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First-Year Law Student: Job Search and Basic Tools

published July 24, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing

( 6 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)

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The first step in your successful job search is to assemble the basic tools you'll need. Your toolbox should contain a good resume, a cover letter tailored for each employer, a firm grasp of the basic rules of the industry (in our case, the National Association for Law Placement), effective mass mailing techniques, and an understanding of when to contact firms, how to use networking effectively, and how to use an informational interview properly. Without these tools, your job search will take you all over the map. Every action should be planned carefully and then executed. The skills you learn here can be applied throughout your legal career.

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One more tip as you prepare for your first-year job hunt: Buy an answering machine before recruiting gets under way. Recruiting professionals become frustrated attempting to reach students who don't own one. It's just too difficult to reach you if you don't have one. Once you set yours up, make a habit of calling in to check your messages during interview periods if you want to expedite the interviewing process.

The First-Year Resume

The "art of the resume" is one of the most important elements of the job search process and one of the least understood. Many people do not know how to create a good resume and spend large sums of money with "resume experts," who often know less. Who better than you know your strengths, weaknesses, and accomplishments and can put them down on paper? Creating a good resume is simply a marketing exercise--marketing yourself on paper to multiple audiences in order to land a job.

Utilize the years of career service expertise in your law school's placement office. Placement professionals are well versed in resume preparation and can provide you with multiple models that can help you design your own. Many law schools also sponsor resume writing workshops at least a few times each year. You can refer to the sample resume on the following page as a guide.


One of the keys to a successful resume is a concise format. Most recruiting professionals spend less than 30 seconds reviewing a resume. Yours is possibly one of hundreds being reviewed during the same sitting. If you can't glance at your resume and instantly pick out the important points, then chances are that yours will not make it beyond this review. It is also vital that your resume be error free. Most recruiting professionals will automatically throw out a resume with a typo or misspelled word. Make sure at least two people other than yourself review your resume for mistakes. Reading a resume backward, from the bottom to the top, is a good way to discover any errors or typos.

Your resume should be one page in length. Your educational background should be presented first, followed by your work history, specific technical skills, language skills, and personal interests.

Printing a resume on expensive paper is not necessary. In fact, some expensive heavy paper will not feed through a copy machine. You should use a higher grade than plain copy machine paper, but don't break the bank. Most recruiting professionals will pay little attention to expensive watermarked paper. Also, avoid using dark colored paper, such as gray or dark tan, since even light gray paper doesn't always copy well. Since you want your resume to be photocopied and passed around for many people to review, make sure it is easily readable and easily duplicated.

Take a look at the sample resume again. Note that it is clear and concise-- you can quickly glance at it and pick out all of the relevant points. Always set in boldface the main elements like your law school, your undergraduate school, and your previous employers. Be careful not to put in bold points that will come off as obnoxious. For example, if you have a good grade point average or if you have won coveted awards, don't set them off to bring them to the reader's attention. A seasoned recruiting professional or someone genuinely interested in your candidacy will know where to look for those items.


Employers want to see grades on resumes, but only undergraduate and law school grades, if available. A good rule of thumb is to include your grades if your average is above 3.0 or its equivalent. If your grade point average is below 3.0, you should be aware of the message you might be sending if mere is no indication of your grades anywhere on the resume. One recruiting coordinator at a large Texas firm stated that first-year resumes are not even considered if there are no grades from law school or undergraduate school. Nevertheless, I recommend the 3.0 or higher rule.

Personal Interests

Most people who do a lot of recruiting like to see personal interests on a resume. Include two or three lines listing your hobbies, but make it interesting, and be specific. For example, if you are a history buff, include a specific interest, such as "Civil War history" or "nineteenth-century Russian history." This adds a personal touch to your resume and creates a topic of conversation during the interview process. Many times I've remembered a candidate by making a mental note of his or her unique interests. One student included "zymurgy" as a hobby on his resume. Since it baffles astute attorneys to see words they've never heard of, this fact alone helped him to get multiple interviews. Almost every person he spoke with asked him about his strange-sounding hobby. "Zymurgy" is simply the science of fermentation, and this clever student expressed his interest in this field by brewing beer!

See 6 Things Attorneys and Law Students Need to Remove from Their Resumes ASAP If They Want to Get Jobs with the Most Prestigious Law Firms for more information.

Other Helpful Resume-Building Hints

Make sure you include the geographic location of your past jobs. Don't assume that a potential employer will know the location of your past employers, especially if you worked outside a major metropolitan area. Include only significant educational honors unless you need items to fill the page. Don't include every job you have had since you were 15 unless significant or really out of the ordinary. If you've held multiple summer jobs while in college, indicate that without being too specific. Instead of listing every fast-food restaurant you've worked in or every country club where you've been a caddy, state only that you held multiple summer jobs, such as waitressing, lifeguarding, retail clerking, and so on. The important point is that you worked or did something productive during those years.

