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Student Lawyer

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

The First-Generation Law Student Job Search: Different and Difficult

J.J. Despain

The First-Generation Law Student Job Search: Different and Difficult

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I was very late to the concept of law school. I didn’t seriously think about it until one semester before college graduation. My mom has a bachelor’s degree, and both my parents always expected me to finish college.

But I was the first in my family to do anything postgraduate, let alone law school. Law school is already such a foreign experience, and I think it was a bigger change for me than it was for many of my classmates. I had no lawyers in my family, and I’d never spent much time with lawyers previously.

Lacking these innate connections meant I missed out on an academic advantage. For example, in my first assignment in a legal writing class, I wrote a memo arguing why a hypothetical defendant was guilty. It never occurred to me until reviewing the assignment with my professor that this hypothetical case was a civil case, not a criminal case. The defendant couldn’t be guilty, only liable.

I had the vocabulary completely wrong. It wasn’t a significant or traumatizing mistake, but it did remind me that I didn’t grow up around courtrooms with marble columns and law offices with sixteenth-story views.

Contacts? What Contacts?

But even more than hindering my academic preparation, being the only law student ever in my family definitely meant a disadvantage when it came to the job hunt. For many of my classmates, joining the family business was a given. Or they seamlessly returned to their hometowns and entered the legal community there.

I didn’t have that certainty or even any prospects. Not having any ties meant I was interested in practicing in almost any legal area and any geographic area. While I thought my flexibility would be an asset, it mostly just raised questions. Recruiters didn’t seem to understand why a lawyer who grew up in Oregon would be looking for a job anywhere else.

Probably many of you are scared that graduation is approaching because you have no idea what’s happening next. You might feel like you’re the only one in your graduating classes without a job waiting for you. I certainly felt that way.

I frequently wondered whether law school was a mistake or whether I was cut out to be a lawyer.

And even in moments when I wasn’t quite so harsh with myself, I still felt like I was on the outside looking in—like law school was a cruel three-year initiation without any guarantee of being welcomed into the club. I was on the law review, my GPA was at least above average—what was wrong with me?

Playing the Hand I Was Dealt

Because I didn’t have any connections, I did the best with what little I had. In interviews and cover letters, I emphasized whatever connection, weak or strong, I did have to the potential employer. If I had any name I could drop (which was rare), I made it a point to do so.

If it wasn’t a name, I’d at least find a geographic icebreaker, as meager as it might have been: “Denver feels like home to me because my grandmother lives there” or “Tulsa is just a day’s drive from my wife’s family in Houston.” Even if settling in Denver or Tulsa was basically interchangeable to me, I tried to not reveal that to any potential employers.

I was genuinely happy to start my life and my career anywhere that would give me a chance, even if I was simultaneously checking out a city on the other end of the country.

I also used LinkedIn to search for both college and law school alumni who happened to be working in the cities I was visiting. I found their law firm websites and their email addresses, and I sent messages out of the blue asking to meet and talk about the job opportunities in their firms and their cities.

I’d try to fill up my day crisscrossing the city to make the most of my job-hunting day. Meeting complete strangers might seem intimidating, but I was able to hit it off very well with most of the alumni I met. (Lawyers generally don’t need much arm-twisting to talk about themselves, especially with someone from their alma mater.)

Ultimately, none of these cold calls resulted in a job or even a job offer. But I learned how to network and give my elevator pitch. I also learned how to socialize with attorneys. It kept me hustling until I did finally receive a job offer. The offer came from a firm that didn’t care whether I had a long line of attorneys in my family history. It cared only about how hard I was willing to work and how passionate I’d be in advocating for my clients.

It was the right fit.

And as my career services office always told me, “All you need is one yes.”