Getting into law school and making it through the long hours in the library, the Socratic method, and closed-book finals is no small feat. However, even if a law student accomplishes all of these tasks, he or she still has the most important goal ahead: securing employment as an attorney.
As law students and recent graduates read the statistics and confront the current reality of the law firm hiring decline, it is important that they understand how they can overcome ever-increasing employment obstacles and challenges. The first and easiest step is to research and understand which characteristics and personality traits employers are looking for from their new hires. Next, law students should identify and practice how to demonstrate to potential employers that they possess and are able to consistently exhibit the desired characteristics.
Every legal position, practice area, and law firm is different. However, as a former law student who navigated the interviewing process and now as an active participant in my firm’s recruiting efforts, I believe the following criteria are most important for a law student or a recent graduate engaged in the job-seeking process.
As the elephant in the room, grades are a good place to start. No one enjoys hearing that grades play an important role in an employer’s decision, but law students should be honest with themselves. Employers receive hundreds, if not thousands, of resumés, and one of the best ways to sift through the pile is to use an objective criteria – a grade-point average.
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Previously, the majority of applicants in the top 10 percent of a law school class found jobs. Basically, they were unofficially “guaranteed” jobs due to their academic performance. That is no longer the reality, but grades remain a very important objective criteria that employers use to differentiate prospective candidates. A low grade-point average may guarantee that a student will not obtain a screening interview, but strong grades do not guarantee that a student will ultimately be hired. This focus on grades goes beyond them being an indicator of intelligence. Grades also signify a strong work ethic and the ability to prioritize and stay on task.
Attention to Details and Presentation
Attention to detail is a crucial skill for an aspiring lawyer – deciding whether to include a certain provision, how to restructure a sentence so that it accurately conveys its intended meaning, or whether a proposed disclosure complies with the law. An intelligent lawyer who is disorganized may miss filing deadlines. An outstanding researcher who cannot communicate his or her conclusions in plain English is not providing the client with real value. An individual’s attentiveness to detail is a significant asset in day-to-day legal practice.
An applicant’s resumé is the first representation of whether he or she pays attention to details. A resumé is also an excellent way for an employer to analyze an individual’s communication skills, organizational habits, and creativity, all of which are characteristics that employers covet in recent graduates. Paying attention to details takes time, but it is imperative for good work product. Grammatical errors, strange formatting, or inconsistencies in a resumé might also cause employers to wonder whether the candidate glossed over his or her resumé.
Paying attention to the details goes far beyond an individual’s resumé and work product. Employers consider how law students present themselves, including whether they wear a suit to the interview – a move that is highly recommended. Employers will also critique details such as whether a candidate maintains good eye contact during an interview, appears engaged during conversations, and presents an assertive and confident demeanor. Overall, candidates should remember that they are interviewing in hope of finding a career, and candidates should present themselves in the best light and most professional manner possible.
Employers want to know what makes someone unique, drives them, and makes them stand out among their peers. An excellent way for a candidate to demonstrate these characteristics is to highlight any prior legal experiences or leadership roles. Employers analyze past experiences and use the successes and failures to deduce how an individual will perform in the future. A history of past excellence often transfers into future positive accomplishments. Additionally, candidates with prior legal experience or examples of effectively managed responsibilities will instill employers with confidence that the individual will effectively and independently execute similar tasks in the future.
com laura.ann.hawkins gmail Laura A. Hawkins, Marquette 2011, is on the securities practice team at Godfrey & Kahn S.C., Milwaukee, and is an active participant in the firm’s recruitment efforts.
Beyond work experience, an employer wants to understand a candidate on a personal level, including whether he or she engages in extracurricular activities, has nonwork interests, and interacts skillfully in a collaborative environment. Whether sports, theatre, volunteer work, or other hobbies, these activities give employers insight into an individual’s passion and demonstrate the candidate’s ability to work as a team member and his or her willingness to make commitments and take on added responsibilities.
