Important Career Planning Tips for New Attorneys and Law Students

Important Career Planning Tips for New Attorneys and Law Students

Career planning, resume review, interview strategies, job application strategies, job transition resources, alumni connections, sounding board...for law students and alumni alike, Career Services Offices offer valuable resources and tools. For. Free.

I was a work study intern in my Career Services Office while in school, so took in a lot of the benefits offered by osmosis.  However, many students and alumni aren't aware of how to best utilize the resource provided by their school in the form of their CSO.  Today we get the skinny from Philip Guzman, Director of Public Service Programs at North Carolina Central University School of Law.  Today's interview is chock full of information, so I won't dawdle.

What are 5 benefits/services you offer to students through the Career Services Office (CSO)?

Oh boy! There are so many more than just five, but let me just mention some of the more important services

(1) Resume review: your resume should be tailored based on your past experience, your future goals, and the intended audience. Your CSO can help review your content and formatting to ensure it is within professional and industry standards.
(2) Job training skills: including mock interviews with feedback, social skill sessions (dress for success events, dinner and cocktail hour and events of this nature).
(3) This one is critical! CSO is a great resource to help law students connect with alums! The alumni base is the primary law student networking pool!
(4) Networking events: Career Services brings attorneys, from both the public and private sectors, in to speak with students about career opportunities. Students can use these informal sessions to networking with attorneys in their respective fields of interest;
(5) Individualized strategy sessions to reach appropriate career goals and job-seeking strategies. No "one size" fits all. In these sessions, grades are not the bottom line. All students need to set up individualized career plans.

My approach is to work with the career desires and strengths of each student to maximize strengths and eliminate minuses. In this regard, student contact with CSO must be on an ongoing basis with follow-up sessions scheduled on a regular basis.

While 3Ls with pointed questions on how to get a job are likely to be frequent fliers in your office, what can a 1L or 2L be in touch with the CSO about to help set up a job search plan? Do you encourage students to stay in touch with you from the beginning of their law school career?

Absolutely! A law student needs to have an ongoing relationship with CSO.

The relationship begins with a resume review in their 1L year. Here at NCCULAW, this is a requirement for a student's participation in all phases of Symplicity (a software system for posting jobs online and managing on-campus (OCI) and off-campus interview programs).

Beyond initial resume review, we encourage follow-up appointments.

Here's where it gets difficult. Students are busy and have limited time. CSO offices can't require a student to come into the office. However, we try and schedule follow-up meetings with each "major" event in the life of a law student. For example, before the initial interview process, students next will need to draft cover letters, apply for jobs and, hopefully, prepare for OCI and other job interviews. I always try and schedule "debriefing" sessions following each event.

"Let's break down what responses you received from the cover letter we worked on? "What happened in your interview? What questions were you asked? How did you answer? Were you satisfied? What else could you have said.?" . . .

CSOs also offer events, and debriefing in a follow-up session can be invaluable.

Another method to keep students engaged is to schedule sufficient CSO "events" and have dialog after each event. . . "Come by the office and let me know what you thought and how you will proceed based on the information that you received."

Finally, the basic: "I would like to schedule another meeting in ___________ " also works like a charm for many.

Here's the thing that all students need to remember. With all we do, we can't force students to work with CSO. There has to be an interest. I can't tell you how sad it makes me to speak with an employer who tells me how a student "bombed out" in an interview, and find out that the student never took the time to schedule an appointment with our office to prepare.

If a student suffered from a bad semester, and is struggling to get grades up, what other ways do you suggest they help make themselves stand out in positive ways as a future job candidate?

First and foremost, the student needs to work on getting his/her grades up. That is the priority. Furthermore, I will counsel the student to reflect on what specific study methods need to be tweaked and improved. For example, did the student participate in a study group? Did it work? Why? Why Not? What needs to be done differently this semester?

Aside from that process, the student should find ways to add substantively to their resume, while not affecting their primary goal - getting their GPA up! Get involved in a clinic, a moot court competition, write a paper and publish somewhere, if possible. I can say from experience that quality activities on a resume can more than make up for one "off" semester grade-wise.

