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Honest self-assessment, soft skills critical to getting first job, say recent hires

Honest self-assessment, soft skills critical to getting first job, say recent hires

By John Glynn

Young lawyers on a variety of career paths— those in small firms, large firms and government— as well as a law firm administrator advised law students at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting on jump-starting their careers and navigating the job search process.

The program, “What I Wished I'd Know About My Job Search,” is part of a career development series sponsored by the ABA Young Lawyers Division. Panelists shared their personal experiences with their first job search and offered practical advice, such as where to begin.

“The biggest struggle you all have is that you don’t really know what you want to do, and you don’t know what is out there,” said Amy Drushal, shareholder and commercial litigator at Trenam Kemker, encouraging research and self-examination.

Experts agreed that first understanding what you want to do and why you want to do it is critical to realizing a satisfying legal career.

“Do you want to work a lot? Do you want to have a family? What is it that your end goal is for your life?” Drushal asked. “If you want to work a lot, you go to a big firm; if you want a different quality of life, you look at clerkships and smaller firms.”

“Make sure that when you are interviewing you know what the firm expects from you when you start working,” added Drushal.

“If you are looking for work-life balance, a small firm life can be really attractive,” said Will Harrelson, associate attorney at Faust, Harrelson, Fulker, McCarthy & Schlemmer LLP. “You get to take a lot of ownership in a lot of areas of your practice earlier on.”

Alexandra Haddad, an associate at Burr & Forman LLP, recommended starting the job search with an open mind.  “Think of what is realistic for you; keep all your options open,” she said, advising law students to consider the spectrum of possible jobs, including ones that may not be law related. “It’s really important to keep your mind open and think where you want to be in 10 years.”

“Think about what you are passionate about, what you enjoy doing,” said Steven Wingert, executive director of Marshall, Gerstein & Borun LLP, who urged job seekers to research their options —especially the culture of a firm— and whether it aligns with personal beliefs and interests.

“It’s a challenging market for young lawyers and it can be tempting to jump at whatever you can find …but it may not turn out particularly well if it’s just not a good fit,” Wingert explained.

Panelists recommended that candidates use their résumés and cover letters as tools to provide insight into their personal experiences, and encouraged law students to use job interviews as an opportunity to show their personality and ability to relate to and communicate with others.

A strong résumé often includes activities and accomplishments beyond those that are law-related. “We obviously expect [to see] a law review, a mock trial or a trial team, but if you played sports, if you are involved in your community a lot, it’s very important to highlight that— not just in your resume, but in your interview—because we want people that can relate to other people,” Drushal said. “I would try to concentrate less on what your grades were, and more on what makes you a human being.”

LaKeisha Randall, staff attorney and senior judicial law clerk at the City of Atlanta Municipal Court, shared advice given to her during her first job search, encouraging candidates to show their personality and be genuine during interviews.

“One thing my mentor told me was: ‘if you get the interview you’re qualified for the position; but in the interview I want to know: Can I sit in the elevator with you if we are stuck? Will you be here late on nights when it’s crunch time?’ Let your true personality show,” Randall said.

Randall’s and Drushal’s advice is based on a cultural shift in the hiring process at law firms, which is now often focused on recruiting more well-rounded individuals. In the past, law firms would focus attention on the top graduates from the top schools. They have since come to recognize that academic background alone is not a clear indicator of future success and are looking more at candidates’ softer skills.

“There was this student in my class in law school who was brilliant, utterly brilliant—legal mind, law review and everything— and he could not get a job because he was really socially inept,” Harrelson said. “It’s just a wonder that it has taken the legal industry this long to get there, where we look at a well-rounded candidate.”

Wingert, who brought a law practice management perspective to the panel, attributed the change to a realization that collaboration and cooperation between colleagues renders more productivity and benefits to the firm.  

“I think [law firms] are realizing that they can be much more productive and effective when people collaborate,” Wingert said. Firms are finally looking at the bigger picture. Success isn’t just about the numbers—“it’s about the ability to interact with clients not just on legal aspects, but [also] on a personal level.”

Panelists agreed that applying for jobs and interviewing can be nerve racking, but cinching a position doesn’t end there, follow-up after an interview is an essential component of the job search process.

“The worst thing you can do is not do anything, if you do not follow-up at all you will probably fall further down the list,” warned Wingert.

Add a personal touch with a hand-written note to follow-up, said the experts. “When I wake up in the morning I have like 80 emails, I don’t want another email,” Drushal said.

“Send a hand written note,” Haddad emphasized. “I know people have gotten into the habit of sending emails, and maybe doing both is fine because email is much quicker, but everybody should get a hand-written note. I know it’s old fashioned, but I think it really leaves a mark and the people at the firm will remember it.”

“Part of what you are trying to accomplish in an interview is building a connection and establishing some type of relationship with those individuals that you have met with,” Wingert added. “The personal note is an extension of that; that’s how you build that connection and that relationship.”

However—“Don’t use the thank you letter to continue to over sell yourself,” Wingert said. “The goal is to thank them… don’t do a two-page thank you letter, trying to sell the firm on why they should hire you.” 

Panelists’ interview tips, include:

  • Before an interview, rehearse with family friends and peers

  • Develop conversation with your interviewer

  • Be who you are and draw your personality into the conversation

  • When asked a question, think about the purpose of the question and answer accordingly

  • Show how resourceful you can be

  • Expect to answer outside- the-box and behavioral questions. These atypical questions are to find out how resourceful you are and if you can think quickly on your feet.

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