Starting your legal career in law school

By Christine Sopora Student 2013

You think law school is exclusively for law studies? Not so. Get your career started as soon as you hit the books.

Starting your legal career in law school

Illustration by DrAfter123/ISTOCKPHOTO

Attention! Whether you are in your first or last year of law school, you need to be mindful of the changing legal marketplace. Being a lawyer isn’t what it used to be — as a raft of news items and blog posts on the topic will tell you. You may have already discovered that articling opportunities are dwindling; you’ll soon find traditional associate positions are likewise becoming scarce. But don’t despair — if the traditional law firms don’t step up to hire you, there are many alternative legal careers out there. You just have to set those valuable research skills into high gear and get to work on your job search full time.

Before you start looking for a job, it’s important to take a look at yourself — identify your own interests and figure out how and where they can be best applied in practice. If you have a secret desire to be your own boss, that’s also a possibility — advances in technology and software delivery allow you to do just that from any location with minimal investment.

“You have to figure out what you are all about and what you want to do with your life,” Jordan Kent Brown said during last year’s student roundtable, sponsored by National magazine. “There are a lot of different things you can do with a law degree and not necessarily everybody that graduates from law school will like to do the same thing.”

Once you have pinpointed the type of career you want, you need to polish up the mainstays of your self-marketing toolbox: the cover letter and curriculum vitae.

 

The interview

Treat an interview like you would a final exam: don’t show up unprepared. You have piqued the recruiter’s interest with your application package; now is the time for you to stand out in person. The interview is substantial. Just think of the ratio of applications sent to interview requests and you will realize just how important it is to prepare for and follow up on this career opportunity. Don’t look at the interview as an ordeal — if nothing else it is a chance to gain valuable experience in handling the interviewing process.

R. Eko Bintoro/istockphoto

R. Eko Bintoro/istockphoto

Prepare

  • You are a whiz at research, having perfected this talent during law school, and this is an excellent time to put that skill to use. Research the company’s website to learn more about it — become familiar with its mission, founding partners, history, ethics, structure, projects, client lists and news. In the absence of a website, use your own network to find out more about the company.
  • Reread the job description, your cover letter and curriculum vitae. If you have been sending out applications by the dozens, chances are you had adapted each one to a specific posting. On the day before the interview — and not on your way to the interview or while you are in the waiting room — take enough time to review what you stressed in this particular application.
  • Prepare and practice an elevator pitch about yourself to answer the question: “Tell us a little about you.”
  • Be prepared to elaborate on your experience, your academic achievements and your goals. A question that is often asked of candidates is: “How did you handle or work through a difficult situation?” Put together some answers in advance using both past successes and challenges.
  • Avoid stress before your interview. Allow ample travel time to avoid any transit hiccups that might make you late and nervous.

Attend

  • Arrive in advance —10 to 15 minutes before the interview is suggested — to give yourself time to compose yourself and become familiar with the surroundings.
  • Be courteous to everyone you encounter, especially if it is a small company. Colleagues are likely to seek each other’s impressions of you.
  • Make sure your cellphone is completely turned off (vibrations can be heard and can be distracting).
  • Shake hands with confidence — not too aggressively and not too timidly.
  • Maintain your professionalism throughout the interview. Even if you really hit it off with the recruiter or panel and the atmosphere becomes friendly and casual, keep a professional distance; avoid off-colour remarks or eagerly joining in jokes.
  • Be prepared to elaborate on your experience and training as if they haven’t read your curriculum vitae.
  • Listen carefully to questions and respond clearly and concisely.
  • Be honest about how you can contribute to the company.
  • When you leave, thank everyone present for the opportunity to speak with them.

Follow up

  • Promptly email or mail a thank-you letter to the recruiter or interviewer. Reiterate your interest in the position and invite them to contact you if they have any further questions.
  • Allow one week before you follow up with a phone call about the status of your application. Always keep a positive attitude regardless of the outcome.