Include computer and language skills only if you are proficient at the time you are preparing your resume.

First-Year Resume Do's and Don'ts

Here is a quick list of do's and don'ts that you should review as you prepare your first-year resume:

  • Do make your resume one page in length.
  • Do make it concise with wide margins.
  • Do write in present tense for current items and in past tense for past items.
  • Do include location of jobs and schools (include city and state).
  • Do list grade point average if over 3.0 or the equivalent.
  • Do include computer and language skills.
  • Do list your college major (and minor if you have one).
  • Do include personal interests-be creative about it.
  • Do attach a transcript if yours is good (use the 3.0 rule for undergraduate and law school).
  • Do use 8-by-11 -inch paper, standard letter size.
  • Do use only black ink.
  • Don't spend money on "resume experts."
  • Don't misspell words or have typos.
  • Don't abbreviate--spell things out completely whenever possible.
  •  Don't include educational history before college or include every job you've had since you were 15 unless very significant or needed for filler.
  • Don't list numerous educational honors unless significant.
  • Don't include language skills unless you're fluent when the resume is prepared.
  • Don't list "relevant" courses.
  • Don't print your resume on colored paper.
  • Don't list actual references-indicate that they're available upon request.
  • Don't include a writing sample-if employers need one, they'll ask for it.

Your cover letter should do three things:
  1. Introduce the reader to the resume
  2. Highlight specific points in the resume
  3. Include information that may not be on the resume
Your cover letter should not be longer than one page in length and, ideally, should consist of only three or four paragraphs. Some recruiting professionals review cover letters only after they skim and become interested in a resume, while others always read them, whether they like the resume or not.

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Recruiting professionals say that cover letters often reveal which students have done their homework. Cover letters are an excellent way to distinguish your strong writing skills by demonstrating your ability to express yourself succinctly and concisely. This skill may not be apparent on the resume. One recruiting coordinator stated that she automatically throws out resumes when the cover letter is too pat or too dry. She routinely looks for interesting vocabulary in cover letters. Another hates to see students expound on what they expect the firm to do for them in the cover letter. Statements such as "I am interested in your firm because of its well-known trial advocacy program" should be avoided. While the statement demonstrates that you have done your homework, it sounds self-serving. She would prefer to see the student talk about what he or she can do for the law firm.

Format and Presentation

Your cover letter should be dated and include a complete address, telephone number, and e-mail or Internet address. Indicate where you can be reached if you aren't at your mailing address for an extended period of time. Your letter should be formal (address it to "Ms." or "Mr."), and you should sign it using your first and last name. Make reference to your resume in the body of the letter, and attach it with a paper clip. Also state that you will follow up with a phone call in a few weeks to ensure that the resume was received. See the sample cover letter on the following page as a model.

Common Mistakes

When preparing your cover letter, make sure that you avoid some of the mistakes recruiting professionals routinely see on cover letters. The pointers on page twenty are some helpful hints, garnered from years of experience that may help guide you.
  1. Don't misspell a firm's name. Even simple names are butchered on cover letters. This kiss of death for many applicants demonstrates a complete lack of attention to detail. This can land your resume in the wastebasket in record time.
  2. Avoid the "goofed mail merge." This is when a cover letter is addressed to the wrong firm at the right address; for example, a letter to Baker & Botts contains the address of Baker & Hostetler. This is a common occurrence, especially during the fall, when students mass mail hundreds of resumes. When a firm receives these cover letters, the recruiter won't know whether the student is interested in their firm or the other one, especially if the firms are distinctly different. Or maybe the student doesn't really care.
  3. Don't address your cover letter to a recruiting coordinator who left the firm four years ago. This plainly demonstrates that you have not done your homework.
  4. Don't mention practice areas that the firm doesn't work in. For example, never assume that every firm has a litigation practice, because they don't. Students routinely include inaccurate information about practice areas in their cover letters because they have not done their homework.
Surprisingly, these mistakes are common, and recruiting coordinators report that they receive cover letters with these errors almost every day. To the receiver, these mistakes demonstrate an acute lack of attention to detail. If you're going to make these mistakes, just save your postage stamps.

Addressing and Mailing Your Cover Letter and Resume

Always address your letter to the company's recruiting coordinator. If you don't know her name, utilize the Directory of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). Your career services office has this directory. If a firm doesn't have a recruiting coordinator, send it to the personnel director, hiring partner, or office administrator, in that order. If you have the time and money, call each firm, and get the right person's name.

Some people prefer to mail their resume to a partner who attended their law school. I'm not in favor of this practice for several reasons. First, it may slow down the entire process. For instance, if that attorney is out of town for two weeks, your resume will just sit on his desk during that time. Chances are that when he receives it, he'll just forward it to the recruiting coordinator, anyway.

