So, you’re in law school and you want a job at a law firm or to work in-house. To get the job you want, you shouldn’t only focus on grades. Developing relationships with attorneys is at least as important. Don’t be suckered into thinking that the only thing that matters in law school are grades and rank. Law schools are paid to tell you that rank matters.
Your rank in law school matters for procedures like on-campus interviewing. But only a fraction of students will get their law firm job from on-campus interviewing. Maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones. I wasn’t. And if you want a job at an in-house company, it’s probably not interviewing on campus at all. And anyways, legal practice doesn’t revolve around grades. Do you really think the rainmakers in the corner offices got there because they had good grades?
Fortunately, you can develop a more valuable skill now, an approach that will pay dividends in the years to come: talking to attorneys.
You can talk to attorneys.
When you’re in law school, attorneys can seem intimidating. They have their polished websites full of impressive accomplishments and acronyms you’ve never heard of. Remember that these attorneys were once law students like you. It just took time to get to where they are. And these attorneys probably haven’t forgotten what law school was like – it’s not something you can easily forget. So they understand what you’re going through. Someone helped them get to where they are – law is not a solitary profession. Attorneys are willing to help you. You just need to have an intentional approach to reaching out to them.
Why talk to attorneys.
- Talking to attorneys will help you get familiar with the role. Being familiar with the role will make you ready for the job.
This is the most important principle I have to offer. You won’t understand what a job is like until you have it (this is true of anyone, at any level of experience). Until you’ve done the job, the next best way to understand a job is to talk to someone with that job. If you want a job at a law firm or in-house, the person making the hiring decision (a hiring manager) needs to feel like you will be able to do the job. If you seem like you understand what the job is about, that will make a hiring manager comfortable with choosing you. So you need to try to understand the job you want to do.
- Talking to attorneys will force you to focus your job search on areas in demand. A focused job search will make you more knowledgeable and help you find a place in a community.
So, what job are you after? Litigator or transactional attorney? Patent prosecution or patent litigation? You need to have some sense of this. Of course it’s a good idea to be flexible and open to all opportunities. That’s always going to be a good idea. But to get a job, a hiring manager needs to have some sense that you have some idea of what you’re walking into, and that you were interested enough to look into it. Because let’s face it, until you are immersed in an area of law, it won’t be much fun.
You won’t be able to spend your time learning about all practice areas. You’ll need to focus. And you probably know what to focus on. You have some sense of what areas are facing increasing demand. If you believe software is eating the world, you should position yourself to take advantage of that trend – privacy, security. If you think remote work is growing, target those markets, but recognize it’s more than just Slack and Zoom – it’s telemedicine too. The bonus is that by virtue of their newness these markets position you to be as much of an expert as any practicing attorney. Pick one or two practice areas to focus on and go after.
You also need to pick the geographic market. While it may be helpful to talk to specialists in your area nationally to deepen your sense of the market, it’s best to focus on the one or two geographic markets you want to work in. If the kind of work you’ve targeted is scarce in the geographic market, then either pick a different geographic market or a different practice area. This principle may change as remote work rises, but it’s the best way to get embedded in a community of practicing attorneys.
- Talking to attorneys will build relationships that will pay off now and in the long run. Now is the best time to do it.
Since we’ve already established that most hiring is not done through on-campus interviewing, those roles have to get filled somehow. And the most likely way they’ll get filled is through relationships. Ultimately, every legal role I’ve had has come from developing some kind of relationship before I got the job.
Now is the ideal time to build relationships with attorneys. You may think that you have little to offer as a student or someone just entering the field, but you can turn that perceived weakness into a strength. By the very fact that you are simply asking for help and guidance, and asking attorneys to just talk about themselves and their careers, you are creating a strong basis for reaching out. That doesn’t mean every attorney will be receptive to it, but it does create opportunities. A law student is making a qualified ask – you clearly have committed to the field of law, and you reaching out is further evidence of it. So it doesn’t take much for an attorney to reciprocate.
You will get your job. And after you get your job, if you did it right, the relationships you made will grow more valuable over time. Stay in touch with people that have helped you, share your successes with them, and pay it forward.
Which attorneys to talk to.
- After you focus, then be expansive.
