If you are anything like me when I entered law school, you have never met a lawyer. In fact, you may not have met anyone that is considered a “professional.” No one in my family was what one would consider a “professional”; no doctors, no accountants, and definitely no lawyers. Without these pre-existing connections, the idea of networking, and finding legal internships, can seem daunting. Have no fear, that’s why you are reading this book!
In this chapter, I try to cover as much about career planning as possible. But, as with so many other things in this book, if I have left something out, do not hesitate to ask. It is also important to note that the more lawyers you speak with, you will start to find that they might not have had a plan. Or, if they did have a plan, their career didn’t happen exactly as planned. That’s okay as well! You don’t have to have it all figured out, and in fact, you might change your mind multiple times during law school, and even after!
I. Networking – What if I Don’t Know Any Lawyers?
Networking is vitally important. Since starting law school, I’ve had 11 legal jobs, or at least, law-adjacent jobs: one was through a clinic in law school, another was due to pure luck, and one was entirely based on my resume and qualifications but was 12 years after becoming a licensed attorney—the rest were because of networking, or someone I knew. And that seems terrifying if you are entering law school and know no one. I didn’t either, but still networked my way to eight jobs!
Keep in mind that networking isn’t a dirty word. I always feel very manipulative, or dirty in some way, if I feel like I’m setting out “to network.” Networking is just forging relationships. That’s it. Think of it as building professional relationships, or professional friendships. This should make it slightly less intimidating; you aren’t asking for a job, or anything in particular, you are asking to form a relationship. That’s it.
Your first sources of networking are your professors and classmates. Don’t be afraid to visit your professors and get to know them. Remember, they have taught students who are now hiring, and they have connections. Find a few professors who you genuinely like and connect with. It helps if you like their area of interest. For example, in my second year of law school, I took copyright law and thought the professor was fantastic. It turns out he also taught sports law, and I thought “Hey I love sports, sounds like a great class.” I was incredibly interested in the subject so I made sure to chat about aspects of class outside of class. It turns out he was starting to write a sports law casebook and needed a research assistant. I jumped at the opportunity! This meant that we forged a relationship and got to know one another. He discovered my absolute love of ice hockey (because I kept trying to convince him that the casebook needed more ice hockey cases), so when a connection of his needed a legal intern, he sent me to them. And that’s how I ended up working for the Brazilian Ice Sport Federation1 as an intern, simply because my professor told them, “Hey Melissa loves hockey, and is also pretty good with sports law, you should hire her.” I’m still friends with this professor to this day, and still struggle to call him by his first name2 even though he reminds me we are now colleagues and have been for over a decade.
Your classmates are also excellent connections and will hopefully make excellent friends. I found my way into teaching because of a classmate. The classmate was a year ahead of me and we were very good friends—still are to this day. She had met a woman that owned a tutoring company through one of her friends. When I graduated from law school, the classmate suggested I reach out to this woman and see if I could tutor part-time. That led to tutoring, eventual adjunct work, and five co-authored books. The woman3 and I now both work full time in academia and are very good friends. Talk about a great connection! All because a classmate thought of me.
When people know your interests, and what types of jobs you are looking for, they are eager to help!
I realize that the real anxiety typically comes from networking events, where it feels like you are meant to network and forge connections on demand, so to speak. Keep a few things in mind: First, every attorney in those “networking” rooms has felt the anxiety you feel. Second, you don’t have to connect or network with every single person; find one or two that you really connect with. Third, if an attorney gives you their card and tells you to reach out, they mean it. Don’t hesitate!
Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out and set up meetings with attorneys. It feels intimidating, but lawyers love to talk about themselves. Look how much space I devoted to talking about myself and my career path! Ask attorneys you meet, or professors, to talk about their career path and why they like (or don’t like) what they do. Some great questions to ask are:
- Who are your clients? Not specifically, as they can’t give you names, but what type of people are your clients?
- How do you typically communicate with your clients, and how frequently?
