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Second-Year Law Student: Managing Job Search

published July 24, 2013

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The second-year summer internship is probably the most vital stage of the law firm recruiting process. It is extremely difficult to secure an associate position in a major law firm without first being a summer associate. And your chances of getting that job are even better if you are a second-year summer associate. According to the National Association for Law Placement's research on recent fall recruiting seasons, law firms continue to rely on their summer programs as a primary source for new hires. During the fall nearly a decade ago, 83 percent of the second-year summer associates received job offers. This statistic is in sharp contrast to the one-third of third-year students who received job offers during the same fall interview period. These facts reinforce that getting a job that second-year summer is much easier than trying to get an offer once you become a third-year student.

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But your successful recruiting efforts are the result of sound planning and self-reliance. When second-year students begin the daunting task of looking for a summer job, many are simply overwhelmed by their options, especially when compared to the limited options they had as first-year students. Your search will be much easier if you lay some preliminary groundwork.

Assess Your Goals after the First-Year Summer

If, after your first-year summer, you don't really know what you want to do during your second-year summer, take a week or two before you return to school for your second year to do some research and to create an action plan. Use the resources of your law school placement office, either at your own school or at one that's convenient. Many law schools have strict rules on reciprocity and don't allow other students to use their resources, so you may have to return to school early to do your research. Even if this cuts into your vacation, in the long run, this will be time well spent.

According to many placement directors, most second-year students bypass the intense career assessment that is critical at this point. Before you try to find a job in a law firm, you should make sure that law firm life is worth the price you will pay for it. I'm advising you from years of experience- make sure you know what you are getting into before you jump in. Sadly, law firms are full of unhappy associates who never should have gone to work in a law firm in the first place.

In addition to personal assessment, seek the advice of career service professionals, who have years of experience advising bright law students on selecting the best work environment for their personality type and future goals. Take advantage of this resource while it is free and at your disposal. This assessment should take place before you begin looking for a second-year summer job. Some personality types are well suited for large law firm life; others will fare much better in a smaller work environment. Others are not suited for a career in a law firm at all. Just make sure that you make a well-informed decision about what you want to do, from the beginning.

Establish a Timetable

Timing is extremely important in your job search. Keep in mind that your own timetable may vary, depending on when you return to school and when your on-campus interviews begin. Use the basic timetable below as a guide. We'll discuss each step in the process.

Narrow Your Geographic Focus

Time is of the essence during the fall recruiting season. You'll quickly discover that you will have enough difficulty just managing to attend your classes, schedule on-campus interviews, and complete callbacks to law firms. You simply won't have the time to visit every state in the Union during the fall. You must narrow the focus of your job search geographically from the very beginning.

When you start targeting job locations, keep some key facts in mind. The location of the law firm you'll ultimately work for is directly related to your law school's location. According to the NALP'S data on the class of 1994, on a national basis, about 77 percent of graduates accepted their first job in the same region where they attended law school. Eighty-five percent or more went to work in the same region in Florida, South Carolina, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, and Texas. While this may be less significant for regions like New York (which supplied jobs for 2,000 graduates during the same period) and the Mid-Atlantic States (where only 67.8 percent of the jobs in the region went to graduates from that region), you should consider these data when planning your job search. New York firms continue to hire such a large number of new lawyers that they tend to seek graduates from all over. The mid-Atlantic region is such a popular place to work (primarily because of the Washington, D.C., market) that it tends to attract candidates from all over the country. This is also the most competitive market in the country for new legal talent. If you attend law school in Southern California, it is unlikely, but not impossible, that you'll be able to secure a position in Pennsylvania without previous connections there. So be realistic about your chances when considering various job locations.

Consider the Geographic Demand for Jobs

Be aware of the current geographic demand for law firm jobs before you begin your job search. For example, the San Francisco and Washington, D.C., markets have been extremely popular in recent years, thus making them extremely competitive. If you are a mediocre student, it may be extremely difficult for you to break into these markets. Every year there are "hot" cities where law students want to work. Be realistic about your chances of breaking into these markets from the beginning. Your placement director can realistically guide you through this maze. He or she is well aware of the current demand to work in certain cities and can bring you back down to earth if necessary. Just stay grounded in reality at all times. Select areas that you realistically have a chance of getting into.

