April 2012 | Survival Guide for Young Lawyers: Making Lemonade
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Standing Out From the Pack in Networking, Interviews and Beyond

By Grover E. Cleveland

To land a job, you have to convince other lawyers that you will do a better job of making their lives easier than anyone else they are interviewing. That first requires understanding their needs and then demonstrating that you have both the ability and desire to meet those needs. Many new law graduates are great at showing enthusiasm and highlighting their skills, but their answers in interviews seem generic or canned, because they do not clearly understand the needs and concerns of their prospective employers. In other words, they do not understand the employer’s perspective on what it takes to be a successful lawyer.

Here are some tips to stand out from the pack in interviews and on the job:

Remember: It’s Not Really About You. Lots of people have JDs. And that’s a challenge for you – and for employers who are trying to choose among law graduates. Yes, it is important to highlight your strengths and your skills. But you have to differentiate yourself. What employers really want to know is how good you will be at helping them solve their problems. That is more difficult to communicate, but it’s also what will set you apart. You have to connect the dots for an employer between your attributes and the employer’s challenges. A critical first step is understanding employers’ perspectives on what it takes to be a successful lawyer.

Do Your Homework. Do research and talk to senior lawyers and law school career advisors to understand what legal employers need and value. Work to understand unstated fears that you can allay during interviews. The NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education conducts an annual associate attrition survey. Far and away the biggest reason that law firms give for letting go of junior lawyers is the failure to meet work quality standards. In your interviews, you need to work to demonstrate extreme attention to detail and show that you will be a quick study. If you understand what firms need and value and how to avoid mistakes that often cause new graduates to fail, you can craft your answers to articulate clearly why you would be an asset to the employer.

Google Yourself. Legal employers are likely to check Facebook and other sites to make sure you don’t exhibit any signs of erratic or untoward behavior that would reflect negatively on the firm. Google yourself before your prospective employer does, and make sure your online reputation is pristine. After you have a job, it is a good idea politely to decline “friend” invitations from colleagues. Invite them to connect on LinkedIn instead.

Network As If You Are Interviewing. You need to use networking opportunities not only to develop contacts, but also to gain information about how you can make yourself more valuable to employers. But many law students are too casual about networking. Your contacts will take all the information they have about you to make judgments about whether to refer you to their colleagues. This includes your attire, your demeanor, how responsive you are to invitations to get together, whether you ask pertinent questions, whether you are organized and respect their time, and the list goes on. Think carefully about the impression you are making with each and every contact.

Be Politely Persistent. Often, new graduates do not follow up if they contact a lawyer about getting together and do not get a response. You need to be politely persistent. Always ask at least one more time, because lawyers are busy. If you contact a lawyer once and then give up, the lawyer may think that you are not serious or at the very least, not assertive. After you get together, regularly follow up with your contacts on your progress, and let them know that you have taken their advice. Senior lawyers are much more likely to want to invest in your success if they know that you have taken their advice and are proactive about your job search. As long as the post office is in business, hand-written thank you notes will also help lawyers remember you.

Gain Practical Skills. Particularly since the onset of the economic downturn, clients have been squeezing legal departments – and law firms in particular – to do more for less. As companies have looked for ways to cut costs, outside counsel budgets have been slashed. Even with the economy on the uptick, companies have learned to live with smaller outside counsel budgets. Clients have insisted on discounts, and they increasingly refuse to pay for the time it takes to train new lawyers. A generation ago, new lawyers had the luxury of taking a couple of years to learn how to practice law. No more. Today new lawyers need to have practical skills before they walk in the door. Taking practical skills classes, participating in law school career programs, and doing internships are all well worth your time.

Make Your Written Materials Sing. Words matter – particularly in the law. If the written materials you provide are trite and boring, lawyers will assume that you will not excel at using words to persuade judges, slay opposing counsel, and wow clients. Your materials cannot be quirky, but they must be engaging and absolutely error-free. Drew Berry, the late Chairman of McCarter & English, LLP, told new hires that it is a lawyer’s job to force the reader’s mind to move forward through ideas and that a grammatical or typographical error “derails the train of thought.” Make sure you don’t derail a lawyer’s notion of hiring you.

