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Three Ways to Maximize the Career Potential in Each of Your Law School Summers

Cheryl Rich Heisler

Three Ways to Maximize the Career Potential in Each of Your Law School Summers

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What are you planning on doing this and maybe the next few summers?

If you plan it well, three years of law school can provide you with up to four summers’ worth of work experience in law/related fields. From traditional law firm summer associate roles to courtroom clerkships, governmental internships to corporate in-house experiences, nonprofit apprenticeships to JD alternative opportunities, summer positions offer the best chance to “kick the tires” of various jobs to find out where you really belong.

Open Up All Your Options

As a career consultant to lawyers exploring career transition, I have often heard my clients admit to having decided on a legal career before they knew what being a lawyer entailed. While such a single-minded focus can be motivational, it can also cause you to miss out on peripheral opportunities that arise. Working in a variety of legal and legal-alternative environments during the summers before and during law school gives you useful information to help choose your career direction.

Ideally, every work experience would be unique. But in reality, there are some stereotypical elements shared by jobs in certain categories; until you work in one of those roles you can’t know how those elements will impact you.

For example, working in big law can appear lucrative and glamorous from the outside, but anyone who has spent time in a large law firm can attest to the fact that those perks come at a personal price. The big salary comes with big hourly commitments and small amounts of private time. Similarly, working as a lawyer for a nonprofit in an industry that matters to you can be extremely rewarding, but often accompanied by a less-than-rewarding salary and lower levels of institutional support.

Note: one job isn’t better than the other, but there are pros and cons to each that might make the choice right for one person and wrong for another.

Making things even more confusing, the above examples only compare lawyer jobs in two different arenas. Imagine you are interested in a JD alternative role. If you work one summer as a firm lawyer and another summer as a nonprofit lawyer, how will you ever know what life might be like in a different but related position (e.g., as an advocate, HR professional, compliance officer, government affairs coordinator, or a legal educator)?

There aren’t enough summers to try every different career combination/permutation, but if you have an area of significant interest, consider using one of your summers to gain some firsthand knowledge of (and some potentially useful marketing credibility within) that industry.

Put Yourself into the Mix

Self-assessment is the foundation for any serious career decision-making. Start your strategic summer planning by looking inward. What brought you to law school in the first place? If addressing social inequalities was your prime motivator, maybe M&A work isn’t going to fuel your sense of justice. If being in the courtroom was how you planned to fulfill your theatrical desires, a government compliance role reviewing rules and regs probably won’t meet your needs.

For those of us who never really knew quite how or why we got here, summer jobs are even more important in figuring out career direction. Try a variety of jobs, in a variety of milieus. Experience the differences between corporate and governmental work environments. Spend some time in law firms and contrast that with what you learn in a nonprofit organization. There are tangible differences in the cultures of each; exposing yourself to these differences helps you grasp what feels “right” for you on a deeply personal level.

Make the Timing Work for You

To make things even more challenging, not all summers during your law school years are created equal. What you do before law school often has less impact, at least from a marketing perspective, than the job you accept after your 2L year. Unless you are swept up in the hiring patterns of big law firms and receive a permanent offer of employment a year in advance, your 3L summer job may very well offer the best chance of getting hired post-bar exam.

So, figure out your preferences early! If it’s not too late, take law-related summer jobs even before you officially begin law school. Keep narrowing down your focus to those things that interest you the most and focus on landing a job within that realm as close to graduation as possible.

Not all your work experiences have to come between May and August. With externships, internships, research opportunities and even study abroad options, you can and should expand your job awareness well beyond summer programs. But it makes good sense to think through and develop a strategic plan for how to best use your summers to learn about yourself as well as your fullest range of legal career options.