It makes little difference to busy recruiters if you fold your resume and cover letter and mail it in a regular white envelope or whether you double or triple your mailing costs by mailing your resume flat in a brown letter-size envelope. It's likely that the package will be opened by a secretary, anyway. You shouldn't be mailing enough paper as a first-year student to warrant the extra expense. Staple or paper clips all your sheets together so that when the envelope is opened, everything is in its right place.

Always type the envelope with a return address, or use mailing labels. It's so much quicker, and it just looks so much more professional than a handwritten address. This also eliminates the problem of someone not being able to read your handwriting, thus delaying the delivery.

Don't be surprised if you don't receive a response from the firm. Even some large firms don't respond to first-year inquiries anymore, simply because they don't have the support staff in place or because the cost of mailing responses to hundreds or even thousands of inquiries has become so high.

Mass Mailing Your Resume

Mass mailing-mailing large quantities of your resume to employers at large-is the method of choice in the law school recruiting process, at least from the perspective of law students. But mass mailing is expensive and wasteful and does not usually yield good results. The majority of students don't land a job using this method. For example, Baker & McKenzie 's Washington, D.C., office typically receives approximately one thousand first-year resumes each year, usually between the months of December and February alone. If the office even interviews first-years, five students might be selected to interview-0.005%! So save your postage stamps. If you are going to mail your resume to potential employers, do so selectively. Target firms that will hire you.

Following Up on Your Resume

Follow up with firms with a phone call two or three weeks after you send your resume. It can often take more than a week for a resume to reach its destination. Some recruiting professionals only read resumes once a week, so you should also allow for that. Also, keep in mind when you call that since firms receive often hundreds of resumes each week, the chance of someone immediately remembering yours is remote. You may find that calling the large firms is a wasted effort, since it is unlikely that you will get hired there using this method. Following up with the smaller and local firms is a much better use of your time. While some large firms have computer-based tracking systems for resumes, you might have better success obtaining interviews with follow-up calls to smaller law firms simply because the number of applications is smaller.

When you make your follow-up calls, indicate who you are and that you recently sent in a resume, and ask if the firm is still hiring first-years. If the answer is yes, ask when you can expect to hear from them about the possibility of an interview. If you are planning to be in the area for interviews, tell them just in case there is an interest in talking with you and the firm does not want to pay for travel expenses. If the firm is not hiring, ask if they know of anyone who might be hiring. The operative word here is networking.

The Importance of Networking

As a first-year student, you don't possess large chunks of free time to reinvent the wheel. One fundamental component of any job search strategy should include networking. Networking is vital to any job search. No one leaves home without this skill anymore.

Even a stellar first-year candidate may have to utilize the "N word" to get into a law firm in today's market. Most first-years get jobs not through mass mailings, but through personal contacts. One Washington, D.C., law school reported that in its 1994 first-year class, 37 percent got jobs using personal contacts, the highest percentage of any method, while only 1 percent found positions through mass mailing. Networking involves using everyone you know to find out which firms are hiring and how to get interviews at the ones that are. Your closest relatives do not have to be partners in big firms to open the magic doors for you, either. Remember, everyone, including law students, has connections; the trick is to know what they are.

Networking 101

Networking is not a skill taught in law school classrooms. Here's a good way to begin the process of networking:

1. Make a list often people you would call if you needed solid business advice. This list can include even brief acquaintances. Then add to this list everyone you personally know in the business community who has any connection with a law firm. Your list should include aunts, uncles, neighbors, your friends' parents, professors, and so on. Be creative. Stretch to include friends of friends or even casual acquaintances. This is how you begin networking.

2. Contact the individuals on your list by phone. When you call, tell them who you are, bring the individual up to date with your current situation, and then explain why you are calling. Never directly ask the person on the other end for a job. Simply inquire whether they know of anyone who might be willing to employ you, even for free, over the summer or if they know anyone who might know of a lead. At the very least, you may be able to set up several informational interviews, which may lead to something else. Eventually, your calls will not be cold but will be built on references from other people. You will be calling Thomas Mitchell because his friend at the Ski Club, William Elder, suggested that you call him.

3. Be persistent. You will discover that people genuinely like to help bright students who are eager to work. Many people in today's corporate environment have been in your shoes and will be sympathetic to the difficulties of a job search. And if you have ever done a favor for someone else, start calling in your chips. People you have helped in the past may feel inclined to help you now. The worst thing that can happen during this process is that someone will say "no." And if you are uncomfortable with rejection, you should get used to the concept as you begin your legal career.