- What does a typical day look like for you? (This can be important because it gives you insight into the daily nuances of the job, not just the high points.)
- How is your work different from a more junior attorney/senior attorney?
- Did you ever consider other types of legal jobs? If so, why did you consider those types of jobs and why did you pursue this career path instead of the other one?
- What is your favorite, or the most rewarding, aspect of your job?
- What is your least favorite part of your job?
- How did you end up here? What steps did you take to get to this type of job?
- What was your first job out of law school, and how did you transition to where you are now?
- What made you leave your first job out of law school?
You can also ask them things about what they did in law school, such as classes they took, internships they had, or groups they were involved in. The idea is to get to know them and what they do. Obviously, alter the questions above how you see fit, but those are some good starting points.
It can be daunting to reach out to an attorney you met at an event, but rest assured, if they gave you their contact information they will want you to reach out. When you do, be courteous, remind them of where they met you, and perhaps bring up a topic of conversation you discussed.
Below is a sample of an email that you can edit and send to attorneys you meet:
Dear Attorney Martin,
It was such a great pleasure to meet you at the Chicago Bar Association’s networking event last Thursday evening. You might remember me as the first-year law student who also grew up in Michigan.
I understand that you specialize in contract law, and I’d love to know more about what that entails. I realize your schedule must be a bit busy, but if you have an opportunity I’d love to meet for coffee and talk more about how you ended up practicing contract law, and what it’s like to open your own firm.
I have class most days until around noon, but can be free all afternoon or evening.
I look forward to chatting with you further.
While it might seem like you don’t even know where to begin, try answering the below questions:
II. Career Services/Timeline
Your first step is the CSO, or your Career Services Office. They are fantastic and are sincerely invested in your success. They can offer specific advice on the field you are looking into, they can look at your resume, and they can connect you with alumnae—they are basically magic.
Each school’s CSO will typically have a unique system, mainly in the form of a website or management system. These will be very useful in obtaining information on job listings, timelines, general job-search advice, how to prepare for interviews, and help to prepare cover letters and resumes—essentially everything you need! In addition, the CSO will also post information about networking events and job fairs, mock interview opportunities, and guest speakers. This includes information on when and how to make appointments with the office. Remember, this office is magic and the people who work there should quickly become your best friends.
Also, you don’t have to seek them out, they will seek you out. They will likely introduce themselves at orientation, then in roughly October or November of your first semester, they will traditionally host a workshop or meeting. This varies from school to school, but that will be your first interaction. Listen to them as they lay out the specifics of how their office works and timelines that you should be aware of. Do not seek them out before this initial workshop, as you should be focusing on getting your bearings in class. They will tell you when it’s time to come to them!
Either after you receive your first semester grades or just before, you can start applying for summer internships. This timeline varies—both for employer deadlines and for when your school will release grades—so by this point you should definitely be in touch with the CSO to get an idea for a timeline. This is typically in mid to late January of your second semester. In the fall of your second year, you will likely start to apply for summer associate positions. These are jobs for your second summer of law school. Sometimes they can lead to permanent jobs after graduation; sometimes they don’t. During this semester, your school might also be hosting “OCI” or on-campus interviewing. This means that various firms come to campus to interview you or your classmates. Again, career services will provide you with the correct timeline and any other information and deadlines you might need to be aware of.
III. Internships, Externships, and Clinics
Throughout your law school career, you may have the opportunity to participate in internships, externships, and clinics. So, the question is what are they and why would you take the time to do them?
An internship is a position usually offered as a way to gain work experience. Internships can be available in almost any setting or field, from the government to firms to nonprofits. Sometimes they pay, but frequently they may not. It depends on the type of work.
An externship is similar, but is usually set up through your law school. Often there is a class associated with the externship, and you have someone on campus who is in charge of supervising, or at least being a liaison with your supervisor. These are not paid and are offered for course credit.
A clinic is typically offered through the law school, as a course. While some law schools work with local organizations to form clinic opportunities, some law schools have clinics at the law school. This means that during “class” you meet with real clients, and work on real legal issues, under the supervision of your professor. Many schools have requirements that you complete a certain amount of clinic or externship work.
