Advice for New Lawyers

I’m speaking again this week to University of Alabama law students about career opportunities for lawyers working in government relations.  It’s not an easy time for new lawyers to get started, so I’ve been thinking about what I can say to help them in their searches.

University of Alabama Law School - Tuscaloosa

University of Alabama Law School – Tuscaloosa

Last year my presentation to these students focused on the association world, explaining what we do at Verto Solutions and Verto Legal Solutions.  But entry level legal positions aren’t typical in the association world and so this year I’m expanding my remarks to discuss  what it takes to find that first job out of law school.  The recession and the profound changes in the market for legal services have made it more challenging than ever for new lawyers to get started.

It took me a while to get started after graduating from law school and I was pretty anxious about it.  I clerked for a small general practice in Alexandria, Virginia and worked as a waiter in the mall near the Pentagon.  When I finally landed my first “real job” after law school, it wasn’t even a legal job.

The good news is that by spending a semester in DC these students are demonstrating that they have the nerve and flexibility to make it in spite of the challenging market that they face.

There’s more good news; these students are graduating from an excellent law school.  The rankings and reputation of the University of Alabama School of Law have steadily increased over the last quarter century.  I think much of the credit belongs to Dean Ken Randall who retired last year.  For more information on Alabama’s ranking and value see Mark Kogan’s article, “5 Top Law Schools Just as Great as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.”

In trying to give advice to these new lawyers I turned to friends and colleagues to see what ideas or observations they might have for graduating law students.  I put the following questions to lawyers that have been out of school for awhile and that have found success, although not always working as lawyers:

  • What do you know now about working in the legal profession that you wish you had known when you graduated from law school?
  • Are you using your law degree in a way that you anticipated when you were a third year law student?
  • Did you get any lucky breaks in finding your first job after law school and what’s the most important thing to do to find such a break?
  • What’s the biggest change that you’ve seen in the legal profession since you graduated from law school?

All of my respondents commented on the rapid and unprecedented changes in the legal marketplace over the past 20 years.  More than one person said it’s just plain harder to make a living practicing law than before and it’s even harder to find that first position.

Changes in the market for legal services are being caused by two big and related forces: transparency and technology.  Legal information used to be available exclusively to law firms through expensive subscriptions to volumes of case law and regulatory rulings.  This has all changed, first with on-line services like Lexis and Westlaw, and then simply the Internet and free on-line government publications.

Transparency has also increased awareness of how lawyers charge for their services and given customers the tools to shop around.  Finding a good lawyer used to require a personal network; now just use Google and you can read all about a lawyer, their work, and their fees.

Technology is the other area where there’s been dramatic change.  Of course, technology has enabled the explosion of new information, but it’s also changed the way lawyers work.  One friend asked, can you imagine not having email when consulting with clients?  No, I can’t, and email is wonderful tool, but it also means that getting back to someone within 24 hours isn’t always good enough; make it an hour or less or they might wonder if they have the best lawyer.

So what do you get when you combine the experiences of my friends with the significant changes in the market for legal services? They came back with lots of interesting insights with most of their comments falling into four general categories of advice.

Early in my career I was told to focus on what I like doing and not to worry about the money or the prestige.  But it’s easy to ignore this suggestion when you’re just trying to get started.  You feel like you need to take pretty much whatever you can find, preferably a “real legal job.”  Many lawyers dive into something because it’s the first thing that comes along or because they think it’s what they want to do.  Then they get frustrated and realize that there’s a conflict between what they enjoy or find rewarding, and what they do on a day to day basis.

More than one of my friends pointed out that our society attaches implied satisfaction and happiness to the traditional progression from first year associate to big law firm partner.  This route has always been available to just a minority of each graduating class, and that minority is shrinking further.

Of the dozen or so lawyers I contacted only one has followed the supposedly traditional progression to big law firm partner.  He graduated from Harvard Law School, clerked for a Federal judge and was hired by a big law firm where he has remained through at least one merger.  We were speaking as The Washington Post reported merger talks between Patton Boggs and Squire Sanders.  These mergers are bad news for young lawyers and as the traditional law firm partner said to me, “nobody’s safe.”

In some cases, getting on the traditional track helps lawyers figure out what kind of work they don’t enjoy and the lucky and flexible ones are then able to transition to something different and more in line with their emerging preferences.  These transitions lead to a million different places but not generally to traditional law firms.