Compare the Cost of Living and Salaries in Different Markets

Before you begin your job search, you must also consider what it costs to live in an area and whether law firm salaries are high enough to cover your expenses. Don't assume that there is always a positive correlation between law firm salaries and the cost of living in an area. More often than not, your salary will be more than enough to meet your expenses, but there are certain areas where, surprisingly, you may end up living in the red.

For example, for the class of 1994, the average law firm salary in Baltimore was $35,000, according to NALP's research. Many students can't afford to live in Baltimore on $35,000 if they have significant student loan debt. The salaries in San Francisco tend to be lower than in Washington, D.C., for example, even though the cost of housing in San Francisco is much higher. And salaries that may seem low in some areas, such as the Southeast, may actually buy you more, since the cost of living in those areas is so much lower than in other areas of the country.

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There are numerous places you can look for this type of economic data. Your placement office has NALP's data on salaries in different parts of the country. That's a great place to begin. Once you have that in hand, here's what you'll need to do to sort out information on the cost of living in the markets you're interested in:
  1. Contact local chambers of commerce or trade organizations. They usually have up-to-date statistics on the cost of living in their areas.
  2. Refer to the Statistical Abstract, which is published annually by the Commerce Department. Your local library should have recent copies.
  3. Call local law schools, and ask for information about their area. Who knows better about what it costs to live in an area than those who live there?
Don't Follow the Herd

Beware of the "herd mentality" common to second-year law students. Repeatedly, placement directors report that students are led by their peers, regardless of what they really want. Just because your Law Review editors are going to New York does not mean that you also have to work there. As one very experienced placement director advised, "Students need to understand who they are and what they want, regardless of what their friends or family want them to do." This is too big a decision to make based on what your best friend is doing. You are the one who has to decide where you'll be the happiest working.

Narrow Your Search by Area of Practice

Once you've narrowed your search by location, the next step is to consider areas of practice. After completing one year of law school, you're probably not sure what areas of the law interest you. It's not absolutely necessary to know what practice area you want to work in at this time. But it is necessary to educate yourself on firm specialties by understanding which firms practice in specific areas of the law. The full-service law firm is disappearing. Many firms have specific areas of expertise or at least work in a few areas. You'll at least know some areas that you don't want to work in. You can start by eliminating those firms that practice in these areas. And nothing turns off firms more than students who haven't done their homework. Placement directors report that students rarely pay attention to the internal demographics of law firms, and I can certainly vouch for that.

Where to Look for Information

You have many research options as you try to decipher which firms do what. Bear in mind, it's much easier to find information on large firms than small ones.
  1. You can electronically sort through firms identifying areas of practice via Westlaw or LEXIS/NEXIS. The use of these databases is free to law students. Jane Thieberger, Assistant Dean, Career Counseling and Placement at New York University, has written a helpful guide for online job searchers, LEXIS/NEXIS Job Searching in an Electronic Age, available from Mead Data Central. This guide can help you navigate through the abundance of information available through LEXIS/NEXIS-from listings of judges to information on job locations.
  2. Refer to NALP's Directory of Law Firms, which can be found in your placement office. This annual directory publishes the NALP forms (which include "need to know" statistical information on member firms). Included for each firm is a list of their major practice areas, including the number of attorneys working in each area.
  3. Use the information, gathered from former summer associates, about specific law firms in your placement office. This is an invaluable source of information, which placement directors report is rarely used.
  4. Refer to The Insider's Guide to Law Firms. This book was started by several Harvard law students a few years ago and is published each year. It describes the areas of practice of firms in major U.S. cities. Your placement office may have a copy, or it can be purchased in paperback at large bookstores.
How to Select the Firms That Practice in Your Areas of Interest

Students often research firms to determine which ones practice in the areas that interest them but still fall short of their goal of finding employment. Just because a firm has attorneys who practice in a specific area doesn't mean that they'll be hiring for that area.

