Transitioning from law student to lawyer is where theory becomes practice. Some new lawyers believe that law school could do a better job of bridging that gap.
“I had several great law school classes, but the use of the Socratic method and the traditional format for law school exams bear little resemblance to the actual practice of law,” said Nick Hesterberg, a commercial litigation associate with Perkins Coie in Seattle. “In my experience, practicing places more emphasis on teamwork, collaboration, and creative problem solving. I highly recommend participating in a law school clinic to get a better feel for what the real world has in store.”
Often, law school allows results—whether success or failure—to be a private event. Practicing changes that. Defeat can cost others dearly and it can happen on a very large stage like a courtroom or a newspaper’s front page. Successes can be celebrated in equally public forums. The time to make—and learn from—mistakes fades as the consequences of one’s training, aptitude, and competence become real.
“It is also a big change from law school to know that people are counting on me—and only me—to find a favorable resolution for them,” said Kate Conyers, a trial attorney at Salt Lake Legal Defender Association (SLLDA) in Salt Lake City. “I’m in court practically every day, I prep for jury trials on a weekly basis, and I draft a lot of procedural and substantive motions in a relatively small amount of time. The worst thing that can happen at law school is getting a bad grade or not getting on a journal or in a specific class. Almost every day at work, I have clients that are ordered to jail.”
But these have always been the realities for the law student to lawyer transition. The current economy adds a layer of uncertainty. It isn’t only managing the transition to be concerned with. Will there even be a transition?
Post-2008 job searches have larger than expected bumps. How one handles that adversity is telling. Despite hardship, these new lawyers found their way to positions they love.
Syeda Davidson, an associate at Burgess & Sharp, PLLC in Clinton Township, Michigan, graduated in 2008. After a fruitless job search, she opened her own practice right out of law school. She continued bartending to make ends meet. She moonlighted and remained positive. Davidson got active in the ABA and her local and state bar associations. She used networking opportunities to meet lawyers and service projects to show her work ethic and abilities. She found some clients. She developed relationships with other lawyers and got referalls and coverage gigs. Through all this, she kept looking for employment as a lawyer.
These efforts paid off in being offered a part-time position with an employment law firm. It took a year, but she was employed as an attorney. Her continued networking efforts and growing reputation then landed her a full-time position in legal aid. After a little over two years in legal aid, her growing reputation led to her current position at Burgess & Sharp.
In August 2008, as a 3L, Hesterberg was finishing a summer associate position with Perkins Coie in Seattle. He was offered a permanent position following graduation. Then, the economy took a major hit. In early 2009, Hesterberg was asked to defer his start date by a year.
“After getting over the disappointment, I resolved to make the most of the situation by doing something incredible,” said Hesterberg. “An unplanned detour can ultimately take you to places you’d never imagined and can change your life forever.”
He was in fortunate position that his firm wanted him to receive experience and was willing to provide a stipend to allow him to get it. “After a bit of searching, I found an incredible nonprofit—the Environmental Defender Law Center (EDLC)—that was doing great work to protect the human rights of environmental defenders in the developing world,” recalled Hesterberg. “Fortunately, EDLC was interested in having me help tackle cases closer to the front lines. Before long, I was on a plane bound for Bogota. The following year in Colombia was marked by enormous personal and professional growth as I assisted indigenous and campesino communities in Latin America and beyond in their struggle for justice. However, nothing was quite as life-changing as my chance encounter with an incredible Colombian lawyer who, amazingly, agreed to marry me. Although it may be impossible to anticipate the twists and turns our careers may take, we certainly can and should do everything possible to make the most out of them.”
Samara Gomez, assistant vice president for loan administration at Wells Fargo in Washington, D.C., graduated in 2007. She was fortunate to have two job offers during her 3L year. She acknowledges that had she graduated even a year later, she likely wouldn’t have been so lucky. Despite that, Gomez struggled with the economy. About two years ago, she decided to leave employment with a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania-affiliated entity. After two years of nightly job searching and countless résumé revisions, she landed her current position. She admits that keeping positive during that time was difficult, but now she considers herself fortunate to have a position that suits her well.
Davidson and Hesterberg entered the legal profession in an uncertain time. Gomez joined it just before the coming economic storm. They all came out on top, even if dealt different hands. By tackling their problems head on and treating them as opportunities, they ended in different places than expected. The adversity that today’s law students may face can be challenging and daunting. However, it may lead you to positions you’d never expect—maybe even a soul mate you wouldn’t have otherwise met.
