Getting a Law Job with Average Grades...and other Questions

Published: Nov 12, 2012

 Job Search       Networking       Resumes & Cover Letters       
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Have questions about how to navigate the world of legal networking, interviewing and job searching? So did more than 1200 law students, who tuned in to the lively and informative webcast “Ask the Experts—Answers to Your Questions on Legal Job Search, Networking and Interviewing” on Thursday, November 8. The event was hosted by LexisNexis and co-sponsored by Vault and the American Bar Association, and featured a panel of four experts: Brynne Lehner, a legal recruiter at Manatt Phelps & Phillips LLP; Rich Williamson, a partner at Nevada firm Robertson, Johnson, Miller & Williamson; Sheila Nielsen, former lawyer and career counselor at Nielsen Career Consulting; and Vault’s own Law Editor, Rachel Marx Boufford. The panelists weighed in on students’ questions both during the panel and at an “after-party” on Facebook. Below, some of the takeaways:

How many firms should I apply to? It’s tempting to fall into the trap of sending off a hundred generic applications in a panic-fueled spree, but Lehner advised against this. Instead, she urged students to thoroughly research potential employers and target a few that they are genuinely interested in working for. Lehner noted the importance of treating each application as if it’s the only one you’re doing; the time and effort you put in will be evident to the person reading your application.

What if my grades aren’t good? A less-than-stellar GPA isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Grades will always matter, but so do other things: the types of classes you took, the work experience you gained through clinics and clerkships, the activities you pursued outside of class like mock trial, law review and moot court, as well as your individual background and perspective. While there are certainly firms out there that might not consider anyone with a GPA under a specific cutoff, most firms will consider your background more holistically. Focus on what you can offer the firm, rather than on what you’re lacking.

Make your classes count. When asked if there was anything they wished they’d done differently in law school, both Williamson and Boufford said they wished they had taken more substantive skills courses outside of the required curriculum. Tax Law may not seem fun, but it’s often essential knowledge for a practicing attorney. While nonacademic pursuits are important, be sure to take advantage of the group of legal experts at your disposal (your professors). Take classes that are likely to come in handy later on.   

How do you network? Networking is one of the most intimidating tasks a law student—or any job seeker—can face, but it’s also one of the most important. Your classmates are valuable resources with connections of their own, who may be working for your target employers in a few short years. Williamson suggested talking to professors and reaching out to associates at firms that you’re interested in on LinkedIn, while Nielsen encouraged going to panels or events which employees of your target firms are attending and introducing yourself. Boufford also suggested using your school’s career services to look up alumni who are now working at firms that interest you.

What should I wear? A good rule of thumb to follow for interview attire, said Boufford, is: “if you have to ask whether you can wear it, don’t wear it.” Save the bright colors and funky patterns for after you’ve gotten the job. The answer to the skirt suit vs. pantsuit debate for women, unfortunately, is a bit less clear: it depends on the geographic region and culture of the firm you’re applying to. If you don’t want to work in a conservative place that would view your pantsuit unfavorably, it’s probably best to just not apply there.   

Going solo. Got more of an independent streak? Williamson identified several resources for students who want to pursue solo practice, such as the ABA Solo and Small Firm General Practice Division’s online SOLOSEZ listserv and state Solo and Small Firm Resource Centers. Some states like Washington and Texas even offer startup kits with everything you need to know about starting your own practice. Finding a mentor—perhaps someone who started their own solo practice—is also key.   

Got a J.D.—now what? The legal field is diverse and dynamic, and there are plenty of alternative career options for professionals with legal training. A few of the alternative career paths Nielsen mentioned were journalism (e.g., writing for legal publications), sales (e.g., selling products to law firms), marketing or public relations (perhaps within a law firm), financial services and planning, teaching and training, consulting, compliance and mediation. 

Find the right fit. All the panelists agreed on the importance of framing your job search strategy around a central theme of finding a good fit for you. The job search is a two-way street: it’s not just about how you can present yourself as the best candidate for firms—you, as the candidate, also need to consider what’s right for you. Take some time to assess your values, what type of work you want to be doing, the work/life balance you want, where you’d like to live and what type of culture and people you’d most like to be around, then target the firms that share your values and have these desired qualities.  

In case you missed it, you can listen to the full webcast here.