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March 10, 2009

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Dear Sang,

I'm a 1L student at Georgetown (your alma mater) and I am originally from the New York tri-state area. I worked as a paralegal for several years at a midsized law firm in New York before moving to DC. Before law school, I befriended some young lawyers at my old firm and they told me that I shouldn't waste my time or energy with any clubs in law school and that I should only think about getting really good grades in order to get a job with a big firm in New York. What do you think?

Signed,
Clubs Don't Interest Me

Dear Clubby:

As the early days of November are already upon us, second-year law students (2Ls) are winding down their searches for summer associate positions as first-year students (1Ls) are just beginning to consider their summer options; your question is both evocative and topical and for that, I thank you. Last week, I gave a presentation before the entire 1L class at the University of Richmond School of Law on different professional strategies to consider as they make their respective ways through law school. In anticipation of that discussion, I polled approximately twenty attorneys consisting of candidates, clients and friends. I asked each of them the same two questions: knowing what you know now, if you could go back and repeat your 1L year, what would you do exactly the same way? What would you do differently? I received largely the same responses:

What would you do exactly the same way?
Study hard.

What would you do differently?
Study harder.

The collective opinion of your former colleagues is clearly also shared by the lawyers I surveyed. And it's certainly true that none of my law firm clients has ever indicated a willingness to cast a blind eye to law school transcripts. Good grades and class ranking are the most obvious and hence, easiest barometers of success; accordingly, these are the metrics by which attorneys are evaluated if they realize that they aren't happy with their first positions after graduating from law school and seek lateral opportunities.

However, if my math serves me correctly (and I'm no math genius), around 90% of all law school students will not enjoy the good fortune of graduating in the top 10% of their graduating class. WHAT IF, at the end of your 1L year, you find yourself - for the first time in your life and despite best efforts - in the exceptional position of being academically unexceptional (along with the majority of your equally intelligent and heretofore successful classmates)? When on-campus interviews come along a few months later, you'll find yourself in the distinctly uncomfortable position of attempting to defend your decision to bail on the "whole extracurricular thing" in your effort to earn what-turned-out-to-be-mediocre grades. And that's only part of the reason you should join organizations at your law school.

Your former colleagues gave you well-intentioned practical advice. However, the advice is woefully incomplete. Yes, you should study hard and do everything you can to earn exceptional grades but not at the expense of building a resume that is part and parcel with building your best personal and professional brand.

You graduated from college and worked for several years as a paralegal at a law firm. That's terrific - you're probably already several steps ahead of your classmates in that you have some meaningful professional experience that you can reference in your interviews. However, unless your paralegal years were spent in the precise practice area that you fancy, your grades are extraordinarily high AND you're a naturally gifted conversationalist who can wax eloquent about sports, Rimbaud and the latest reality show, potential employers will wonder whether you're socially awkward or too academically oriented (read: one-dimensional) because your resume doesn't include any activities.

Remember, your resume is your market piece and an interview is your opportunity to showcase your brand. If your resume only lists where you attended college, your current law school and your 1L grade point average, you are marketing yourself first and foremost as a student who does nothing but study. These law firms want future professionals who are, at the very least, interested in the law. So you must demonstrate your interests, not just your academic stamina. And let me assure you, potential law firm employers value highly the practical training that comes from extracurricular organizations like Law Review or other journals as well as Moot Court competitions and research positions with professors. While I'm on my soapbox, here's a bit of unsolicited advice: DO participate in the write-on competition for the various journals at Georgetown at the end of final exams in the spring. I know you're going to be tired. I don't care. If you're sitting in front of a potential employer who decides to ask you (and they will ask you), "why didn't you write-on to a journal?" what will you say? "I was too tired?" Interpretation: lazy. Or "I didn't see the value of a journal (a.k.a. the opportunity to strengthen writing, researching, editing and bluebooking skills)?" Interpretation: arrogant.

Beyond serving as enhancements to your resume, these extracurricular activities are also enhancements to your life. A young partner once told me that he wished he'd been a little nicer to his law school classmates; he reflected that he should have tried just a little harder with people and not just exams. He confessed this after his submitted curriculum vitae was summarily rejected by a potential employer because the young hiring partner of the firm remembered him as a competitive jerk in law school. It's true, inter alia, playing nicely in the sandbox goes a long way. Your classmates are your future professional network. Why not take some non-classroom time to get to know a few of them?

When I prepare lawyers for their interviews with potential employers, I explain that two critical factors considered by every potential employer are whether the candidate is likeable and whether the candidate is qualified to do the work. The same factors apply here as you work your way through law school. The importance of grades is frequently amplified for law students because in many cases, it is the only way that an employer can evaluate whether the student is qualified to do the work, i.e., the student might not have any practical work experience and readily transferable professional skills. What isn't discussed nearly as often is the importance of being likeable. This is a "soft" skill, one that is especially crucial when you're trying to secure a position as one-of-many-summer-associates at a law firm. And the determination that a student has this elusive "L factor" often results when the student is well-rounded.

True story: many moons ago, I was one of twenty-five summer associates at a large firm. We had just completed our 2L years at different law schools throughout the country and we were all pretty successful students at our respective schools. Ours was the typical summer associate experience: lots of long lunches, some good assignments, some not-so-wonderful-50-state-surveys and lots of very fun summer associate events. Of the twenty-five of us, only one didn't receive a permanent offer at the end of the summer. Yes, it was the guy who attended the most highly ranked law school and probably had the most impressive transcript. Why? Because come rain or shine, morning, noon and night, weekdays or weekends, you'd find him sitting by himself in the library reading, sometimes for an assignment but usually it was a newspaper or a novel. I still don't know whether he was just painfully shy or whether he dismissed the importance of socializing but it didn't matter. People were uncomfortable around him and he wasn't extended an offer to return.

I'm quite certain that it gave the firm no pleasure whatsoever to tell my summer classmate that no offer was forthcoming. It's never fun to turn someone down. And so, the people who come on campus to interview you for these same summer associate spots are careful to screen out the folks who might not mesh well in a group setting to avoid having to reject people at summer's end. If you have no affiliation with any extracurricular organizations, what message might you send to a potential employer about your ability to successfully integrate in a group setting?

So, here's my bottom line: Study hard. Then, study harder. But don't undervalue the importance of participating in the Sports Law Society or the Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Sign up for the Moot Court competition. Become a mentor for a young student in the D.C. community. Enhance your resume, enhance your life, build your brand. 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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