Demonstrate Initiative. In your interviews, be assertive enough to mention what you have done on your own to enhance your skills, and show that you will be a self-starter. If you can demonstrate that you are a person who does not need much hand-holding, you will be a step ahead. (Just don’t get carried away and act like a renegade.)

Be Conscious Of Non-Verbal Communication. Numerous studies have shown that a major portion of communication is non-verbal. Prospective employers will make judgments about you in the first few seconds that they see you – well before you even open your mouth. That’s why it’s critical for your attire and demeanor to convey qualities that are important to legal employers such as, composure, confidence, organization, and attention to detail. Generally choose conservative attire, and dress one step above your interviewer. If you are not familiar with working in a professional environment, you may find it useful to read a book like, The Modern Rules of Business Etiquette by Donna Gerson and David Gerson (American Bar Association, 2008).

Be Friendly – But Not Chummy. Boring may be preferable for your attire, but not for your interview answers. You need to come across as friendly and interesting, because senior lawyers want to know that you will be pleasant to work with and that you will be nice to their clients.

Pause To Compose Your Answers. After you get an interview question, take a few seconds to compose a concise, coherent answer that will highlight the benefits of hiring you. If you ramble in an interview, senior lawyers will assume you will ramble in front of judges and clients. And if you answer the, “Tell me about yourself” question with a chronological recitation of your life beginning with birth, you have lost a huge opportunity to provide a relevant and compelling answer.

Be Prepared For Curveballs. On occasion, an attorney will ask a question to see how you think on your feet – or when you are under attack. Sometimes the questions may seem unfair, but a huge part of being a successful attorney is being able to maintain your composure. I have heard of at least one lawyer who sometimes uses profanity in interviews to see how interviewees will react. (The wrong way to react would be to use profanity in turn.)  If you get a curveball, stay on message. Particularly if you are a litigator, the ability to stick to your guns under difficult circumstances is likely to be a key evaluation criterion for you as a new lawyer.

Ask For Feedback. Getting frank feedback after interviews is challenging, but it can be extremely valuable. If you did not land a job, your prospective employer probably gave you an answer along the lines of, “We had many qualified candidates and had to make difficult choices.”  But that does not give you any information about why another candidate was selected and you were not. If you developed a rapport with someone during the interview process, you might suggest a quick coffee to discuss how you might improve. Do whatever works, but try to get specific input.

Keep Learning. As time passes, if you have not found employment, prospective employers will want to see that you still found ways to continue to enhance your skills. Learn more about law office technology, take on pro bono projects, or volunteer at a legal clinic. Do something that helps you gain more practice skills.

Try Not To Take Rejection Personally. If you are striking out in interviews, try not to take it personally. In a down economy, there are simply more law graduates than law jobs. Stay focused on expanding your network and making yourself as valuable as possible to prospective employers by learning new skills. As long as you are doing your best with the job search, it does not help to get anxious, demoralized or embittered. Of course, that is easier said than done. It may help to remember, though, that rejection is almost always an inevitable milestone on the path to employment.

On The Job: Remember First Impressions Are Huge. Once you land a job, it’s important to remember that first impressions are extremely important. There are few second chances at law firms. Lawyers have choices, and if they don’t like your work, they are likely to do it themselves or get someone else to do it. That’s often easier for senior lawyers than lots of review, work and rework.

Work To Make Yourself Indispensable. Ultimately, you need to develop relationships with senior lawyers and do whatever you can to make their lives easier. The best way to stay employed and thrive is to have advocates who will say that they cannot do their own jobs if you are not working for them. You build relationships by doing work every day in a way that will “earn” you new work. Paying attention to detail, trying to anticipate senior lawyer needs and treating senior lawyers as your clients will all go a long way toward ensuring that you get a steady stream of work, including more complex and interesting work, that will help you build your practice.

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About the Author

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle attorney, speaker, and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). Readers may contact him at www.swimminglessonsforbabysharks.com or on Twitter @babysharklaw.


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