year first-year students begin contacting law firms earlier and earlier. You should know that this tactic does not really give you an advantage; in fact, it often does just the opposite. First-year hiring decisions are usually not made until all second-year offers have been declined or accepted, which often takes until the end of December. And without grades or significant work experience, it is difficult to select one applicant over another at the first-year level. Most recruiting professionals, who by late fall are exhausted, usually do not appreciate a first-year student trying to outmaneuver his or her classmates by not abiding by the National Association for Law Placement's rules. With the supply of first-years greatly outweighing demand, "getting in early" has little significance in this job market. If anything, this tactic sours recruiting professionals and creates a negative first impression.
Don't wait too long, however, to begin contacting firms, either. Ideally, you should concentrate on preparing your resume and looking for job opportunities immediately after first-semester exams, sometime around the winter holiday break. When you contact a firm and they tell you that "hiring is complete," this message does not mean that you waited too long to contact that firm. It means that the firm probably hired only second-year students. For clarification, ask the firm if first-years were hired.
Mail your resume in December or early January. Don't wait until spring to begin your job search, as the hiring process can often take several months. When dealing with small firms, it is likely that you will have to follow up more than once or wait a month or two later to mail your resume. Small firms typically wait to determine their hiring needs closer to the summer months.
Target the Firms that Will Hire You
First-year students should be optimistic, but realistic, about their job search. It is very difficult for a first-year student to receive an offer for a summer associate position. You may be the one to beat the odds and land a coveted position in a major law firm, but you shouldn't count on it. A recent sampling of the first-year class at a top-twenty law school showed that with 308 of 400 students reporting, only 25 percent got jobs in firms. Of that 25 percent, only 2 percent worked in major law firms. But even more revealing was the fact that only 13 percent were paid more than $600 per week. (Large firms' salaries typically range from $1,000 to $1,800 per week.) The majority of law students, 45 percent, reported working for no pay. The placement director at this law school reported that these statistics have been typical of her first-year classes for the last several years. Career services offices all over the country paint similar pictures.
Let's face it; everyone wants to think that they can work for the highest-paying, most prestigious firms in the country. But you can get the jump on your fellow students if you begin your search on a realistic note and contact only those firms that realistically will hire you. Concentrate on those firms from the start; don't wait until the end of your search to get grounded in reality. You'll save a lot of time and money by seeking out firms in your hometown and smaller firms that may be interested in a zealous first-year student. Don't even contact the major firms unless your resume is truly exceptional. While your colleagues are busy collecting rejection letters from the prestigious firms in the major markets, you'll be knocking on doors that will be more likely to be opened for you. By the time your peers have become tired of rejections, you'll be going for interviews or may have even landed a position.
The experience of a former University of Michigan student stresses how "reality bites." A native Russian-speaker, his goal as a first-year was to work in an international law firm with the possibility of going to a firm's Moscow office. His mass mailing, which centered on firms with international practices having a Moscow office, was focused and targeted, but produced not even one phone interview. He soon realized that no firm was going to send a first-year (even with a good record from the University of Michigan) to Russia for the summer, even on a volunteer basis. He soon came back down to earth and subsequently targeted smaller firms in his home state, Michigan. He ultimately landed a position with a reputable local firm and had a very successful summer. But he had to readjust his expectations, his focus, and his attitude to make it all work. His advice to aspiring first-years is be realistic and stay focused with lower expectations, making sure that your attitude matches the adjustment.
Why Firms Hire First-Year Students
As you map out your job search plan, it is useful to understand the pros and cons of hiring first-year students from a law firm's point of view. You may be able to target some firms based on their past history of why and how they decided to hire first-year students.
It's an accepted fact in most law firm circles that first-year students aren't hired to lessen the workloads or increase the billable hours at busy law firms. First-year students aren't known for their efficiency. They simply don't have enough training at this point in their legal career to work efficiently on major projects. But since many firms continue to hire first-years, there must be a good reason.