You cannot give up because you have not yet yielded results. One first-year student literally opened the Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland yellow pages and started calling law firms, starting with the A's, in order to land a summer job. After making hundreds of calls, he came across an attorney who was so impressed with what he was doing that he hired him for the summer. This fact impressed many law firms at which he interviewed as a second-year student, as well, and ultimately helped him land a job in a law firm. Persistence pays off in the long run.

4. Learn to integrate networking into your everyday life. Networking is also about being involved and getting out into the community, and it is a skill that is essential, especially for an aspiring attorney. Individuals looking for a long-term career in a law firm will have to learn the art of networking at some point. Learning how to talk to strangers in business and social settings is a skill that is invaluable as a budding associate or young partner. Collect business cards, and join organizations that get you outside the law school environment. These tips may sound like goals only experienced attorneys set for themselves, but you should start thinking about developing and honing these skills now, even as a first- year student.

Informational Interviewing as a Job Search Tool

Informational interviewing in law firms--interviewing attorneys to gain information about a firm or a particular area of law--is an excellent resource you should tap into as you begin your job search. While these interviews are not intended to yield job offers, they assist you in creating a network for job hunting now and in the future, allow you to hone your interview skills, and teach you a lot in the process.

Setting Up the Informational Interview

Busy attorneys are often turned off by requests to take an hour out of their day to talk with law students about their practice and law firm, so it is important to approach them in the right way. Don't just pick up a legal directory and start calling attorneys, seeking to line up informational interviews. You must first do a little homework.
  1. Focus on one or two major practice areas first. Consult your personal contacts, law professors, and people you may have met while networking who practice in the areas you are interested in pursuing. If, for example, you have an interest in environmental law, ask a professor if he or she personally knows anyone in this field with whom you could talk.
  2. Get your contact to make the initial phone call. Then you follow up a few days later, setting up a time for the interview.
  3. Use your local bar association as a resource. Call them and ask for directories of attorneys who practice in areas that interest you. Ask them if you can attend one of their meetings. Remember that you may have difficulty getting a busy attorney who has no connection to you to grant you an informational interview. You must network a little bit!
  4. When you interview the attorney, do some preparatory work. Know enough about the area of practice to ask substantive questions. Do some background work on the attorney as well, flattering him or her to a degree. Interest is the sincerest form of flattery, but makes an effort to sincerely thank the attorney for agreeing to talk with you.
The purpose of the informational interview is not to get a job but to educate you about an area of practice, a particular law firm, and interviewing in general. Do not forget this during the interview. Always follow up with a thank-you note immediately after the interview, and thank the person who helped you secure the interview, as well. Remember, everyone you meet becomes part of your network, so always be professional.

Law Firm Recruiting Standards and Procedures

The National Association for Law Placement, more commonly known as the NALP, is the governing body and watchdog of the law firm recruiting industry. NALP's membership is composed primarily of law school placement personnel, law firm recruiting professionals, and law school deans. NALP's members work together to establish common rules and guidelines that promote fair and equitable practices in the legal hiring arena.

To help facilitate equitable recruiting practices in the industry, NALP's members have established a set of principles and standards for the timing and acceptance of job offers.

While not all law firms are members of NALP, the association's guidelines are widely recognized as the industry standard. It is important that every law student understand these principles and adhere to them, since most law firm recruiting activity is modeled on these guidelines. In addition to understanding what applies to the student population, it is equally important to appreciate how the standards apply to law firms. Firms, like students, are sometimes caught manipulating the guidelines to suit their needs.

If you are a first-year student, pay particular attention to Part V, Section D of NALP's guidelines. NALP rules state that law schools are not supposed to offer placement services to first-year students before November 1, except in the case of part-time students. This means that no employers or students should initiate contact before December 1 and that offers to first-year students for summer employment should remain open for at least two weeks after the date the offer is made.

Small firms are more susceptible to breaking NALP's guidelines, especially regarding keeping offers open for at least two weeks. One firm, for example, offered a position to a first-year student, giving him only 48 hours to make his decision. He had other interviews lined up and wanted to fulfill his obligations and talk to these firms. Fortunately, he was able to move up his interview dates and put off the firm long enough to review his options. He ultimately accepted another position.

If you are caught in this situation, you should handle it with kid gloves, attempting to foster good relations with the law firm, while also trying to get a job. Small firms often do not have the luxury of making offers to multiple students, so they often need to know very quickly if you are coming on board or not. You need to learn how to handle these situations as they occur. Your placement director is an invaluable resource for advice if you find yourself in one of these sticky situations.

There are good reasons for adhering to these guidelines that restrict first-year job-seekers to the winter months. Placement offices are inundated in the fall with second- and third-year students and simply do not have the resources to handle first-year requests during this busy time. Law firm recruiting professionals face a similar scenario. But the most important factor is one that has already been mentioned: First-year students should focus all of their energy on simply getting through the first year of law school and getting the best grades possible.

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