There are additional avenues into summer programs that we haven't discussed. One possibility is to work as a paralegal first for a few years before attending law school. Another option is work as a law clerk in a firm during the school year before joining a summer program. These alternatives offer no guarantees of job offers and may even add a few years to your journey through law school, but I'll show you examples of students who landed great jobs through these avenues. This exposure also enabled them to make an enlightened decision about where they truly wanted to work--an exposure that their summer associate peers didn't have.
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The Paralegal Route
Lots of people work as paralegals before attending law school. But most never use their experience to lay the groundwork for something bigger and better later on. There are some paralegals who become so valuable to their law firms, through their dedication and quality of work that they depart for law school with an open invitation to come back to the firm as a summer associate or even associate.
This option may sound simple or obvious, but to make yourself valuable enough to a law firm to walk away with an open ticket to return at a higher level, you have to pay a price. Many paralegals, regardless of their educational background and intelligence, aren't willing to ante up what it takes to receive such an open invitation. And some would prefer to work in another firm or another location. But let me give you a real-life example of what I'm talking about.
The Story of the Telecommunications Paralegal
A firm in a large East Coast city hired a recent college graduate to work as a telecommunications paralegal. He had slightly better than average grades from a prestigious state university. He wasn't a member of Phi Beta Kappa or even on the dean's list. He was the first paralegal dedicated to telecommunications that the firm had ever hired, so there were a lot of unknown factors about him and the position itself. They weren't exactly sure what they really needed for this position but knew that they needed someone at this level working in the telecommunications area.
The telecommunications paralegal, over a period of two to three years, managed to become one of the most valuable members of the firm's telecommunications practice. The quality of his work was exceptional. The hours he put in astounded even the most dedicated associates and partners. He did the work of two people, and when he finally decided to enter law school, the firm was at a loss as to how to replace him. He decided to attend a local law school in his home state, one that the law firm never recruited from. But when the former paralegal needed a summer job during his second summer, he had only to pick up the phone and call a few partners at his former law firm. They immediately offered him a job, and he ultimately joined the firm as an associate.
The Amount of Dedication It Really Takes
But how much dedication does it take to get in the door this way, and how long do you need to work as a paralegal in a firm to carve out this type of relationship? There are no magic answers here, but I'll give you another example.
Another firm told me the story of a paralegal who possessed the same level of dedication as the telecommunications paralegal we just talked about. She also worked in a sophisticated area of the law, doing much of her work on Excel spreadsheets. She also attended a prestigious state university and planned to attend either law or business school in the near future.
Her work ethic was extraordinary. Not only was the quality of her work exceptional, but also the quantity was amazing. For example, in one month, she billed 360 hours, most of it working on Excel spreadsheets. To quantify those hours, if she billed 360 hours, she probably worked about 375 to 400 hours. That means that she worked 12 hours a day for the entire month, without a day off, on Excel spreadsheets! That, alone, is an amazing feat. She established a strong reputation for herself at her law firm and probably has what it takes be a successful attorney in the firm as well. But she has paid a price-basically her life has been her work for the past few years.
My point is that it takes an extremely high level of dedication and a high quality of work to impress a firm to the point of giving you an open ticket to return, regardless of where you decide to attend law school. Very few people are willing to make these types of sacrifices on a paralegal's salary (which is usually quite low). But this is another route into a law firm that some choose to take.
Winter and Spring Clerkship Programs
Many firms sponsor clerkship programs during the winter and spring semesters that enable second- and third-year law students to work part-time during the school semester. The hourly salaries are usually quite good, and students are able to gain excellent work experience as well. Some firms use clerkships as an alternative to hiring temporary attorneys, while others view them as an actual recruiting tool, since they're able to work with you extensively before making hiring decisions.
Minority Clerkship Programs
Minority clerkship programs are also quite popular. Firms commit to hire minority students for at least a semester, enabling students from diverse backgrounds to work in major law firms with very high academic standards. Firms participate in minority programs to increase their minority representation, even if only on a temporary basis. Sometimes these students are picked up by the firms. At the very least, their resumes are enhanced, and they gain valuable work experience.
How the Clerkship Hiring Process Works
Firms typically contact law schools in their area and advertise law clerk positions through the career services office. The placement office posts the position at the school, with a deadline for resume collection. They then send a package of resumes to the firm for review. Firms prescreen the resumes, and candidates are selected to interview. The hiring criteria vary among firms. Grades are still important, but often clerks are hired to work in a particular practice area, so outside experience and particular course work become important as well. Firms are generally more lenient than they are when hiring summer associates. Law clerks are paid on an hourly basis and usually work between ten and twenty hours a week. Salaries vary among firms and geographic locations, but rates tend to be very good.
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Using Clerkships as an Entree into a Firm
Sometimes law clerks are hired for summer associate or associate positions after spending time in a firm. You can make yourself so valuable to a firm that other doors are opened on your behalf that might otherwise have been left closed. But if this is your plan, never wear it on your sleeve. Keep your ultimate plans to yourself. As far as you're concerned, your goal is to do good work, make some needed cash, and gain work experience. But keep in mind that some firms have a strict policy on not hiring clerks, eliminating the hope that a winter or spring clerkship will be the ticket to a permanent position, since the hiring criteria are often different.
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