If a firm with sixty-five attorneys lists an intellectual property practice on its NALP form or in its firm brochure, but only two attorneys work in that area, chances are the firm won't hire for that area every year. If, on the other hand, half the firm practices labor law, then you can assume that labor will be an area in which hiring will take place in any given year. If you want to be sure, call the firm and ask in which areas it anticipates hiring for that year. Contact the recruiting office, the office administrator, or the hiring partner.

If you are unsure what you want to do, don't consider a firm that practices in only a few areas--trade, tax, and corporate law, for example--unless you are sure you could be happy working in at least one of those areas. You can save yourself a lot of time in the long run if you do a little research on the front end.

Usually, small firms don't require associates to specialize as the larger ones tend to do. If you take this route, make sure that you can be happy as a generalist, at least for a while. And you may find that your choice of geographic location will dictate firm size and specialty. For example, if you want to do project finance work, you will more than likely end up in New York. High-tech computer work may lead you to the Palo Alto/San Francisco area. Maritime law may pull you toward New Orleans or Baltimore. Small, rural locations rarely need specialists but require attorneys who can wear many hats (and want to). Keep also in mind, as we discussed earlier, your current law school location. If you are at a small Texas law school and have your heart set on doing high-level international trade work, which is most abundant in major markets like New York and Washington, you may have an extremely tough time getting a job. Make sure you keep all the pieces to the puzzle in the back of your mind during this process.

Researching Law Firm Culture

Probably the most difficult part of the recruiting process is deciphering law firm culture. Every firm, large or small, has its own unique culture. If you don't like the environment and the people, then no matter how good the work is or how high the salary, you may find yourself very unhappy. As Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated at graduation ceremonies at Catholic University's Columbus School of Law, "Don't forget that in choosing a job you're very likely choosing a lifestyle." But how do you decode law firm culture, and when should you begin this process?

Figuring out "what makes a firm tick" is a subjective process, and you should start gathering intelligence as early as possible. As mentioned earlier, to understand what you're looking for, personal career assessment must take place in the very beginning. If you don't know what makes your clock tick, then you won't be able to determine what firm attributes are important to you.

Where to Look for Information

There are various places you can go for information about law firm culture, but keep in mind throughout this process that you should let your intuition be your guide. And remember that no source is going to be 100 percent reliable, since much of the information you'll receive is merely someone else's perception. Here are some sources of information that can help you get a feel for a large firm's culture:
  1. As mentioned earlier, most placement offices keep comments on file about firms from former summer associates. This is an invaluable source of information, which, as mentioned earlier, is used infrequently.
  2. The Insider's Guide to Law Firms, also mentioned earlier, is another excellent source. It contains up-to-date "off the record" data on many major firms in the major metropolitan areas. While this book may prove helpful, keep in mind that the information it contains is based solely on the perception of the students who worked in the various firms.
  3. The American Lawyer publishes a biannual report in its October issue on summer programs. They actually rank the programs in larger cities, after tabulating questionnaires completed by actual summer associates. At the very least, this publication will tell you who runs the best and worst summer programs according to a wide sampling of responses.
Gathering data on small-firm culture is more difficult. Contact local bar associations for legal directories. Using these directories, call other attorneys in the area, and ask for references. Read the local paper to see who is making the legal news. Ask judges and public prosecutors for recommendations. Put your networking skills to work.

But as you gather intelligence from your friends and from other sources, keep their experiences in perspective. Perception is not always reality. Just because Bill Smith did not like Cain & Abel does not mean that you will have the same experience. But if your best friend had a bad summer at a firm because women who had families were treated as second-class citizens and that's an issue for you, then you should give her advice serious consideration. Much of the intuitive data will be garnered as you go through the actual recruiting process. A firm's environment speaks in volume.

Establish a Job Search Blueprint

Now that you have made the necessary internal and external assessments about your wants and needs, the real part of your journey begins. But as you go through the recruiting process, it's helpful to have a blueprint to refer back to, just to ensure that you don't lose sight of where you're going. Below is a sample second-year blueprint for our fictitious law student, Emma Smith, for you to use as a guide. I encourage you to create your own blueprint before you begin your journey through the second-year recruiting jungle.

