Steps to Take to Get the Legal Job You Want

Harrison Barnes

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If you have recently graduated from law school or looking to make a move away from your current position, you are probably questioning how to get your dream law job. You have spent years getting the education and training you need to practice law. Your next move is to find the legal position of your dreams that allows you to garner experience and put your hard-earned education to work.

The first step in finding the perfect legal position is identifying what your dream job would entail. Whether you are fresh from law school or planning a lateral move from your current position, you need to take the time to identify the key factors that will dictate your search for an attorney position. What specialty do you want to practice? Do you want to work for a large or small law firm? What type of firm culture appeals to you? Knowing the answers to these questions will enable you to focus your search for a legal employer on the things that matter most to you.

Most law school graduates will spend some time in a law firm after graduation. Knowing what qualifications law firms are seeking in candidates will help you craft the parameters of your job search. In the past,  large and prestigious law firms almost exclusively focused on where you received your legal education and your class ranking.

Though some firms will still place premium consideration on where you went to law school and how well you did, they are beginning to consider other essential factors. Finding a legal job is a combination of education, skills, experience, and timing.

What do law firms look for when hiring?

  • Skills—Firms expect to train new associates, but they want to see evidence that you have the necessary set of basic skills. These skills include leadership, maturity, and strong oral and written communication skills.
  • Most firms want associates who have passed the bar exam before they will consider them for a position. The exceptions might be firms that are willing to take on promising candidates while they wait to take the bar exam.
  • Life experience—Firms give weight to experience in new candidates. Be prepared to emphasize your prior experiences that are relevant to the practice of law. Many firms like to see a history of community involvement, so highlight any volunteer work you have done.  Clerkships, internships, and prior work experience all play a role in choosing candidates.
  • Work experience—While many firms do hire associates straight from college, they know there will be a delay before these candidates can hit the ground running. Firms now actively pursue lateral candidates. When searching for an attorney position, focus on firms that place value on the prior practice of law.
  • Cultural fit—Law firms each have a distinct culture, and they evaluate potential applicants based on how well they think they will fit into the existing culture. If your prior experience was with a large firm with several hundred attorneys, be prepared to explain why you will be a good fit for a small firm of ten attorneys.

How to get a job in a law firm

  • Find an experienced and talented recruiter who is willing to work with you. Recruiters will have access to more information about what firms are hiring and what the expectations and requirements for working for the firm. This kind of knowledge is valuable and can save you time in pursing positions in law firms that are not a good match.
  • Manage your expectations. If you did not do well in law school, have been let go from a firm, or have a history of any disciplinary actions, there will be some doors that are closed to you right now. Accept this and focus on finding the best realistic opportunity.
  • Take advantage of every opportunity to specialize, including continuing education classes. Firms like candidates that specialize in a specific area of law, so find your niche and build your experience in that area. Even if you are a newly minted attorney, you can find opportunities to continue your education or develop expertise in your specialty.
  • Craft a thoughtful cover letter. Learn about the law firms where you want to pursue a job as an attorney. Understand their hiring process, the firm’s culture, and history so that you can carefully revise a CV or resume, along with a personalized cover letter explaining what you can offer the firm. Go more in-depth than what you can learn from the firm’s website, and make it clear in your initial contact that you have researched the firm.
  • Prepare for every interview as though it is the most important career move you will ever make. You should present yourself in a timely and professional manner. Expect the unexpected, so plan for potential delays due to traffic and other uncontrollable problems.
  1. Present a confident, but not arrogant demeanor.
  2. Be prepared to explain any less than stellar information on your resume or in your background. Re-cast potential negatives into a positive light. If you finished up law school by taking night classes while you worked to support your family, frame that as drive and ambition to practice law.
  3. Be respectful and courteous to everyone you meet at the firm. You would be surprised how many firms will ask the receptionist for their input about you.
  4. Ask intelligent questions about areas of practice, the culture of the firm, and details about the position for which you are interviewing.
  • Follow-up with a thank you letter or email after the interview. Follow-up is acceptable and shows that you are genuinely interested in the position.
  • Do not get discouraged. Even if you do not receive an offer, you gain valuable experience with each interview Debrief yourself after each interview to determine what parts could have gone better and be prepared to change that in the next interview.

Recruiters

Whether you are focused on getting a job after law school with little or no experience, or you are an experienced attorney looking to make a move, you have probably considered using a recruiter. Is using a recruiter better than applying directly? In most circumstances,  a recruiter is your best bet for finding your dream law job.

Recruiters have a vast network of contacts and their finger on the pulse of the legal job market. If you have no experience, a recruiter will be a valuable asset in helping you land interviews with firms that are accepting candidates with no experience. Getting an attorney position fresh from law school, especially if you did not graduate at the top of your class from a prestigious school can seem daunting.

An experienced recruiter will be able to help you accentuate the positives about your skills and capabilities while matching you with legal positions that do not require prior experience.

Recruiters are also beneficial to those who have previous experience. Whatever your experience, especially if it is in a niche area of law, a recruiter can match you with the best firms or other opportunities. Without a recruiter, you will be working from job boards or word of mouth. While those can be useful tools, they often do not give enough information about the position for you to make an informed decision about pursuing the job.

Networking

Your search for a job as an attorney will put you in contact with numerous people in the legal field. Do not miss this opportunity to continue building your network of contacts in the field of law. The network you build is valuable now and will continue to be so in the years to come. Get involved in organizations that will put you in contact with those in the legal profession.

Utilize social media sites like LinkedIn to their fullest potential. Make an effort to stay abreast of what your contacts are doing and take the time to build relationships. When a colleague is promoted, send them a congratulatory email. When a case makes the news or the law review, let them know you have been following. Investing in relationships early in your career will be an asset throughout your career in law.