Preparing to Transition
Law school’s demands are unrelenting. Between class-assigned reading and finals that seem to loom earlier each semester, it’s hard to find time to adequately fill a résumé with appropriate extracurricular activities. Preparing for the law student to lawyer transition is another demand. But there is an opportunity to tame all those demands at once. By strategically thinking about where you want to be in your first year after law school, you can best choose the way.
“The thing I did in law school that most helped me to secure my first job was target my internships, externships, classes, and extracurricular activities to the area of the law I wanted to practice after I graduated,” said Allyson Gold, a 2011 graduate. Gold is now a supervising attorney at the Health Justice Project, a medical-legal partnership at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. “I also attempted to be deliberate about the types of experiences I would have in each placement, trying to gain a variety of legal skills that would serve me in practice.”
Gold recommended planning for both long- and short-term goals. By knowing what type of law she wanted to practice, she sought opportunities that led her to her goal. Working at a housing nonprofit as a 3L, gave Gold experience working with clients. By writing articles and speaking, she gained experience as an educator.
It was important to define the more immediate goals that each opportunity afforded so that she was acquiring all the skills that she needed. Even if you don’t know what type of law you want to practice, planning is important. There are a number of transferrable lawyering skills like clear, concise writing, client management, and listening ability. You can also plan based on the type of work environment that interests you, whether it be a private practice firm, nonprofit, or government agency.
In fact, Alyesha Asghar Dotson, an associate attorney at Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC in Charleston, West Virginia, advised that not knowing exactly where you want to practice may be a benefit. “I like a summer clerk who is willing to learn and explore new areas of law,” Dotson continued. “You might think you hate tax law, but a summer project might change your mind—or not. But you’ll never really know unless you keep an open mind and try it.”
Exploring your interests may also lead to unexpected results.
“I always thought that I wanted to do family law,” said Gomez. “During my 3L year, I had the opportunity to work in [my law school’s] family law clinic. I did very well in the clinic; however, after that experience, I will never do family law. I also learned that I would never be happy as plaintiff’s counsel. But for that opportunity, I would have pursued job opportunities in an area that was not really compatible with my personality.”
Be your own advocate
It is a competitive job market and profession. You owe it to yourself to put yourself in the right position. Impending student loan payments and relentless bad employment news adds pressure to any job search. These new lawyers encourage law students to advocate for themselves. Finding the right fit makes all the difference and students should pursue opportunities that achieve their goals, not just a paycheck.
Conyers is in her third job in three years. “I was a little worried that people would think that I had no longevity or loyalty to one place, but that really wasn’t an issue,” she said. “Two years after law school, I decided to leave my first job at a bigger law firm . . . after I determined it wasn’t a good fit for me and I found that I wasn’t very happy with my career choice. I got a job at a small law firm where I practiced as a parental defender in the juvenile court in [child and family services] cases. I found that work a lot more enjoyable and more consistent with how I wanted to use my law degree. Six months later when a position opened up at [SLLDA]—a place I had worked during my third year in law school—I jumped at the opportunity to return to a place where I knew the people and where I could practice in a bigger practice area and in a variety of courts.”
Hesterberg added that it is important for prospective employers to want you for you. And that means the whole package, not just the skills that can be detailed on a résumé. “I think that showing off a bit of my personality in my résumé and cover letters helped me land interviews and eventually secure a great job. Grades and other accolades are important, but don’t underestimate how much prospective employers care about whether you’ll be a good fit within their organization. Most of my interviews included discussions about world travel and microbrews, which was more fun for me and presumably more enjoyable and memorable for the interviewer, too.”
Just like you need to find the position that is right for you, you can’t let anyone limit your opportunities. “Let’s just say that tax was not one of my better courses,” said Gomez. “Despite that fact, when I saw an advertisement for a law student intern, I applied and submitted my transcript. The organization was seeking someone who had done well in tax due to the nature of its work. Obviously, I was not expecting a call back. To my surprise, I started corresponding with a staff attorney who set up my phone interview with the chief counsel. During my telephone interview, she actually offered me the position . . . . Even if the odds seem against you, you just have to apply anyway. You never know how things will work out.”
Being open to possibilities, knowing how to assess your experiences, and taking ownership over your own success are all recommended paths by those who have only recently blazed the trail. With some practical experience, by focusing on training opportunities that follow your plan, and being your own best advocate, you can put yourself in a better post-graduate scenario.