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by Vault Education Editors | March 31, 2009

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Dear Sang,

After a successful career teaching high school students various social studies courses, I switched to a career as a legal assistant and in August I started the evening law program at SMU. I've seen the people hired as summer associates by my firm and I don't fit that mold nor am I really interested in the life associates lead once they are hired by major law firms. Is there a direction I should look to gain quality summer internships that may lead to something other than law firm life?

Signed,
Not Fitting This Mold

Dear Non-Moldy (forgive me, I couldn't resist):

At the end of almost every summer, I have the privilege of spending some quality time at New York University School of Law where I conduct mock interviews for fresh 2L students in anticipation of the fall on-campus recruitment season. Yes, I am one of those rare (read: very odd) ducks that enjoys counseling highly stressed 2Ls in a windowless room, videotaping them as they answer various tell-me-about-yourself-type questions and getting them through interview jitters. And every year that I am there, I encounter students who worked for several years in "the real world" before their law school matriculations. Invariably, during our discussions of effective interview techniques, their "true confessions" surface and much like your note, these incredibly impressive, more experienced students express palpable concerns that they are unappealing to law firm employers because they are "too different" from their young classmates who started law school three months after graduating from college. Moreover, as they've already worked in professional settings and are more sharply focused on their "life priorities," they conclude that they are destined for unhappiness in the grueling pits of law firm factories.

At NYU, they are called OWLS, a well-suited acronym for Older and Wiser Law Students. Consistently, OWLS worry that they will not be successful or happy with law firm life because they know what their limits and their priorities are. Many of these more professionally mature students assume that all law firms are unwilling to accommodate any priority but money and determine, wrongly, that law firm life could simply never be for them. Sound familiar?

Okay, maybe this isn't you. Maybe you do know, unequivocally, that you don't want to practice law in a law firm setting and if that's the case, scroll right on down to the bottom of this answer and I'll point you in some non-law firm directions. But after many years of working with lawyers who never-ever-ever (and I mean never-ever) conceived of practicing at law firms during law school but are now tremendously successful (and happy) law firm partners, I just have to wonder whether your note was borne from an earnest but incomplete perspective on what law firm culture and law firm practice could be.

Your note stated that you only recently started working in the legal industry after a career in education and so, I'm going to assume that you probably didn't know many law firm lawyers before you became a legal assistant. If that's true, your perception of the type of summer associate candidates all law firms dream about (a.k.a. the "mold") is being unfairly shaped by the kind of students your current firm is hiring/has hired.

Let's break it down another way: if you don't fit the mold of the summer associates that your firm has hired, your firm must have hired a summer class that doesn't look like you at all, i.e., someone who had a successful career before law school (read: an achiever); someone who worked outside of the law altogether (read: well-rounded and interesting); someone who is making sacrifices to pursue her law degree by working during the day and attending classes at night (read: dedicated and focused). Okay, so now you know that you shouldn't apply to become an associate at THIS firm. But why rule out every firm?

Did you know that most law firms prefer to hire law school graduates who obtained meaningful professional experiences before attending law school? It's true. Think about it. A law school graduate who has previous work experience understands and appreciates -- before he gets to the firm -- the pressure of deadlines, the subtleties of hierarchy and reporting structures, the importance of team work and the value of professional poise. What savvy law firm employer doesn't want that?

Ironic, isn't it? Your note alludes that you do not fit the mold of the typical summer associate. And here I am, shouting at you, "YOU ARE, IN SO MANY WAYS, THE MOLD OF THE IDEAL SUMMER ASSOCIATE."

Not to be forgotten: your note also stated that you're not really interested in "the life associates lead once they're hired by major firms." While it is certainly true that junior associates can receive exceptional training at law firms during their early associate years, it is also true that junior associates can find themselves disappointed with their experience soon after arriving at their firms. The reasons behind low associate morale or associate unhappiness are innumerable; some reasons are specific to the individual and some are specific to the particular firm. In many instances, however, junior associates confide that their various dissatisfactions are often borne from "rookie mistakes" that will never be made again.

True story: I met with a class of 2005 corporate associate recently who wanted some career advice. This lawyer was friendly, engaging and definitely the kind of guy who has had lots of friends in life. He attended an impressive law school and is currently affiliated with a prestigious law firm. But he'd never worked in a professional setting before his 2L summer associate experience and those three months alone were insufficient to prepare him for the daily rigors of professional life. He explained that he actually enjoyed the work and thought he performed his work well but that he has had some strange integration problems, the kind of problems he's never had before. For example, one night, he left the office without checking in with his team because it had been quiet all day, only to realize after receiving three voicemail messages and two emails on his blackberry that he had been expected on a conference call at 8pm. As luck would have it, he was with some friends at a loud bar when the very tired senior associate (who was running document changes that the junior associate should have been running) finally reached him at 10pm. It wasn't a good conversation nor was it very pleasant for the junior associate to return to the firm that evening or the next few days. Huge rookie mistake: not checking in with your team, or put another way, potentially leaving your team in the lurch. Hello? It's called a TEAM.

