A tough economy presents challenges both for law students and for the career advisers who are trying to help them prepare for the summer/fall interviewing season.
Students, already nervous about large law school debt, are feeling even more pressure with a shrinking economy, layoffs and delayed start dates for the recent graduating class.
Speaking as a career adviser, the most helpful approach for our students may be "back to basics": networking, being proactive both on the job and in the search, understanding what the employer is looking for and how that employer operates its business. Having experienced dips in the cycle before, most career advisers know that the economy will turn around. Students seeking summer and permanent jobs, however, see only the immediate future -- and it scares them.
We have warned rising third-year students who are current summer associates that they must be proactive in taking on work, meeting as many attorneys at the firm as possible, attending social events and ensuring that their written work product is top-notch. Rather than 100 percent of summer associates receiving offers, we may see 90 percent or fewer at some firms.
Getting the offer has become even more crucial this year. The market for third-year students will be very small. A few firms may try to find that third-year student with a 3.8 or 3.9 who wants to change cities or firms, but otherwise opportunities, even for students with an offer from a top firm, will be limited.
For rising second-year students who will be going through the fall on-campus interview process for the first time, outcomes may be different this year. The tight economy means smaller summer programs on the whole for 2009, and fewer offers will be given out.
A few firms do plan to increase the size of their summer classes for next year, but they are in the minority. Students will have to be at the top of their game at all stages of the interview process. No doubt we will see at least a small drop in the number of callback offers received, and the initial screening interviews may be more focused. Students toward the lower end of the GPA range, no matter their school's ranking, may have a tougher time getting an offer.
In one sense, all of this concern about the economy, interviews and offers is secondary. The crux of the career center's message does not change whether the economy is up or down or whether a student is interviewing with Big & Huge, a public defender's office or a small family law firm. To get the job, you need to know yourself -- your skills, values and interests -- as well as what your career and life goals are and what you can do for the employer.
What, specifically, can students do (and not do) to prepare?
First, realize there are many things about the interview process you can control and a few that you cannot. Try not to pay attention to the buzz among peers (easier said than done). Do have more than one interview suit. Do not stray too far from the conservative in attire and appearance until you have the job. Do not feel pressured to have even one drink at any employer event.
Do practice interviewing with alumni or with your career adviser every chance you get. Contact your alumni. Remember who spoke at your school this past year. Your career adviser can help you develop a networking strategy.
Do prepare in-depth for every interview. Whether your gut is saying, "All these big firms look alike -- does research really matter?" or "Look, I just need a job," you need to know as much as you can about the particular employer.
Be enthusiastic. Show the employer that you want to work for them.
Google can be your best friend. Knowing the potential employer is not only important for showing your lawyerly attention to detail and preparation but also enables you to view an employer through the lens of your individual career goals.
Please listen to your adviser when he or she says that the search is about people and skills -- and this goes for government and nonprofit job searches as well. Do not walk into an interview with your GPA (either great or not-so-great) tattooed on your forehead.
First, students with naturally strong people skills interview above their GPAs. Nearly all students can do so with coaching and practice. Law is a people business -- whether an employer is looking at you as the occupant of the office next to hers or as a future rainmaker.
Second, your summer work experience and your experience prior to law school can go a long way in overcoming a lower GPA.
Students often will say: "I'm afraid X won't look at me when they find out my GPA," when they have worked in international human rights issues over the summer, helped a new business form, helped reverse a criminal conviction or assisted a professor with evaluating recent decisions on gun control. I have found that interviewers want to see enthusiastic students who loved their summer jobs and can speak thoughtfully about them. Do not discount these experiences because you weren't doing deals.
And third, employers always want good writers. If you've done a lot of writing in prior jobs or did well in your legal writing class, point this out in the interview.
Not much, if anything, that I have said here is new or particularly revelatory. In good times or bad, the essentials of job searching do not change.
As a student in a down market, the hardest task may be ignoring the economic news, which you can't control, and focusing instead on what you can -- presenting yourself at your best whether in person, on paper or electronically.
To make this happen, trust yourself, be skeptical of the buzz and seek out your career adviser. Especially in tough times, we are your best resource.
William A. Chamberlain is assistant dean, Law Career Strategy and Advancement, at Northwestern University School of Law.