Notice that Emma has narrowed her focus geographically, with backup locations, and has a general idea of the size of firm she wants to work for. Her area of practice interest is a little fuzzy, but she has eliminated some areas, and she has selected a few cultural attributes that are important to her. While she may not end up working in a firm with all of these characteristics, this exercise will help her narrow her focus and guide her as she is bombarded with choices.

The Second-Year Resume

Now that you have narrowed your focus by location, type of law firm, and practice area, your next step is create a resume that will aid you in getting the law firm job you want. Remember the primary rule of marketing as you do this--if you haven't targeted your market, putting together your resume will be extremely difficult. Remember, a resume is a marketing tool, and any marketing expert will tell you that it's much easier to sell your product if you know who your market is.

Work from Your First-Year Resume

There should be few significant differences between your first-year and second-year resumes. For a comparison exercise, we'll review the first-year resume of Emma Smith and we'll make the necessary changes to market Emma as a second-year student. In addition, we'll use the blueprint we developed for Emma to help direct her job search. Her market is already targeted and focused, which will help us to determine what to incorporate and focus on in her resume.

Like the first-year resume, the second-year version should be one page in length unless you have significant work experience. The format should be similar to that used in the first-year resume. As in the first-year version, educational history should be listed first, followed by work experience, language and computer skills, and personal interests. References should not be listed on the resume. How to Shape

Your Second-Year Resume Using Your First-Year Version

To demonstrate how your second-year resume should build on your first-year version, let's revisit Emma. Review her job search blueprint. Emma's goal is to work in a law firm in Atlanta. Her second-choice cities are Charlotte, Memphis, and Nashville. She's interested in working in a 150-attorney firm (or less), which is large for these markets. She's not completely focused on her practice area but has a possible interest in corporate or banking work. Areas of law that she is not interested in include ERISA, bankruptcy, tax planning, intellectual property, and litigation. Emma is committed to community service work and is interested in a firm that embraces that concept. She is somewhat entrepreneurial and is open-minded about working with a diverse group of people.

These facts and ideas will help shape Emma's resume and her cover letter. Let's refer to her second-year resume below and see how we do this.

1. Education and grades: You'll notice that I haven't included her law school grades. You usually don't see grades on resumes from top tier schools such as Harvard simply because, since it's so difficult to get into the school, once you're there, grades aren't as important as at some other schools. As a general rule, if your grades are good (an average above 3.0 on a 4.0 scale), include them. If the grading scale at your school is UN usual, educate your audience by indicating where you fall within your class. Also, indicate if you are estimating your class rank. Columbia and SUNY-Buffalo, for example, have unique grading systems that most resume readers are not familiar with.

I've included Emma's high school education on her resume because she was class valedictorian and because the school ties her to the South, where she wants to work. Her undergraduate school also binds her geographically, but those factors alone may not be enough to land her a job in the South.

2. First-year summer employment: I've listed Emma's first-year summer employment, briefly explaining what she did while at the firm. Make it clear, if the firm is relatively unknown, that you worked for a law firm.

Be sure that your audience understands what type of company you worked for, no matter what you did. If you received an offer to work there or to return during your second summer, also include that information.

3. "Other experience": I've deleted the "Other Experience" information from Emma's second-year resume. If you need this information for "filler" to make your resume longer, leave it. Otherwise, delete it.

As with your first-year resume, the second-year version should be clear, concise, and easy to read, and there should be enough white space to make it easy to pick up the main focus points-educational background and work history. Your resume should be interesting to the reader-it should make the reader want to meet you and talk to you in person.

The Cover Letter

The second-year cover letter should be similar to your first-year version, with a few minor differences. The primary difference is that the second-year letter should be more targeted to your particular audience, which you have already thoroughly researched. If you've done your homework, composition will be much easier.