Some other rookie mistakes: when associates are unable to set boundaries with their colleagues (the office is not a place to play, flirt or gossip); when associates are unable to manage expectations (do not try to make everyone happy by taking on too many assignments and then disappoint everyone because nothing is done on-time); when associates are inefficient (the "well, I'm going to be stuck here late anyway so I'll just hang out in my friend's office for a while and start my day at 4pm" routine); and when associates don't respect the chain of command (do not go over your senior associate's head because your personalities clash).

In other words, many associates don't like law firm life because they aren't armed with the kind of professional grooming and experience that result in good work judgment. As you've already had a successful career before switching to law, I'm confident that you know a thing or two (or twelve) about "managing up" or "managing across" as well as "managing down." You've probably experienced the strain of deadlines, witnessed some professional calamities along the way and maybe even made a few rookie mistakes of your own. If I had to make a wager as to who stands a better chance of enjoying law firm life: you or a professional neophyte? My money's on you.

You are different -- if you decide to give law firm life a chance, you might see that your previous work experience has prepared you beautifully for success in this kind of high pressure environment. Moreover, your experience of law firm life has been limited thus far (or so it seems) to the firm where you are presently working as a legal assistant. This is only one firm and there are hundreds of firms in the southwestern region (assuming you're going to stay in Texas) to choose from. I do realize that I sound like a law firm zealot and that's truly not my intention. If you are 100% convinced that you don't want to start your attorney days as a law firm lawyer, I apologize for the rant. I am writing passionately on the subject because your note suggests that your decision to look at alternative paths is prompted largely by your perceptions of the "mold of the law firm associate" and the "mold of law firm life" and well, the perceptions don't always line up with reality.

So, if after all this, you still think that law firm training isn't in the cards for you, here are some terrific resources. Your career placement office at SMU has a counselor in-house who focuses largely on public interest organizations -- you should make an appointment to see him/her as soon as possible. Don't wait until the week before you plan to send out resumes. Go this week (I mean it). Get a list of alumni who have indicated a willingness to speak about their experiences. Start networking immediately with these alumni -- ask your career office for advice on effective networking (remember, never ask someone you're "networking" with for a job!) and try to gather data about the different types of legal positions that exist outside of a law firm.

Go buy this book: What Can You Do With a Law Degree: A Lawyer's Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law, by Deborah Arron. What makes this book such a good read for someone in your situation is its accessibility; there are a number of self-assessment exercises and a good appendix that lists jobs in and around the law that might give you some ideas as to what type of legal position would work best for you. As someone who has already worked in education, might you find yourself drawn to legislation and policy as it applies to education? Perhaps you'd be interested in joining the in-house legal team of a company that promotes educational products? Or perhaps you'd prefer something different altogether like "oh, I don't know" legal recruiting?

What I'm trying to suggest is that the universe of what one can do with a legal degree outside of the traditional law firm setting is enormous and depends largely on your own self-assessment. I know that your precise question was: "Is there a direction I should look to gain quality summer internships that may lead to something other than law firm life?" As hokey as this might sound, the "direction" you need to look is inward. Quality summer internships are available in virtually every industry and quality attorney positions are available as well. What is imperative is that you spend some time reflecting on what is important to you so that you can define for yourself what a "quality summer internship" actually looks like.

Another note of advice: quality internships don't have to be limited to summers. If it's possible to undertake an internship for credit during an academic semester, I'd encourage you to look into that. Alternatively, you might try to intern for a trial court judge during your winter break from school. As an evening student, I understand that you might have to overcome additional challenges to take on an internship but please don't close the door on that possibility. And remember, you are surrounded by potential mentors and role models at SMU -- talk to your counselors and professors, that's what they're there for!

Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch.

Sang

Do you have a question about your legal career? Click here to email Sang directly.

SANG J. LEE, ESQ

Sang is the President and Managing Partner of SJL Attorney Search, LLC. Over the years, Sang has placed hundreds of attorneys in the New York metropolitan area with global, national and boutique law firms and has partnered with numerous Fortune 500 corporations, investment banks and technology companies in identifying top talent for in-house legal departments.

Sang has been invited to speak at Stanford Law School, New York University School of Law and New York University's School of Continuing Education and City College of New York. She was a panelist at the 2004 NALP End of Season Series for the session entitled "Dog Eat Dog: The Reality of the New York Legal Market" and has also been featured on panels for NYCRA and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Sang consults for the Office of Career Services at New York University School of Law where she counsels, coaches and prepares law students and alumni for interviews with prospective employers.


ABOUT SJL ATTORNEY SEARCH, LLC

Founded in 2003, SJL Attorney Search, LLC is a legal recruitment firm that works closely with law firms and other sophisticated legal employers to identify, recruit and ultimately hire qualified attorneys. Our consultants have successfully placed associates, partners and corporate counsel of varying rank in all practice areas of law, including mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, global finance, real estate, bankruptcy, tax, labor and employment, ERISA, intellectual property and litigation. In an industry that has a reputation for sharp elbows and cutting corners, we hold fast to our core values of integrity, quality, team work and accountability.

We understand the immense value of relationships and so, we have assembled a team of proven relationship builders in the firm. In addition to a research staff that supports our firm's goal to cull and store the best market information, SJL Attorney Search is proud that our consultants include former practicing attorneys with tremendous academic credentials, a former senior law firm administrator, a former law school professor and a former senior marketing executive. Please visit www.sjlsearch.com to learn more about our consultants and our firm.

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