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Helpful Information for Law School Students

[This report was written by David E. Meeks, Esq. Mr. Meeks is a member of the New York Bar and admitted to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He is a graduate of Newark College of Engineering, BSME Magna Cum Laude, and the University of North Carolina School of Law. For the last twenty years, he has been preparing law school students for the patent bar, and he has been in contact with pre-law and law school students on nearly a daily basis. His e-mail address is director@patbar.com.]

1. Law School Goals

Not every law school student has the same goals. Most law school students define their goals in terms of where they want to work after they graduate. During law school, they begin to temper their thoughts with a dose of reality. As time goes by, students realize that some goals are not realistic or that their rate of progress permits them to raise their goals to a higher plain. Below are some of the common types of employment available for law school graduates.

A. Firms

Law firms can usually be categorized by size and, to a lesser degree, by practice area and location. Most law school students will join a law firm upon graduation from law school.

i. Large, high profile law firm in NY, Chicago, LA, etc., as an associate with a very high salary and nearly unlimited prospects for the future. Distinct possibility of transfer to a foreign office.

There are different types of law firms just like there are different types of companies. The very large law firms are somewhat akin to the Fortune 500 in business. These firms have many offices scattered around the United States with many more in foreign countries. They have legal practice groups in almost every conceivable area of the law. Some of their attorneys work on the transactional side with mergers and acquisitions, while others work on the litigation side. These firms may have from several hundred to several thousand attorneys, and they hire associates at the highest salaries with the highest expectations. For example, Baker & McKenzie (the world’s largest global law firm headquartered in Chicago) states: "We hire lawyers who are smart and academically accomplished, but other qualities are just as important. We are most interested in the total contribution a candidate can make to our firm. We value diverse backgrounds and experience, intellectual curiosity, emotional maturity, stamina and loyalty, in addition to a solid academic record."

ii. Medium law firm (probably in a smaller city, such as Phoenix, Austin, Atlanta, Minneapolis, etc.,) with a high quality of life, high salary, and very good prospects for the future.

When firms have between 50-100 attorneys, they fall into a group different from the giants discussed above. They will have either one or a few offices scattered around the United States, and their base may be a medium sized city, such as Orlando or San Diego. They may have established a very high reputation in one or more practice areas, such as intellectual property (IP) and patents, but they will not be a full service law firm like the larger firms. They will usually do both transactional law and litigation, but not on the same scale as the larger firms. Their hiring standards are also very high, but they will on occasion dig deeper and evaluate law school prospects not even considered by the larger firms, especially if they need a specific background or prefer graduates from some of the more regional law schools.

iii. Small law firm with a lower salary (usually with more flexibility and the possibility of pursuing outside interests, family life, etc.,) with low to good prospects for the future.

The remaining firms may run from just a couple of attorneys up to around fifty attorneys, and they are distinguished by a much more limited focus than the large or medium sized firms. They may have a specific practice area (patent and IP), or they may be a local general practice firm handling just about everything that comes through the door (real estate, wills, personal injury, criminal, etc.). They may generally hire associates from law schools in the area, typically with a lower salary than the larger firms. They may only hire one or two associates per year. Since there are many more of these firms, however, the vast majority of all law school graduates have an opportunity to join one of them. For example, if you are graduating from a law school in the Miami area, there are probably thousands of small law firms hiring there, and most of the small firms will prefer somebody from one of the local schools. Small law firms are very concerned, if not obsessed, with the idea that each new associate "mesh with the rest of the team."

B. Government

i. Legal department of the Federal, state or local government, including government agencies.

Many areas of government hire inexperienced lawyers right out of law school. The Federal government alone employs attorneys in hundreds of agencies too numerous to mention. There are all kinds of jobs for all kinds of people. Many attorneys start out working for the government for several years and then translate that experience to a better job at one of the medium to large law firms. Others remain with the government (with defined pensions) their entire careers. A career of government service appeals to many, and, although the hiring process may be frustrating at times, the government can be an excellent place to gain practical experience in many areas of the law. Every law school has a good bead on how this works, since the government hiring process is fairly predictable from year to year.

