I had a call from a very nice new 2008 JD grad from a fine school yesterday. In describing his goals, he stated he didn’t know if he wanted to do transactional work or litigation but hoped to get into a major firm and try on these practices to make up his mind.
Although this makes sense in many career areas; in law, this type of exploration at this point in your career may not be possible. I had to learn this the hard way also. I was deep into a medical career, and after 20 years I knew I had to make a change, but was so swamped in the daily grind that I didn’t have time to explore just what I thought I might want to do in the law. Getting through the LSAT, applying and getting accepted at a decent law school was about all I could pull off in my spare time. I figured that once in school; life would simmer down, I could explore different practice possibilities and by the time three years passed, I would have a plan. Wrong.
Imagine my surprise when they announced a few weeks after my arrival at law school that we “had to wait until December” to apply for our first summer position. I soon learned that if I didn’t move quickly in pursuing a long-term job-seeking strategy, certain career options would most likely be off the table for good. These options included coveted big firm positions, certain sought after public interest posts, and so on. So much for time to explore…
So, I had a lot of empathy for the caller yesterday. The big firms are not going to hire someone who is not focused on a specific goal or who verbalizes “a desire to explore” a practice area. This works for your first or second summer in law school but usually not after graduation. It may be possible to explore various legal roles in the public sector or in medium-sized and smaller firms, but the world of “big firms” is not that flexible, especially in the current market conditions.
Regardless of whether this seems fair, parents, career counselors, and law schools need to know and explain the rules of the game if they are advising someone entering the law. Law students signing on to major debt need to understand at the front end of the process how to avoid the blind alleys that might prevent them from reaching their goals. Ideally, someone interested in pursuing the law can explore the broad options, e.g., big firm (transactional vs. litigation), smaller firm, public interest, in-house corporate, non-traditional roles, etc., before law school so they have a basic idea of their preferences. There are creative opportunities to intern, volunteer, observe and network with mentors to gain some perspective on the profession before having to make critical decisions with long-term ramifications.
In a challenging market, it is never too soon to start researching and strategically planning your career. Exploring and refining your practice interests after graduation in the context of a possible big firm career is rarely a viable option.
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