Figuring out what makes you happy at work isn’t easy.  I had been out of law school for more than 15 years when I first worked with an executive coach and took a Myers Briggs personality type test.  I’m not aware that the typical law school puts much time into helping students use these kinds of tools to identify what kind of work or environment is best for them.

If you know what you want to do, then be like a dog with a bone.  If you’ve decided that you want to be a food lawyer then immerse yourself in that area through outside reading and networking.  Employers will appreciate your passion for a particular area, but be sure to explain why you’re passionate about it.

As I explained in this space last year I stumbled into association law & management.  I’m still figuring it out, but right now I enjoy all aspects of managing associations, including the legal work, and I’m hopefully becoming a subject matter expert in association corporate governance and food policy.

In the information age it’s important to remember that to be successful you have to provide knowledge, not just information.  Attaining knowledge about any particular area requires time and effort.  To really succeed you will need to become an expert in something, but there’s plenty of time for this.

One friend made the point that law schools don’t normally help lawyers translate their education into jobs that might fall outside of traditional law practices.  The Washington, D.C. program is a great example of a law school creating an interesting and practical program to help students become professsionals.

It’s a little cruel to recommend outside reading to law students, but there’s an interesting book called Reinventing Professional Services: Building Your Business in the Digital Marketplace by Ari Kaplan.  Ari’s book includes many observations about changes to the market for legal services along with suggestions for succeeding in the new market.   He says the key to success is that you simply have to out hustle the competition; there’s no reason to wait until you get a job to start hustling.

I attended a workshop at the DC bar association last week.  The bar calendar is loaded with affordable workshops and lectures.  These events are intended for lawyers, but the secret is that they are happy to have a law student/potential bar member attend.  So look at the calendar and find something that interests you and be sure to raise your hand and ask a question.  Imagine the impact on an audience of lawyers when a student raises their hand to ask a question and says “I just wanted to attend today because I’m interested in ____ law.”  This is how to get noticed.

A word about networking.  I remember being told how important it was to network before I really knew what it meant.  Ari Kaplan even says he remembers thinking it sounded a little sleazy.

Here’s my definition of networking:

Offering to get involved or help someone without any expectation that you will receive a return on the favor. 

Networking is something you will have to continue after you get a job as well.  Many lawyers get so tied up in their first few jobs that they ignore their networks from schools, previous jobs, neighborhoods, etc., until they are older.  Don’t make this mistake.  Don’t forget that your friends are your best network.  Almost all jobs come through connections, but this doesn’t just mean friends in high places.  Several of my friends heard about jobs through their friends.

Very few of my friends are using their law degree in ways that they anticipated when graduating.  I’m not a futurist, but I’m confident in saying that many students graduating today will find fulfilling work in fields that don’t even exist today.  The changes in our society are that profound.

One of my friends suggested that law students look for a chance to take a finance course if they haven’t already.  Again, perhaps it’s gotten better, but traditionally law schools fall short at providing a practical education.  The days are gone when you could just be a lawyer.  Success today will eventually require business and finance skills that they don’t teach in law school; find a way to get them on your own.  It’s rarely possible to “just be a lawyer” anymore.

Understand that even when you do find your first job you won’t know what you’re doing.  Society places value on a law degree and that feels nice at least right after you pass the bar, but what you learned in those three years is just the beginning.  Be prepared to be a life-long learner.

Another friend recommended The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman.  LinkedIn cofounder Hoffman gives great advice on how to succeed in the hyper-competitive business world, it’s great advice for any professional.

Having met the students in the Alabama program I can say with confidence that they will all eventually find interesting and rewarding positions.  They are the lucky ones, because they’ve got the drive and they’re coming out of a great school.  The critical thinking and organizational skills that they learned in law school will help them regardless of where they land.  And by participating in the Washington program they’re growing their network.

I’m grateful to Mike House at Hogan Lovells for including me on the program.  Mike and the University of Alabama have created a great environment for new lawyers interested in government relations, now it’s up to them.

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3 Responses to Advice for New Lawyers

  1. Anne collier says:

    Great post John! Great advice about networking and working hard

  2. says:

    Hi John, This is great and should be very helpful to young lawyers getting started. Best wishes, John

  3. I like the helpful information you provide in your articles.
    I will bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently.

    I’m quite certain I’ll learn a lot of new stuff right here!
    Best of luck for the next!

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