It’s after winter break and you’ve gotten your first semester grades back. You’re shocked, elated, disappointed, stoic, or any combination of the above. But your real challenge begins now. You have to start thinking about getting a legal job for the summer. A legal job? But I barely made it through first semester. My contracts outline was equal parts angst, unintelligible gibberish, and stains from take-out Chinese. What sane person would even let me review contracts or do any legal work for that matter? Don’t worry. Somebody will.
I’ll confess that my job search was unorthodox and that in no way do I believe that my experience should serve as a model. Also, as a nontraditional law student I had more experiences to offer than someone right out of college. That being said, I want to offer my advice (and reflections) on my experience trying to find a first-year job that I hope will lay the foundation for the rest of my career.
I don’t think I’m all that unique in saying that I came to law school having no real idea what I wanted to do. I thought that speaking Russian would help me in immigration law or maybe oil and gas, so when I arrived to law school I thought I might focus on these areas. Then I heard that there were some attorneys in the resort towns who specialized in real estate transactions for wealthy Russians, so I considered real estate law. That’s the beauty of being a first-year student: you don’t have a specialization in a particular field. You can tell any lawyer in any field that you’re interested in (insert area of law) without sounding disingenuous. It’s liberating. I highly recommended that every first-year student try it.
Given my initial interests, it might seem strange that I have two positions in labor/employment law: a summer fellowship with a labor union and a fall externship with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. How could this be? Whatever happened to helping Roman Abramovich buy his dream mansion in Aspen and a controlling stake in the Colorado Rockies? It all started with a simple email. I was sitting at home over winter break, wondering what I was going to do with my summer. I made my daily email check and found an email from one of our career advisors. She’d looked at my credentials and wanted to tell me about a fellowship in labor law. At first I did not give it much thought. After all, I hadn’t even taken labor law. What could I possibly have to offer a union?
After giving it a lot of thought, I decided that, even though I knew nothing about labor law itself, I still had something to offer. I had taught history classes that involved industrialization and labor activism. My grandfather had been in a union. When I was a graduate student, I wish I had been in one. Maybe this was enough. So I applied.
The first step in any application is making a résumé. For a legal job, your résumé needs to be one page. If you’re coming from academia (my CV was well over five pages) this can be quite a shock. After a lot of help (and readjusting the margins in Word) I was able to fit the most important things about me onto one page. It was terrifying. In academia, you are trying to bombard potential employers with information on your qualifications: it’s as if every line of every page is an attempt to browbeat someone into accepting you. You also operate under the illusion, at least I did, that your scholarly interests are unique and that someone will take the time to read everything about you. They care about you and your accomplishments. You are special.
This will not fly if you’re a first-year on the job hunt. Nobody really cares about your accomplishments. But they do care about two things: can you do the job and what are your reasons for applying? You have to highlight your strengths in these areas at all three stages: résumé, cover letter, and interview. The résumé is pretty straightforward. In addition to your educational background and work experience, list anything that is related to the job you’re seeking. Are you applying to work for a Public Defender? Then list any volunteer activities you have, especially if you worked with disadvantaged or underrepresented groups. In my case, I listed that I’d studied labor history and taught it in the classroom. Whatever it is, make sure it gets on that résumé.
The second area you have to excel in is your cover letter. A cover letter is two things in one page: it’s your chance to show you can write concisely and clearly, and it’s another opportunity for you to tell the world why you’d be great at the job to which you’re applying. The first one is the most important because if you can write well, everything else will follow. But if your cover letter has punctuation or typographical errors or is unclear, then the person reading it is going to think two things: if you really cared about saving the environment or reviewing corporate transactions, then you would have taken the time to proofread your one page cover later. Or, even worse, that you cannot write well. And let’s face it, as a first-year summer intern or employee, you’re the equivalent of the baseball utility player. You’re going to be flying all over the field, having no idea what you’re doing, but you’re wearing the uniform and everyone is going to expect to you look the part.
Even if you write well, you still need to convince the reader that you’re the best person for the job. How do you this? My advice is that you adopt a narrative structure that keeps in mind an ending: I’m the best person for this job. Everything in your cover letter should build towards this conclusion; it’s as if everything in your life was leading to this moment, to this job. Keeping this in mind helped me to always remember that every section of my cover letter should reinforce why I wanted the job and why I would be good at it. It also helped me to add a personal touch to my cover letter and avoid a big mistake: making my cover letter just a bland restatement of my résumé.
The final stage of your job search is the interview. The interview can be really be intimidating, so the best thing to do is practice. A lot of law schools offer mock job interviews and I highly encourage everyone from the recent graduate to the non-traditional student to take advantage of the opportunity to practice. Even though you’ll always be nervous during an interview, you can overcome it with your enthusiasm. If you really do want the job, then show it. Try to speak with a sense of purpose and excitement. The practice interview is a great opportunity for this because you have nothing to lose. And even though it may be difficult to fathom, you should have this attitude during your real interview. If you’re enthusiastic for the opportunity, it will be infectious. The people interviewing you will be less concerned with your qualifications and more interested in you as a person. This is a great sign because so much of working with someone isn’t his or her qualifications, but whether or not you like the person. In my successful summer interview we spent a lot of time talking about Trotsky, and in my successful interview for my fall externship we talked about fantasy baseball for the last 5-8 minutes. Looking back it seems so strange, but then again so did the whole process. Embrace it. And don’t forget that no matter what, you are the best person for a job, you just might not realize it yet.
“If you’re so uptight about work, why don’t you just quit? You don’t have to work.”
“Because,” I say, staring directly at her, “I…want…to…fit…in.”