Your cover letter should highlight the fact that you're interested in working in a certain geographic area for a particular type of law firm. It will probably be necessary to create a different letter for each audience. So if you have narrowed your focus, you realize how time-consuming this process can be.

In Emma's case, she'll compose a different letter for each of the cities she is interested in, explaining why she has selected those cities and law firms, assuming that the firms in those markets are approximately the same size and have similar practices. Always date your letter, and sign it in blue ink. Blue ink demonstrates that you haven't photocopied your cover letters and mailed them.

Contacting Firms

Once you identify your target market and compose your resume and cover letter, you're ready to proceed with the next part of your blueprint-contacting the firms you've determined you're interested in. Contact the firms on your list from Labor Day to mid-September. You want to wait until the summer programs end, but you want to get your resume in before the on-campus interview process gets under way. If your school holds interviews prior to Labor Day, get your resume in by mid-August.

Firms Interviewing On-Campus at Your School

Determine which firms are coming to your campus that you want to interview with, and sign up to talk with them through your placement office. The procedure will vary at every school, so be familiar with yours before interviews get under way. You may want to consider contacting these firms prior to their visit, giving them a "heads up" that you're particularly interested in interviewing with them, especially if prescreening is allowed. Prescreening means that the firm can select the students it wants to interview. Some firms pay attention to these resumes, while others will not. Much depends on how your on-campus interview selection process works. If your school has a lottery system, you will need to contact the firms you want to see if you were not selected through the lottery. If a firm is coming to your campus and you also mail your resume, do not become a pest. Mail your resume, and wait to see if you get an interview.

Firms That Are Not Coming to Your School

Make a list of the firms you are interested in that are not coming to your school to interview. Mail your resume to these firms, and then follow up with a telephone call. Make a list and keep track of your progress, indicating the date your resume was mailed, the date of your follow-up phone call, and the result.

Those firms that are not visiting your school should be contacted early in the fall, around Labor Day. Follow up with these firms approximately two weeks later.

Use the Correct Etiquette When Following Up with Firms

It's extremely important that you follow up with the firms to which you mail your resume. Often resumes fall between the cracks or get lost in the mail. You want to make sure that the resume arrived safe and sound. But there is an etiquette involved in corresponding with firms, which you should follow during this chaotic time of year:
  1. Be sympathetic to recruiting coordinators. You should realize how overworked recruiting professionals are during the fall. No amount of organizational skill can compensate for the workload. When you call a recruiting coordinator and say "Hello, I'm Bill Smith from South Texas. Did you receive the resume I mailed last Monday?" it drives them crazy. Remember, your resume may be one of hundreds received during that week alone. Some firms have large recruiting staffs and computerized databases for recruiting, but many don't. In small firms, reading resumes often falls into the lap of an overworked partner or his or her assistant.
  2. Allow ample time for your resume to arrive and don't be a pest. Then, if applicable, indicate that you're planning to be in town for interviews and want to know if there's interest in talking with you. If necessary, give a brief synopsis of your background. If no decision has been made regarding your candidacy, ask when such decisions will be made. It is not unreasonable to ask for a timetable.
  3. Be respectful of whatever response you receive. When you call, some recruiting professionals will tell you that they are full, that they only interview on-campus, that they will talk to you only if you pay your way, that they will pull your resume and get back to you at a later date, or that they are simply not interested in you. Be respectful of the message sent, and realize that, for many firms, hiring students is often a numbers game.
  4. Call early, before 9:00 A.M., or at the end of the day, after 4:00 P.M. Often, during the day, recruiting professionals are away from their offices or on the telephone. These are the best times to get hold of them.
  5. Learn to take rejection well. You'll probably receive thirty times as many "no's" as you will "yes's" during the recruiting process. Most students do not follow up on mailed resumes because of the fear of rejection. Even the best and the brightest students get turned down during this process.
Planning ahead and establishing a general idea of what you are looking for in a firm will put you miles ahead of your peers. If you have an idea of what you're looking for in a firm and know which firms you realistically have a shot at, your efforts will not go unnoticed. You may even have time to attend a class or two during this hectic time period.

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