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It is time to recognize this: you have joined the legal profession and have been a member of it since your first day of law school. Many law schools have taken the step of having their students sign a code of conduct that covers students’ behavior during the law school years. If you take a look at these documents, they have little to do with the procedures of the institution and have everything to do with the obligations of the profession. In fact, many of them are modeled upon the ethical cannons to which lawyers must adhere. Law schools recognize that law students are already members of the legal profession and, as one of the gatekeepers in this self-policing profession, law schools are making sure these new members understand their obligations. While you are not yet a fully licensed member, you are a member of the profession and, as such, you have duties and responsibilities right now, not just later in your career. These duties and responsibilities can only be met by you engaging your profession and being involved in its governance and as community leaders.
Let’s talk about engaging the legal profession first. There are ample opportunities for you to be involved first and foremost at your law school. However, take a moment to consider your club affiliations and the events you participate in at law school. Now look at these groups and activities through a professional lens. Are these groups and activities merely social in nature or are they opportunities for you to engage? Engaging in a professional way means recognizing how your organization fits not only into the law school world but also into the greater realm of the legal profession. To think about it another way, you likely have these affiliations listed on your résumé as “Professional Organizations” or some similar heading. Are these groups actually functioning in a professional way and furthering your professional engagement? If not, it is time to take control.
As a member or an officer, plan ways for your group to interact in a meaningful way with the legal profession. Remember, we all hate the awkward cocktail party with the forced small talk, so think twice about arranging another wine and cheese “networking night.” Instead, start a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program with local lawyers to supervise. Rally the Women’s Law Forum and the local women’s bar association to develop a program to assist battered women seeking protection orders. Activities of this type will attract lawyers and law students and give them a common goal to work on together. If the activity is planned correctly, these lawyers will get a chance to know you as a person and to see your work. They will come to trust you and rely on you. And when that lawyer goes to hire, who will they think of first? When they hear of a job opening, who will they recommend? You. And that is infinitely more beneficial than a meet and greet where your name is forgotten about five seconds after the business cards have been exchanged.
Beyond your law school, think about getting involved in the governance of the profession. The American Bar Association Law Student Division is a great way to get involved on a national level. Your state or local bar association may also have law student divisions. Even if you don’t intend to practice in the geographic area in which you attend law school, working with the state or local bar association can be extremely beneficial. You could volunteer to act as a law clerk for a practice area group or ask to join the group as a student member. Remember, just gaining a résumé entry is not the point here. You want to be actively engaged with the people and the subject matter of your profession. These relationships can and will travel beyond your geographic location. The professional opportunity to write this column from my Nebraska location for my Illinois-based editor came through engaging with a lawyer from Pennsylvania whom I met in Indiana.
Now that you’re engaged professionally, don’t disassociate from your professional self while in your personal life. Not all your time can be spent in the law library and you need to practice work/life balance even in law school. Let people in the other areas of your life know who you are and what your goals are. In other words, engage with them on a real level. A friend of mine recently accepted a job offer from a woman she met during her monthly hiking club. They struck up a friendly conversation and, during the course of their hike together, the acquaintance decided that my friend would be perfect for a position in her company.
There can be a tendency for job seekers to feel sheepish about their job search or to simply just want to get away from it for a while. Remember, we are moving away from the awkward, “full court press” method and moving into an approach where you are open about yourself and your goals. A former student of mine went to the same hairdresser throughout law school and shared with him her ups and downs of coursework, finals, job hunting, etc. He mentioned her to his neighbor, a local lawyer, who became interested in the law student. Eventually the two met and the law student was offered a summer associate position.
There you have it. You never have to attend another function where your interaction with other members of the legal profession is stilted and forced. You are free to actively engage with these colleagues on a meaningful level, showing your interest in the profession and expressing your goals. You are free to collaborate on projects that build your skills and integrate you into the community. You can focus on interactions that will be effective for all parties involved. Now let’s go get some wine and cheese.
Carla DeVelder , a former law school associate dean with experience in student affairs and career development, is in-house counsel in the insurance industry in Omaha.