Last month during a lecture to 100 1L law students on the subject of job-search skills, I found myself having to push hard to get students to ask questions, to talk to me about their concerns about the job market and their chances.
Finally, in exasperation, I asked why no one was responding. A woman in the front row confessed "We're scared to death!"
Believe it or not, there was a time (admittedly many years back) when 1L students were strongly encouraged to take the first year summer off from law. From the shocked expressions I saw during that lecture, I know it's hard to believe such a relaxed atmosphere ever existed. The job search now seems to begin at orientation and end only when you've finally secured that job, sometime in the third year. That is, if the job you think is secured still exists once you are ready to start work.
Given the current economic climate, you may not feel you have a choice about how to spend your summer. While this year's 2L hiring season began at a somewhat normal pace, employers are now fully aware of the challenges that hit them in the middle of the process, and, frankly, very nervous about what the next year will bring. Not a great hiring climate, to say the least. Indeed, 1Ls applying for jobs beginning on their Dec. 1 kickoff date face severely diminished summer job possibilities. So what to do?
First, don't despair. Employers won't expect to see a lot of premium 1L summer jobs when they look at resumes next fall. Anything that allows you to gain some worthwhile experience will make you look good. So take the energy generated by your fear and put it to use. Here are a few tactics to keep in mind:
DON'T NEGLECT YOUR GRADES!
The challenged job market may tempt you to spend considerable time on your job search. While this is important, the Dec. 1 application kickoff date falls ahead of your first semester finals -- and poor grades will be extremely hard to overcome. While you may get some interviews now, most employers will wait until grades come out to make final decisions -- and next fall they'll certainly be looking at your first-year transcript. Your mantra should be: Grades come first.
DON'T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET ...
Research and apply for jobs beyond your dream position. While you can quickly and easily determine which law firms are still seeking 1Ls by using the NALP Web site, you should also look into government, public interest, small, non-NALP member law firms, and in-house corporate legal departments. This type of research is time-intensive, but will increase your options and improve your odds. A tip: Some government agencies are actually boosting their intern ranks due to hiring freezes for lawyer positions.
A generic, meant-for-mass-consumption application letter won't work this year (if it ever did). Your research will tell you something about prospective employers. Use the details you dig up in your application materials. There is no rule that you should send the same cover letter and resume to every potential employer. And by addressing employers correctly and specifically, you show them you are genuinely interested in them. That helps make you stand out in a crowd.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In the current climate, it is even less likely than usual that you will have luck applying to an area of the country where you cannot demonstrate a strong connection. (By strong, I mean you have lived there, have parents, siblings or other close family members living there, attended college there, or a similarly compelling connection.) Employers take local ties as a sign that there is good chance that they will see you again in the future, which increases the potential value of their investment in a summer intern. Instead of papering the country with generic applications, devote your time and energy to a thorough exploration of possibilities in areas where you can show a connection.
BE PATIENT AND STAY PROFESSIONAL
Finding a summer job this year will be tough and take perseverance. Keep in mind that whatever job you have this summer, you will use the skills you gain, and the relationships you build. Even the search itself will offer you a major learning experience, as well as opportunities for new proficiencies and a perspective you did not have before.
Hang in there, and best of luck!
Lynne Traverse is recruiting and professional development manager at Bryan Cave.
This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.