Once you’ve limited the scope of attorneys to geographic market and area of practice, you can be expansive with who you talk to. Small firms, large firms, small companies, large companies. Associates, partners. Attorneys at small firms have access to growing companies. There are great opportunities there. Large firms hire, often, and are connected to large companies. Small companies are growing. Large companies hire, often. Associates may have a better sense of emerging trends and may be more relatable. Partners hire, and they know other partners that hire. Be open and treat everyone respectfully.
So where do you identify attorneys to reach out to? Simple google searches for practice areas in geographic markets will help. Certain niches publish annual reports on law firms busiest in certain areas; for instance Docket Navigator and Law360 publish annual roundups. And then when you get to know attorneys, ask them if there’s anyone else you should talk to. This will build the triangular relationships I explain below.
- Bar associations are underrated.
The most successful attorneys I know are active in at least one bar association. Bar associations are can focus on a practice area (e.g. AIPLA for intellectual property) or affinity (e.g. NAPABA and SABA for Asian and South Asian attorneys).
I recommend picking no more than three and staying with them for years. I’ve been involved in NAPABA and SABA since law school. I’ve made great friends and mentors through these organizations, and participating has become more important to me over time. The Linn Inn was essential for my growth in law school. And I’m proud of the four years I spent on the Associate Board of The Chicago Committee. Find your own bar association to join.
- Remember your goal: to become a member of a community.
Communities aren’t always formalized through a bar association. It’s as simple as a network of people with a common practice area. Attorney at firm A knows attorney at firm B. You get to know attorney at firm A. You get to know attorney at firm B. They discover this, maybe they mention you. Congrats – you’re joining a community. These triangular connections are how you will slowly build your network.
Balance focus with flexibility, and remember your goal is to understand a niche. Even if you are focusing on life sciences patent litigation, bear in mind that telecom patent litigators know life sciences litigators, and life sciences licensing attorneys may know life sciences patent litigators. And they may have some interesting perspectives on the practice of the nice you’re after – synthesize your own worldview from these disparate sources.
How to talk to attorneys.
Your goal is to be a human being. Every attorney knows that law students want to get jobs, just like they did. So there’s no need to hide what you’re doing. And there’s no need to supplicate – you’re just as smart as they are, and you can do the work. You just need the opportunity. But more importantly, being too deferential looks weak and ineffective. So drop the “Mr./Ms./etc.”
Part of being a human being is make this a back and forth. This isn’t the time to ask for a job. That puts someone on the spot, and they’ll feel pressured to come through for you, or want to distance themselves before they’ve even gotten to know you. Go slow. You’re building a relationship, and it’s a lot like how you made friends in law school. (You are making friends in law school, right? Where do you think jobs and referrals come from later?). Just be yourself, the best version of yourself. Don’t try to sound knowledgeable or enthusiastic: know things and be interested in things.
The best way to talk to attorneys is to be somewhere they are, like a bar association event. If you’re limited by remote constraints, the next best thing is to just email attorneys to see if you can have a short call. Make it easy for them to say yes – suggest a couple ranges of time, then follow up with a calendar invite (check time zones) and say who will call whom. I like to send an invite with “X/Khurram to discuss ____ (e.g. ‘discuss opportunities in white collar litigation’)”. People like to see their name first, it will make it easier to scan your own calendar to see who your calls with (you should have plenty), and it’s important to remind people why they’re talking to you.
Here’s a sample email:
I’m a 3L at Boston University with a background in life sciences research. I’m interested in roles in life sciences patent litigation. I see you’re also a Carnegie Mellon alum (are there any other Steelers fans around here?). I’m reaching out to patent litigators to hear about emerging trends in client needs and how litigation is being resolved.
Can I give you a call to hear about your path to patent litigation and where you see the market headed?
Let’s talk about conversational tone. It’s good to be honest and open about the challenges you’re experiencing, but try not to be pessimistic. I know the search can be hard. You’ll find the right people who will support you and provide encouragement. If you’re reading this, you are clearly motivated to learn more about the practice of law and find your niche. Present yourself as you are.
A great thing about talking to attorneys to develop long-term relationships is that it’s a skill you can practice every week – even every day. The best time to start is now.