C. Family Business

i. Family Law Firm

If your family is in the legal business, you might want to consider joining the family’s practice. This has many advantages, and, if they are willing to take you in, can be a natural choice. Some feel that it might be better to join another similar firm for a couple of years first, which has some merit. There are many pros and cons involved, such as low compensation, long hours, lack of independence, and reluctance to leave on the downside, while job security, loyalty, and partner (management) track are on the upside.

ii. Family Business Not Law Related

In many cases, a family business may want to hire one of their own to handle legal work, managerial or other duties. This may be a good strategy when and if younger family members plan to take over the business as time passes and older members retire. The pros and cons mentioned above would also apply.

D. Corporate Legal Department

i. Large Companies

Most large companies (and nearly all insurance companies) have in-house legal departments that handle mainly transactional matters for the companies. They also hire outside law firms to handle litigation or other matters that are beyond the scope of the corporate legal department. In this way, the large companies and the large law firms intertwine to handle the legal business of the companies. Since the companies in-house counsel are usually hired from among the ranks of experienced attorneys, rarely do such companies interview at law schools or hire law school students. Working for such a company can be very high paying and stable employment, but the company is usually looking for a fairly specific skill set in an experienced attorney.

ii. Smaller Companies

Smaller companies usually do not have in-house counsel, relying instead upon local firms for their legal work. Although it would be rare to have a legal job at a small company, the bulk of the work of an attorney at a small to medium firm is likely to involve small companies.

E. Public Interest Law

i. Public interest legal work (working to uphold civil rights, civil liberties, women's rights, consumer rights, environmental protection, etc.).

Many law school graduates go into public interest law, and, in fact, some law schools specialize in this area. In many cases, the costs and fees involved in public interest work are paid by fellowships from different organizations or the government. Usually the pay is marginal, but this is offset by the fact that you wake up every morning and know that you are making a difference. There are many employment schemes, including summer programs, fellowships that provide an education award and living allowance, and salary and loan repayment assistance. There are conferences and career fairs at different times throughout the year. Usually, public interest law practice involves rendering legal services to the poor and under-represented in society.

ii. Work in legal aid or as a public defender with an organization.

Many cities and counties have legal aid societies that handle legal matters for their residents. The services usually encompass civil, criminal and juvenile legal matters. A legal aid society may have many offices throughout a region, such as the Legal Aid Society in New York City. A legal aid society usually provides free legal services to low-income individuals and families. The society may also be the principal public defender for criminal prosecutions in the region. Usually internships and externships are available for law students (usually unpaid volunteers) with the possibility of full time employment thereafter. Some of these positions pay a living wage.

F. Miscellaneous

i. Business

Some law school graduates want to be business persons. In many cases, they have an undergraduate degree in business and took a duel JD/MBA program in law school. Commonly, such individuals are interested in working at a large Fortune 500 type of company, and many companies are willing to hire them. Many large companies have special training programs for management. Often, these students are not recruited at law schools, but are selected from the résumés that they submit directly to such companies. In many cases, a JD/MBA candidate will be compared to other MBA candidates with or without a law degree. These jobs are highly desirable.

ii. Academia

Some law school students want to become law professors. They like to write, research and teach. These jobs are highly desirable and very competitive. Most law professors have some law firm or government work experience, graduated from the best law schools with the highest grades, and clerked for a judge for several years. The formula is fairly fixed, which limits most students. Usually, such openings are posted nationally. Another approach is to teach at a law school as an adjunct professor (i.e., without having full or permanent status). While an adjunct professor rarely becomes a full professor, this is one way that many attorneys are able to teach at a law school.