In addition, the student needs to be positive with prospective employers in pointing out (if it is the case) that this one semester is but a "blip" in a overall successful academic career and that the student is working hard to (and is confident that he/she will!) return to their successful patterns . . "the semester was "challenging" but, as you can see, I'm back on course." A student must always present a positive picture, and NEVER be defensive in explaining a less than successful semester.

I just did mock-interviews at my alma mater to help students prepare for OCI, and was shocked at how few could clearly state what it is that they want out of their career

("I think litigation is interesting but also would consider environmental law, transactional law, or patent work, and think I want to work in a big firm but would also consider public interest work".)

Of course, not everyone has a specific specialty in mind, but what do you suggest students do while in school to help get a better sense of what type of work/setting/practice area is a good fit for them to have better purpose in their job search?

Here's a general rule that I tell students:

In the summer following your 1L year, see if you can land a general legal job. One which involves general legal skills: research, writing. It need not be in the practice area that the student may be considering. However, when the student enters their 2L year, he/she needs to start narrowing and honing down the practice areas of interest for a career, so that in their 2L summer, the student starts getting the specific skills needed to tell a future employer "been there, done that." Of course, a student may not have all the answers in the 2L, or even 3L year. However, deciding on an area of practice should start right out of box as a 1L so that when the student is a 2L and 3L year, he/she already has a good idea of where of specific areas of interest.

As for an interview, I tell law students (with a glint of a smile) that it is "law student" malpractice not to research an employer thoroughly and be able to say that "THIS (whatever it is) is an area of practice that I am seriously considering" as my practice area after graduation and that's why I'm here." If you can't say that with a straight face, then you shouldn't be wasting everyone's time by sitting for the interview.

Obviously all law students find time to be a precious commodity, and it can drive some tough decisions. I would love your thoughts on a decision a student discussed with me yesterday.

This student decided not to try and write on to Law Review, so she could use time each week during 2L & 3L year to do strategic networking and job searching.

Which do you think is more important in today's job market? 1) journal experience or 2) connections and strategic planning?

Both! (is that a "cop out" answer, or what?). Everyone is different, of course, and I do not know of all the factors that went into the decision of the student that you mentioned, but I can't see why a student can't be on Law Review and do strategic marketing at the same time. Perhaps there is a personal note to my feelings on this topic. You see, I still rue the day that I decided NOT to write onto law review to continue working at a summer job at a law firm. I now believe that I could have done both and would love a "do over" on that decision. Law Review will make you a better writer and will open doors to many (not all). Moreover, participation in Law Review may open networking doors that may not have been open except for the fact. No? That said, it Law Review is NOT the end all to a job for all students.

Not many students think about future job transitions they may experience, but most CSOs do great outreach and offer services to alumni as well as enrolled students. What do you find your role is with assisting alumni in the job search or transition process?

Law schools always look to alumni for financial contributions (how many of us have received that phone call?). Thus, we can't forget our alumni in providing CSO resources. We do here at NCCULAW. I just had a telephone conference with an alumna who is moving from private practice into government work and will continue to work with her. Alumni are part of our network and use Symplicity to log on, look for jobs and speak with our counselors in CSO. I work with them as I would any student. For me, providing continuing career services for alumni should be a critical mission of all CSOs.

Resume length: 1 page, or is longer OK?

For the regular college > law school student, I like one page. But there is no hard and fast rule about it if you can show me that you need a page and a half.

Is (professional) social media presence important for law students?

ABSOLUTELY! I can't tell you how many students I know on Twitter, LinkedIn and who blog who have reached out to some of the top lawyers in the country for networking and job opportunities. I can lead you to many myself from my Twitter "Followers" list. @pag2010 (my Twitter handle).

Inspirational Quote for students juggling it all?

"Don't give up! . . don't ever give up"

Jim Valvano, coach of the 1984 NCAA Champion North Carolina State Wolfpack basketball team, September 28, 2008 weeks before his untimely death to cancer.


Chelsea Callanan is the founder of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals.  Mrs. Callanan is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.