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Student Lawyer

Student Essentials

The Life Cycle of a Student Lawyer

Cheryl Rich Heisler

The Life Cycle of a Student Lawyer WONG

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Back in my undergraduate days, I learned about product life cycles. As a communications major, we studied how consumer products moved in a fairly predictable path from introduction to growth to maturity and, ultimately, to decline.

Each phase was accompanied by certain pros and cons, but always knowing which life cycle stage your product was in was critical for deciding how to allocate financial and other resources to best market the product going forward.

I believe careers also undergo a life cycle. Here’s what I mean.

Like a brand manager managing a product life cycle, where you are in law school creates an opportunity for you to allocate resources most effectively to manage your career. Beyond studying hard, you have choices to make about how to spend your most limited resource, your time. What pulls your focus should vary from the first year, through summer jobs, and through the bar exam to help you best choose how to market yourself for your post-law school career.

The Introduction Phase

Borrowing terminology from the Boston Consulting Group’s well-known matrix model, I think the introduction phase for law students occurs during much of your 1L year.

Everything is new and different: How to study, how to write, and even how to think are all up for grabs. For most of my clients, the memories from the first semester first year are mostly an exhilarating, exhausting, and terrifying blur. Just as with consumer products, law students in this phase are trying to raise their level of awareness as to what this stuff is all about. Making a profit (translation: searching for work) isn’t usually top of mind. Just getting through homework and classes from one day to the next is enough of a worry.

The Growth Phase

Starting sometime after the first semester first year, most students begin to get some color back in their cheeks, and life returns to a bit of normalcy. Law school life demystifies; routines solidify. While still demanding, the rigors of legal study don’t take up every waking moment, and the growth phase can begin.

With more confidence and curiosity, I recommend beginning to seek out informational interviews with lawyers in different practice areas, as well as former lawyers in JD-related roles.

Take advantage of every opportunity provided by your law school to attend programs on the range of possible legal roles. Spend some time online heading up on lawyers who’ve blended their personal interests with their chosen work titles, and reach out to them for information and guidance about how they made their transitions happen.

In the BCG matrix model, this phase also morphs into one of product differentiation. While most second-semester students are fairly undifferentiated in their legal studies, knowing what makes you unique as a person has a great deal to do with where you may want to end up long term.

I can’t stress enough that the topics you enjoy and the values you hold need to be at least a part of the package when thinking about what you want to do and where you want to work. As you begin to seek out summer jobs, externships, and law journal assignments for your 2L year, dial in your differentiating factors.

You’ll be happier, and you’ll interview in a more compelling way if there’s a true nexus between who you are and what you want to do.

The Mature Phase

By the middle of the 2L year, most law students are moving toward the mature phase of their law school career cycle. As with consumer products, in this phase, things are a bit less hectic, but competition is increased. You find yourself vying for summer and school-year positions against classmates with similar legal backgrounds and experiences.

How do you make yourself stand out?

Students who began differentiating themselves at the end of their first year will undoubtedly be ahead of the game here. They’ll be able to use their self-awareness and actual work experiences to convincingly explain to future employers what they enjoy and how they can add value in that arena. Their resumes will tell their stories in a more linear and convincing fashion.

The sell will be tougher for students who took an “I’ll just see where I land” approach to summer jobs and extracurricular involvement.

Whatever is on their resume, whether they particularly like it or not, will make up much of their narrative.

Instead of controlling this phase of the life cycle, they may well be controlled by what’s happened so far. But it’s not too late to turn things around. If you didn’t like your first-summer law firm experience, use your second summer (or your after-school hours) to do something totally different.

Work in an industry that speaks to you. Assist in a governmental agency. Volunteer for a nonprofit. Give yourself the chance to gain experience in a large enough variety of settings that you can begin to identify your likes and strengths and can articulate them in interviews.

Avoiding the Decline Phase

I’m going to break with the BCG matrix model terminology at this point because there’s no way anyone just graduating from law school can be said to be in decline. Whether you choose to pursue a career in law or use your legal background in another field, you’ll have better strategic and communication skills than most of the general public. Your smarts and logical- thinking abilities will take you far.

However, I’ve worked with a lot of students who are really down when it comes to graduating and finding that first legal job. They might have work experience in areas of the law they don’t enjoy and don’t want to work in, even though they have the needed credentials “on paper.” Or they’ve come to realize they’ll have the JD but no desire to work anywhere in the field and very little sense of what they’d like to do instead.

I suggest these lawyers return to the beginning of the lifecycle. Decline applies to you only if you continue to follow a specific legal path knowing it’ll never make you happy. Instead, consider reinventing yourself in a way that returns you to the introduction phase and begin again. Ask yourself what it would take to get you exhilarated, and then restart your journey.