iii. Clerking for a Judge

Clerking for a judge is rarely a career, but it can be. The best law school students may apply and be hired to clerk for a judge. These usually run for one or two years. These jobs are prestigious, although clerkships in some courts are more prestigious that in others. The higher courts tend to be more prestigious, and the Federal courts tend to be more prestigious than state courts. These jobs are usually a stepping stone to a full time job at a law firm. A candidate for a clerkship will often be hired by a law firm, and, if the student receives an offer of a clerkship, the firm will hold the position until after the clerkship has been completed.

iv. Military

Some students want to practice law in the military or JAG (Judge Advocate General Corps). From military law to legal assistance, the JAG Corps offers a wide range of legal practice areas for motivated Attorneys. The military frequently recruits at law schools, which has been a source of friction at some law schools for many years. All of the branches of the service hire lawyers. Since this is the military, the usual military training is a part of the JAG experience. Many applicants for the JAG Corps were in the military when they went to law school. These positions are like other government jobs in that they can be thought of as a career path or as a stepping stone to more lucrative law firm employment. One further advantage to applying to the JAG Corps before attending law school is that, if accepted, the service will pay the costs of the legal education in return for the candidate’s commitment to serve in the military for a period of years.

v. Solo Practice

Some law school students want to have their own practice. This is possible. Usually a student will intern at a law firm over the summers during law school, do as much relevant legal work as possible in law school (part time jobs or as part of the school’s clinical programs), and then, when admitted to the bar, open a small office. In many cases, this works best if the person already has an established business, such as a CPA. Of course, this may not be possible if you have a fairly high overhead and need guaranteed income on a monthly basis. The survival of a sole practitioner will often depend upon having a side income, a low overhead (no credit card or other debt and live with parents), and being well known in the community and with other attorneys and professionals in the area.

2. Accomplishing Your Goals

Attending and completing law school is a huge accomplishment in and of itself. Sadly, it does not always lead to gainful employment or anything close to satisfying employment. Meeting your personal goals can be a challenge, because there can be many pitfalls along the way. Always keep in mind that the most desirable law related jobs are very competitive. For this very reason, law school is very competitive. An employer is looking for certain things (discussed below), and your résumé must reflect some or all of them. Without succeeding in this battle of the résumés, you will be invited to few, if any, interviews during law school.

A. Law School Grades

The first and most important factor is your grades. In fact, your first year (1L) grades will likely be the most important factor of all. Your grades can be quickly converted into a class ranking by your school, and that is what employers look at. Since all grades are based upon a standard bell shaped curve, class rank is directly related to grades. Firms expect this, in fact they require it, and law schools supply it. Firms will usually establish a cut off for each school where they interview. An exception to this is where the employer is looking for a certain background (Electrical Engineering, MBA, etc.), in which case class rank may not be as important. Class rank also comes into play when an employer limits interviews to just those students who make law review (discussed below), since law review is based upon class rank.

The theory is that firms have learned through experience that students with the highest grades are not necessarily going to be better lawyers, but they probably will be better at working with a number of different supervising attorneys (probably partners in the firm), each having different priorities, standards, and idiosyncrasies (behavioral characteristics peculiar to an individual). For whatever reason, the students with the highest grades can handle this form of law firm chaos better than any others (or so the theory goes).

B. Law Review

Law school grades and law review are interrelated, since you have to be in the top of your class to be invited to join the law review. Law review is a student publication, which contains mainly scholarly articles written by law professors. Most students are invited after their first year grades are posted. The best jobs go to students that are "law review." Most schools also invite some students to join law review later, such as after the second year. In some cases, it may be possible to pull your grades up enough during your second year (2L) to make law review.

C. Internships

Internships, law review, and first year grades are ALL interrelated. Students begin interviewing for internships during their first semester as a 2L. At this point in time, students will know only their class rank, first year grades, and whether they have made law review. For this reason, most offers for internships at law firms are based upon these factors alone. Obtaining an internship at a firm at which you desire to work after graduation is really the culmination of the entire process, because nearly all full-time positions are offered to interns. As you can see, the future for many students rests upon how they performed in their 1L classes.