Some firms fill holes in their summer programs with first-year students. If a firm budgeted to hire fifteen students but had acceptances from only twelve, then the remaining three spots may be filled with first-year students. While you aren't privy to the hiring statistics at law firms, you may be able to find out which firms had an unusually poor showing at your law school. You may also be able to find out which firms are being "blacklisted" by student groups for whatever reason. Look for those firms that may not be in favor with the students.
Two other common reasons firms employ first-years are to improve the quality of the students they hire in the future and to broaden their hiring base by reaching out to schools with which they may have had little success in the past. One large Texas firm decided to hire first-years from top-ten schools outside of Texas as a way to broaden the firm's hiring base. Yale and Stanford students, for example, have less trouble securing summer employment as first-years than do students from less prestigious schools. Many firms reach into the first-year classes at the top schools to improve their success rate when recruiting second-year students at those schools.
Some firms hire clients' sons or daughters as first-year law students, in the belief, often mistaken, that this practice is a viable client development tool. This exercise is risky if it backfires and can create more negative feelings than positive results. Occasionally, however, this practice works well for all parties involved. One firm hired the daughter of someone who had referred a lot of work to the firm. She came from an excellent school and had a great summer experience. Not only was she ultimately hired as an associate, but she simply loved the firm and acted as an ambassador at the school for the firm. The recruiting efforts at her school tripled in the years following her first summer. Everyone was happy. Similarly, hiring a neighbor's daughter or repaying a favor to someone by employing their best friend's son for the summer is a practice utilized occasionally in firms. Don't be afraid to network, using whatever connections you may have to your advantage.
As I mentioned earlier, first-year students aren't known for their efficiency. But more important than that (especially since even second-year students are not considered efficient and aren't usually hired to churn out billable work) is the fact that it's difficult to keep track of and continually recruit first-year students as they progress through the second and third years of law school. Most first-year students don't end up working for the firm that employed them during their first summer. Many first-years, who are happy to get any law firm job, accept positions with firms in which they have no genuine interest. They need something, anything that looks good, to put on their resume, even if they hate the work, the people, or the location. Most associates didn't begin their legal career at the firm for which they clerked as a first-year student.
The Importance of Grades
The significance of law school grades, especially during the first year, cannot be overemphasized. Many law firms, especially the large ones, rely almost completely on law school grades to screen resumes and, in many cases, to make hiring decisions. Just because you have a stellar undergraduate record doesn't mean that you are assured of a spot in a law firm. As one placement director from a Midwest law school stated, "It is a painful shock to realize that class rank will limit employment options." The truth is that if you have been accepted to a law school, it's a given that you have an impeccable undergraduate record or you wouldn't be there. But a solid undergraduate record will not guarantee that your law school grades will be good. Many excellent students with impeccable undergraduate records struggle through law school.
One Washington, D.C., law school revealed that one of its students, a Fulbright scholar, ended up at the bottom of her class after her first year of law school. Thoughts such as "If they would just meet me, they would change their minds" are of no avail. Many law firms have established criteria that students must meet, fully realizing but ignoring the fact that most law students are bright and have strengths that may not be apparent on a resume. Grades matter more than anything else. A small minority of students is able to overcome mediocre grades, but that's not the norm.
Prior to receiving first-semester grades, some law firms will hire first-year students on the basis of their undergraduate records. As the number of first-year students being hired has declined, this practice is becoming less common. One can only imagine what the resumes of these students look like-Rhodes scholars, perfect undergraduate records, top athletes, very unusual and sought-after work experience, multiple language capabilities, and so on. For example, one first-year who was hired on the basis of his undergraduate record was a Top Gun pilot, was a former member of the U.S. ski team, and attended a very prestigious law school. Screening the resumes that come through law firms can be a humbling experience. Don't depend on your undergraduate record unless your resume is one for the record books. While it is possible to enter a firm this way, it's not probable.
Remember that your number one priority, as your law school placement director has no doubt already told you ad nauseam, is to complete your first year of school with as strong a knowledge base as possible. If you fail to grasp the basic legal concepts taught that first year, it usually shows up later. Moreover, it is important to remember that much hinges on a good first-year grade point average. Most students don't realize how important this is. No amount of interviewing can compensate for low grades, unless you can manage to defy the law of averages.
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