 

You on paper ~ Letter writing 101

While some say the trend is to forego the cover letter, don’t do it. The cover letter is the modern-day calling card. It offers employers a snippet of your writing style, your communication skills and your professionalism. Whether you are applying to a posted position or knocking on doors looking for opportunities that haven’t been listed, you can adapt your letter to each situation. Keep the following in mind when drafting your letter:

Illustration by Stefanie Timmermann/ISTOCKPHOTO

Illustration by Stefanie Timmermann/ISTOCKPHOTO

Length: Keep your letter to one page (remember you will also be sending them your CV).

Lead with intent: State your purpose in the first sentence. Your opener has to grab the recruiter’s attention. This is your opening argument!

Focus: Tailor the letter to the job opportunity, outlining the qualifications you possess that are relevant to the advertised position. Use elements or language from the job description to describe the skills you possess.

Your pitch: Explain relevant past work, extra-curricular or volunteer experiences that have moulded you for this position. Give a brief description of your current projects. Even if you are currently unemployed and concentrating on your job search, make them aware that it represents your full-time current project. Describe your future career plans working in this job opportunity as the catalyst to your career goals.

Your voice: Write in the first person using action verbs, positive personal qualifiers (e.g., conscientious, innovative, punctual) and clear language. You are selling yourself, but now is the time to demonstrate your worth, not your vanity.

Proofread: Run spell-check and proofread your letter. Don’t demonstrate carelessness by leaving even minor typos. Make sure you have the company and recruiter names correct.

 

Curriculum vitae dos and don’ts

It's a good practice to keep a copy of your curriculum vitae at the ready for updating during your formative years in law school. Always take the time to add achievements of note during your studies: participation in moot court competitions; published papers (online or print); volunteering at legal clinics; teaching; contributions to legal blogs and awards, to name a few. As with your cover letter, tweak your CV so that it corresponds to a particular job posting or firm, instead of sending one generic CV to everyone.

Illustration by Alex Slobodkin/ISTOCKPHOTO

Illustration by Alex Slobodkin/ISTOCKPHOTO

Do

  • Include current contact information: name, address (permanent and current), phone numbers (home and cell), and email.
  • Label each section clearly.
  • Place academic or experience sections first, according to the requisites of the job posting.
  • List academic and work experience section entries chronologically beginning with most recent.
  • Borrow language from job description to describe your experience and skills.
  • Arrange prior work responsibilities or skills by relevance to specific job posting.
  • Keep it to two pages if possible.
  • Spell-check and proofread before sending.
  • Offer to provide references upon request.

Don’t

  • Include personal information with respect to civil status, religion.
  • Use fancy, gimmicky or script type fonts.
  • Print on coloured paper or high end stock.
  • Use lesser-known acronyms (spell them out and place the acronym in brackets).
  • Repeat words too often (use synonyms).
  • Allow lists to run over two pages.
  • Send a photo.
  • List friends and family as references (unless they have acted as supervisors).
  • Forget to spell-check.

 

Your online persona

 

Clean up and shape up your social media profile.

Social butterflies beware! If your profile is available to more than just your circle of friends, rein it in. An increasingly popular practice among recruiters is to look at prospective candidates’ online activity and behaviour. If your daily activity wall is riddled with interactions, friendly or personal banter with friends and the general public, links to this video or that article, chances are the perception will be that your priority is your social life and that you spend much of your day online. They might not be convinced that you will be able to disconnect to concentrate on a full-time job.

Here are some tips for polishing your profile:

Keep your socializing to your social circle: Revisit the permissions you granted within each social media tool. Readjust your target audiences. Be specific about who can and cannot see your casual side by opting to hide some of your content and posts.

Keep your online profile professional: Your profile is your advertising tool. If you have a LinkedIn profile, use it to your advantage and ensure it is updated in all areas. Keep your comments insightful and your contributions relevant to your field, more so when you are actively looking for work. Recruiters are increasingly looking through this site.

Search your name online: If any of the results prove to be embarrassing or distasteful, delete immediately.

Christine Sopora is French editor at National

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