D. Clerkships

Clerkships may not play a major role in the hiring process, because any clerkship offer will not be received in time to affect a hiring decision. However, having clerked will afford a certain type of prestige at a firm and usually a slightly higher salary. A firm likes to include this information about its associates on its web site and when introducing an associate to its clients. This type of distinction will follow an attorney throughout his or her career. For those interested in academia, having clerked for a judge is almost a necessity to be competitive in the academic arena.

E. Interviewing Skills

Although all of the above factors can get you an interview, the firm must like you to make an offer. This is the intangible and subjective part of the process. Unless you have been out there for awhile and endured ten to twenty interviews, you will probably not perform all that well or at your best. The fact is that nobody can really teach you the basics of making a good to very good impression at an interview. If you do not have much experience in this area -- and even if you do -- the more you know about the firm and the interviewer (or interviewers), the more likely you will stumble upon a topic that "kindles some passion in your belly" and some reaction and interest from your interviewer(s). If you fail to strike a note that results in some meaningful conversation, you will be quickly forgotten or even worse referred to as the "guy with the red tie."

3. Legal Employment

Most law school graduates work for law firms or in one of the areas of public interest law or legal aid. The other areas involve fairly small numbers. In fact, some of the areas are only available to experienced attorneys.

There has been quite a running battle on quality of life issues at law firms and perceived abuses of associates. This topic is mostly beyond the scope of this paper but keep in mind that issues remain. With the advent of the information age and the internet, you can access information about law firms like never before. You should be aware of this, arm yourself with information about a firm’s hiring practices, and attempt to understand its programs for new associates. You should be interested in how many associates remain at the firm long term. Meaningful educational programs and training, realistic hours and working conditions, and retaining most of its associates beyond four years may indicate that the experience for associates is probably pretty good.

4. Legal Careers

Most law school students are interested in a career in the legal profession. For this reason, you should be aware of the many forms that this may take.

A. First Job

The first job is important, but many lawyers leave their first job after a few years. Those who work for more than four years may intend to make the firm a career. In many cases, this is a logical approach. A law firm offers many opportunities, which will naturally increase over time. As you learn more and more about the firm and the people who work there, you can begin to establish a reputation as the best person to handle certain matters, thereby establishing a degree of job security and prestige. If you are perceived as a good and productive team member and a profitable asset for the firm (see "rainmaking" below), you will probably make partner. As a partner, you will have more independence and may share in the firm’s profits (and also the firm’s expenses and liabilities). As time goes on, you may begin to wield some managerial responsibilities, and, at some point, you may become a senior partner. Many firms offer sabbaticals and the possibility for an extended period away from the firm. This may involve teaching or some other worthy project or activity.

B. Lateral Transfer

In many cases, an associate decides that he or she would like to work at another firm. This may occur because the associate’s employment was terminated or because the associate thinks that he or she would prefer to work somewhere else due to regional differences, greater opportunities, or to avoid unpleasant working conditions or personality conflicts at his or her current employment. Usually, these changes do not result in any changes in salary, but there is a possibility of better working conditions and a more preferable location. Such a change is known as a lateral move. Of course, there is the possibility that you can dislike the second firm just as much as the first. At some point, you must decide to stay put and make the best of it (at least for awhile).

C. Vertical Transfer

A vertical transfer is usually much more positive. An associate, who is doing well at a law firm, becomes aware of a position at another firm that provides much better opportunities and pay. This move would be considered an improvement and a step up from his or her current situation. Many firms are always in the mindset of recruiting good people from other firms. This makes sense if the firm can get an experienced person and a known entity that meets its needs. This is true of both associates and partners.

D. Partnership

Generally speaking, associates want to be partners. Once they have been on the job for around five years, however, many associates realize that partner is not for them (or is not available to them) and the position of Of Counsel (see below) is more attractive. The associate may also consider a lateral move to a firm where partner might be available.

Of course, in most firms partners are not all equal. A partner may not have equity in the firm until he or she becomes a senior partner. Even senior partners do not always share equally in the firm’s profits.