Associates at a firm are more than just employees – they are a reflection of the firm and members of a community. Similarly, by demonstrating that they are more than just students, candidates can prove to employers that they will easily make the transition into life at a firm. Often, such extracurricular activities also provide insight into that individual’s ability to take on responsibility, exhibit leadership skills, and work collegially, all of which are highly regarded by employers. Looking beyond the day-in, day-out responsibilities is crucial to success in a law firm, and candidates who develop those habits early in their career will increase the likelihood of success.
Beyond providing specific examples of a candidate’s motivation or emphasizing distinguishing characteristics, candidates should also strive to be memorable. A line on a resumé describing an activity a candidate has participated in means nothing by itself. Candidates should emphasize their reasons for participating in that activity and bring the resumé to life, rather than using their resumé to bring them to life. In addition, it is important that the resumé not require the reader to make his or her own assumptions about the candidate. Rather, candidates should be prepared to clearly explain all items referenced on their resumé and any “gaps,” such as a period of unemployment or the reason for a school transfer.
The “Soft Skills”
Employers are looking for candidates who have demonstrated academic success and who also have a broader set of “soft skills.” For example, effectively and efficiently managing time and producing quality work product are important skills for getting through law school, and those talents are also crucial to meeting deadlines as an associate. Employers want to feel assured that the candidate has the ability to operate on the fly and the organizational skills to timely complete an assignment while also managing emails, phone calls, and rush projects for other clients.
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Although this statement should come as no surprise, employers also focus on individuals with a strong work ethic. New associates are not expected to hit the ground running in the same way as a lateral hire would, but they are expected to show initiative and to come to work with a desire to learn. Successful associates do not require excessive supervision to complete assignments. Rather, they approach new projects with excitement and a sense of personal responsibility. Employers want to see attorneys “take ownership” of assignments. At the same time, successful associates also possess the judgment to know when and how to ask for guidance if they are spinning their wheels or if they are coming up empty-handed.
While most practice areas have a long learning curve, a lawyer must possess self-confidence in his or her work product and his or her ability to handle new challenges and opportunities. Associates who lack confidence will have a much harder time gaining the trust of clients and colleagues. Keep in mind, however, that often there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.
In addition to looking for candidates with a track record of academic success and a willingness to work hard, employers prefer candidates who have strong interpersonal skills. An individual’s interactions in a professional setting, including demonstrating polished communication skills, say a lot about that person. Someone who is able to walk into a social setting and develop a connection or engage in casual conversation is ideal in a profession that is focused on establishing relationships with clients and creating business connections.
Moreover, people who are personable and have a positive attitude are usually more enjoyable to be around. Being a lawyer can be challenging and stressful. When confronted with unexpected obstacles or disappointing results, someone who approaches these situations with optimism and a sense of calm command will more likely have the stamina to respond in an analytical, practical, and productive fashion. Additionally, such individuals will help those around them undertake stressful situations with similar endurance and grace, further fostering a constructive environment.
Lastly, but no less important, employers want to know that a candidate wants to work for them. Law graduates should methodically choose their interviews and research the employer before each interview. Employers are much more likely to seriously consider a candidate whose practice area interests are in line with the firm’s specialties, whose geographic connections coincide with the employer’s office locations, and whose questions demonstrate an understanding of the firm and its culture. Recent graduates who can succinctly and coherently explain why they want to work for a particular employer demonstrate preparedness and professional maturity.
While every new hire may not possess all of these traits, the best candidates will work to display several during their interview and will do so without requiring prying by the interviewer. In the end, employers really want to establish a connection with candidates and hire individuals who will complete their work in accordance with the firm’s high standards but who also fit with the law firm’s culture and personality. Law students should understand that objective and strive for a similar goal – finding an organization of people with whom they want to work. Although interviewing can be trying, just because one interview does not come to fruition does not mean that it is time to give up. Remember, optimism and hard work always pay off.