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June 21, 2018 Articles

Managing Your Legal Career Before It Starts Managing You

By Veronica Canton

I worked with an intellectual property litigation team at Reed Smith LLP before I started law school. I helped my team prepare for depositions, for Daubert hearings, for trials, and for many other tasks. I believed that having prior work experience would help me successfully execute my work as a law student. Attorney friends warned me that law school would be hard. I was given tips on how to survive the workload. I was advised on how to keep a balanced life. In addition to having this advice, I connected with several mentors at school and signed up for two mentorship programs at the beginning of my first semester. These mentors were key in the successful execution of my law school work. Two pieces of advice really stood out.

The first piece of advice was to not self-select out of opportunities because I didn’t know or didn’t think they were for me. When I talk to my mentees, especially young women, I tell them that figuring out what opportunities to go after starts with a self-assessment session. For instance, if you already know there is one area of law or one subject that you are not interested in, don’t do anything related to that. But, if you are not sure as to what area of law you want to focus on, I suggest you do several things. Keep in mind that when you are in law school, many people want to help you: your professors, your mentors, your school dean, and alumni; reach out to these people. I love coffee, so one thing I do is invite people for a coffee (which I offer to pay for) so I can pick their brains about their experiences, their practice, and the advice they received that helped them make it through law school. These people have already gone through the process and can give you information that can help you fine-tune what opportunities you want to pursue or get a different perspective on how to continue a route you hadn’t considered.

Let’s discuss the use of law school resources. I am friends with the career development and alumni office teams at Notre Dame Law School. I suggest you reach out to these teams at your school to make appointments to talk to them face to face. The legal industry is about personal relationships. If you are in law school, this may not click with you yet. You will realize later in your career that the same friends and colleagues from your law school will refer legal work to you or connect you with other people who will help you succeed in your career. When people in the career development or alumni office get to know you, they have a better idea of what you are looking for and how to help you. You can’t expect them to know what to do for you if you don’t take the first step.

The alumni office is a great way to connect with potential future employers. I highly suggest you reach out to your alumni office to connect with potential prospective employers. But you have to be strategic and personal about your outreach. You should ask for alumni contact information in a specific city and in a couple of different areas of legal practice. Once you either schedule a call or a face-to-face meeting with alumni, they can share your contact information or résumé with others. Once people have the opportunity to get to know you, these relationships grow naturally. You can’t email someone asking him or her to be your mentor or to get you a job because of your school connection. There has to be something more, and it’s your job to get these people to know how amazing you are. Your professors can also help in this process. If you are still in law school and you like a particular professor or like the subject area, schedule time to talk to that professor about your career path. You’d be surprised to find out that professors too have great networks that are underutilized by students.

The second piece of advice I was given was to network so that I can get to know people in the legal industry, but most importantly that they get to know me. When we start law school, we are so busy keeping up with our assignments, trying to be healthy, keeping up with our relationships, finding a job, and who knows what else. Several mentors expressed the importance of networking in the legal industry. I created a weekly schedule that included class time, study time, personal time, and sleep. I set up a couple of windows of personal time on this schedule. I used my personal time to attend networking events. I felt it was an excellent way to get to know people in the legal industry while enjoying time away from school and spending time with colleagues who also attended these networking events. I participated in events held by the Federal Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association, and the Hispanic Lawyer’s Association of Illinois, to name a few. After a few events, you start to see some of the same people and they recognize you. Having personal time to network should be on everyone’s schedules. I hear people talk about networking as “work.” Well, make it fun. Take a friend with you. Go to these events early enough so that you can determine whether you want to stay for the whole event or only a brief time. Students in big cities can take advantage of the numerous events that take place every day. If you are a law student going to these events, you will stand out. If you are a young professional at these events, you will get noticed.

I also sought opportunities to attend conferences. Remember I mentioned my group of mentors who helped me during law school? One of those mentors sent me a link to an application for the Microsoft/HNBA Intellectual Property Litigation Institute—a one-week program in Washington, D.C., where students receive intensive training on everything IP. I applied for the programs and was one of the 25 students chosen. A few months later, I submitted a presentation proposal for the International Trademark Association’s conference in Barcelona. My proposal was accepted and I ended up doing this presentation in front of an amazing academic panel while spending time connecting with international trademark practitioners. At that conference, I connected with an author who later connected me with the opportunity to be considered and to be chosen as a student editor for the ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law’s publication, Landslide magazine.

I share this with you to show that once you go after an opportunity and once you are chosen for that opportunity, you will be presented with other wonderful opportunities. There is a chain reaction. Colleagues have asked me how I do all of this. My response is “I make a to-do list, and I do the things on the list.” I make it sound simple, but it is that simple. A separate but relevant step in my process is making a to-don’t list. What is that? Make a list of things you won’t do. If you like working out every day, put that on the list. If you don’t like going to more than one networking event per week (or every other week), put that on your list. If you need a minimum of seven hours of sleep per day, put that on your list.

I have seen that many of my colleagues at school don’t start managing the direction they want their career to go to until they are about to graduate or after they have landed in a place and they find out they hate what they are doing. Taking some of the above actions will help you have a better time during law school and establish yourself as part of the legal market you want to be part of. Both of these pieces of advice have served me well in establishing a solid foundation to manage what I hope will be a successful career in the legal field. I hope this advice also serves you well. I wish you a fantastic day!

Veronica Canton is an incoming associate at Michael Best Friedrich LLP, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  

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