E. Of Counsel

Many associates move into a new job category called “Of Counsel.” Of Counsel is often the title of an attorney who is employed by a law firm, but is not an associate or a partner. The title is usually reserved for an employee that has permanent status higher than an associate but lower than a partner. In many cases, an employee is hired into this position rather than an associate, which may be a preliminary step to becoming a partner. Of counsel is used for many things at a law firm. Sometimes an associate is promoted to this position after being at the firm for an extended period and partner status is not being considered or the associate may prefer Of Counsel over partner. In other cases, the Of Counsel position is used for specialists with an expertise in certain matters that goes well beyond that of the average associate or partner, and the firm does not want to change that situation by promoting the associate to partner and the managerial duties that go with that status.

F. Corporate Legal Department

Many students would like to consider a first job in a corporate legal department, but this is usually not possible. In the first place, corporations do not even interview at law schools. An exception may be where a person was working at the corporation before they went to law school, and even this scenario is unlikely. Usually a corporation will hire an experienced attorney for its legal department. The attorney will usually have five or more years in the specific practice area needed by the corporation. When a job comes up, usually the hiring is very competitive, because these jobs tend to have more of a 9-5 atmosphere than law firm jobs. Such corporate positions appeal to many currently working at law firms.

5. Rainmaking

Discovering and landing new clients is a subject that most law school students never consider or even want to consider. Most feel that this scenario lowers them to the level of a common peddler, and they think that just the name of the firm should sell itself. In some cases, the firm name often does, especially if the firm is involved in high profile litigation, high profile criminal defense, etc. But in the vast majority of all client development, a firm partner or associate has played an instrumental role in selling the services of the firm. If you plan to begin your career at a law firm, after about two years, you should develop your own plan for rainmaking. You should be involved in this activity on a monthly basis. If you can establish some success in this endeavor, you are probably closer to partner than you think. If you conclude that you have absolutely no skills or interest in this, and in fact it makes you gag just thinking about it, you might set your sights on an Of Counsel position.

A. Starting Now

As a law school student, you should begin promoting yourself on the very first day. Your entire demeanor should radiate professionalism. You should be aloof, independent, and totally absorbed by the law school experience. You will look and act like a “gonna be successful” attorney.

In class, operate on the highest levels, avoid petty arguments with your classmates, volunteer an intelligent point now and then, and always be prepared when you are called upon. Be the poster child of competence and self-control.

Attempt to identify others who are on the same level, because they will be going places and joining top firms that both accept and make referrals. You will find that all of the top firms in an area exchange work, since not every firm can handle every client’s needs. If you can identify a couple of hundred top students who are going places while in law school (usually law review), establish a friendly relationship, and have the interest to stay in touch with them after graduation, you will be in a very good position to get referrals from them later on.

B. At A Firm

Finding potential clients may be as easy as joining organizations that put you in contact with many people on a regular basis. This usually involves legal associations in your area. It is advantageous to get into a titled position that relates to your area of expertise, so that all of the members will automatically think of you for a certain type of legal work. If you join two or three associations, perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of attorneys will associate you with a certain type or area of legal expertise. If you are operating on a smaller scale, such as the small town lawyer, you should join as many organizations and get to know as many persons as possible. You will always promote yourself as the local attorney who is available for most common legal matters. You may also write articles for your local newspaper on legal matters of interest.

6. Prelaw Preparation

Our company has provided this information so that you can see the forest for the trees as quickly as possible. As a first year law school student, you should understand what is at stake long before you ever set foot into a law school classroom. You prepared for and took the LSAT, scored well, and got into a top law school, which means that you are privileged enough to get to the starting line. Now the real competition begins.

Law school, at least for successful law school students, requires an understanding of a number of independent and distinct skills. These skills cannot be learned by reading a book or talking to a former law school student or attorney. These skills should never be learned through trial and error. To be fully prepared for law school, you must understand the process of getting good grades and have practiced to a degree that you can fully appreciate and exercise those skills before law school orientation even begins.