In my own personal experience it’s been relatively easy to find paid jobs to fill in the semester and summer breaks while in law school, but maybe my situation is unique because of my ongoing connection to my former employer. Today, I overheard one of the section managers in the office talking about ongoing interviews for a spot in our Business Law section. I stopped him and asked how many applications he received for that one job opening. Eighty-five (85). He walked away shaking his head and muttering about the poor schmucks soon to graduate from law school. Well, that’s sobering.
As I get closer to finishing my legal education and think about finding a permanent job, I’m starting to wonder who will have the job-hunting advantage: career student or career-person turned student. Obviously, I got my money on the latter and here’s why:
These last 3.5 years in law school have been so wonderfully fulfilling, but simultaneously very, VERY, humbling. I quickly realized that once outside of my former job and area of expertise, I lost all my superpowers! If you’ve never had a real job, do you even have superpowers? Ok, sure…you can maybe pull an all-nighter and write a decent paper on the fall of the Greco-Roman Empire, but really…that’s useful to a potential employer…how???
In my entire undergraduate career I had ONE professor that actually took the time and effort necessary to do a line edit* of our papers which is what you need if your goal is to become a better writer. One skill that WILL help you in most any job that you do is writing. No matter how many jokes people make about a liberal arts degree, that’s where you first get your writing experience. However, most undergrads get their papers back with sparse comments in the margin and a fat letter grade at the end, but that’s about it. Critical/analytical thinking is generally not taught in undergrad unless you’re in a science or math major, maybe. But these skills are essential in life and for sure, in law school.
Also, I probably wouldn’t have incorporated the phrase, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” into my vernacular had I not spent time in the real world learning my several jobs from beginner to expert. As you can imagine, this phrase has come in handy on many occasions in law school. I have discovered, or maybe reaffirmed, this about myself: I am most out of my comfort zone when forced to operate as a beginner at anything. Granted, this is probably not a comfortable place for anyone, so no great confession there, but I personally experience another kind of frustration while sitting on the learning curve: I feel like a “taker” instead of a “giver.”
I am all about “value added”—ewwww, I know, I too hate this overused corporate buzz word, but it fits here. I am most fulfilled when I am contributing positively to a common goal; I want to be known as the “go-to” person, dependable, smart, trustworthy and accurate. The learning curve is my enemy—it makes me vulnerable, dependent and slow. If the extent of your work experience consists of part-time jobs and the occasional pizza delivery gig, I wonder if you’ve ever experienced value added. Even if you have multiple degrees, the operative question in my head is, “Yes, but what have you DONE with those degrees?” It’s the difference between reading a cook book and getting in the kitchen and making a meal.
Law school is one huge 3-4 year-long learning curve. It is clearly meant to show you just how little you know about so many things. It’s no wonder lawyers hedge so much, the law is so fact driven that you are conditioned to tread lightly about any opinion. I can’t even answer the question “What do you want for dinner?” straight because it always “depends.” I miss certainty in my life. I would like to know more than just a trickle about ANY area of the law I’ve learned in law school so that I could once again speak with authority about something. I guess I miss the freedom that comes with that kind of confidence.
One of the best things I’ve found to combat this general feeling of inadequacy is hanging around with attorneys that do know what the heck they’re talking about. Working with Randy in his practice for the last year has been great for these kinds of opportunities. I tell him all the time that I love hearing his war stories or getting to read his snarky** emails to opposing counsel because it reminds me that knowledge is power. He tells me that when you have as many skins on the wall as he does, you can get away with that kind of stuff. I guess that’s one way to put it. I remember with fondness when I had skins on my wall in my last job; now I’m back to skinless. 😦
The jobs I enjoyed most before law school were those where I was allowed (even encouraged!) to push the envelope and, I don’t know, be an independent thinker?!? It takes time to get to that level with your boss and co-workers. The climb to that point is when I work the hardest. I want to build trust, demonstrate honesty and integrity, and earn their respect—fast. You know you’re there when something happens and instead of the boss running in and demanding to know why XYZ happened or didn’t happen, they instead stroll in, or better yet, email and ask for a rundown of how you handled the matter. In this moment of truth you’re ready with a well-thought out response, organized, succinct and of course, correct. The boss nods, says ok and all is again right in the world. I love that feeling.
This is when you know you’ve arrived. There is a rebuttable presumption that if you did something unexpected, 1) you had a very valid reason and 2) there WAS no other way to address that particular issue. They give you the benefit of the doubt and trust that 99.99% of the time you’re not going to drop the ball. On the rare occasion that you do, you’ve probably self-reported, identified the problem, and are nearly done with the solution by the time the boss is ready to deal with it. This is what I think of as the job “sweet spot”—when everyone just lets everyone else do their job. As the boss, you trust your own hiring skill and allow me to do what you hired me to do. As your employee, I know my limitations and go to you when I need your help and/or clarification. Then we both go on and do our own respective jobs. Micro-managers just breed passive-aggressive employees.
In my opinion, regardless of the amount of education you have, there is no substitute for work experience. Having worked both before AND after my higher education experiences…twice, my opinion stands. Those of us that have BOTH education and a true employment history should, generally, have more to offer a potential employer. And what, if anything, is a job but one person looking to hire another person for a mutually beneficial transaction? Clearly, the employee benefits (i.e. a salary, insurance, perks etc.) so the question is what is the employer getting out of the bargain? Depends: What is the goal?
If the goal is to hire someone to micro-manage, someone with such marginal skill that the boss ends up doing the work him/herself, that says something about the boss’s (lack of) confidence as a manager. Most smart bosses hire someone so they are able to reallocate the work and lessen the burden for the whole team. That’s the place I want to work. So hopefully, when you see my resume in the stack you’ll pull it out first and save yourself the trouble of 85 interviews!
*Line editing is the norm in law school.
**I should point out that “snarky” is not Randy’s preferred method of communication, but if pushed to that extreme by opposing counsel, he will inevitably win any battle of words that they start. He’s just that good.