So what is important about internships, externships, and clinics? They are a spectacular way to get practical legal experience. In these work experiences, you learn a great deal about how law is actually practiced while being supervised by attorneys who share the goal of making sure you learn.
And more importantly, they are a great way to see what type of law you are interested in, and what types of law you are not interested in. For example, I entered law school very much convinced that I wanted to work for the district attorney’s office, prosecuting crimes. I completed an internship with the local district attorney’s office while in law school and decided that I absolutely did not want to practice criminal law. The people were lovely, and it was a great experience, but it taught me that criminal law is not remotely what I thought it was. It’s important to find these things out while you have the opportunity!
The tricky part, if you don’t have the resources, is often working for free. Many internships, especially summer internships, offer a stipend or salary. However, that tends to only happen at mid-size or larger firms. If you are interested in doing government work or public interest work, there is an expectation that you will work for free. However, many schools have a Public Interest Law Association that raises money to provide stipends for law students participating in public interest internships.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to find a mentor. I will be honest, I didn’t find my mentor until after a few years of practice, and that’s okay. My mentor has been someone that has advocated for me and opened doors for me. Every mentoring relationship is different, but the idea is to find someone that will give you unbiased and honest advice. Your mentor should motivate, inspire, and encourage you. A mentor should ideally be someone in your field; for example, my mentor is a fellow professor. This is important because while my mother will always motivate and encourage me, it’s useful to be able to call up my mentor to ask her advice on whether something is a good idea since she knows and understands the world I work in. She will also be completely honest.
So how does one find a mentor? Well, it has to come naturally. Similar to networking, you are looking to forge a relationship, so it’s not something that can be forced. You want to make sure that you are comfortable with your potential mentor and that you trust them. It might also be helpful to find someone that has a similar background to you, so they understand where you are coming from. My mentor took me under her wing because I started teaching fairly young, and so had she. It can be helpful to form a connection with someone of a similar ethnic or racial background, from the same hometown, or someone who has had similar interests to you. These similarities can often mean a more comfortable connection. However, sometimes having a mentor who is from a different background can be beneficial, and can even mean they can be a better advocate. While my mentor and I share similarities in that we both started teaching as young women, she was not a first-generation student, and has many lawyers in her family. This means that she is often a bit more confident in her knowledge as well as in her advocacy on my behalf.
As you enter law school, you will start to see various opportunities to gain a mentor. Often, second and third-year students can act as mentors. You will find these students within student groups that interest you, or might be second and third years who have been teaching assistants. Maybe your law school even has a formal mentoring or “big sibling” program. If there is a formal program, make sure you take advantage and sign up. If there isn’t, again, let the relationships form naturally.
Your second source of mentors will be your professors or administrators. Similar to networking, get to know them as people and the mentoring relationship will come naturally.
Finally, you may find good mentors at your first jobs or internships. You might also look into whether local bar associations have mentoring programs. Local bar associations often make it free for students to join or offer a discount. While this can seem a bit overwhelming, it can be an incredibly beneficial way to meet or be paired up with a mentor. If it makes you feel a bit nervous, see if there are any professors or administrators that are active in the local bar associations and ask to go with them. Or, grab some friends from class and all go together! There are local bar associations dedicated to affinity groups and specialties, and they can be a great place to start.
You might also have different mentors for different lengths of time, and at different points in your career. And don’t be afraid to have multiple mentors for different reasons!
V. How to Talk to a Professor
We don’t bite, I promise. Sure, there is a grumpy guss at every law school, or at every school in general, but by and large, most of us really want to talk to you and get to know you! I also keep talking about how great we are for networking and mentorship, so the question remains—how do you approach a professor?
First, we all have set or posted office hours. This means this is the time we WANT you to come to see us. We set aside that time expecting to do nothing but speak with students. So if your professor has office hours on Monday at noon, when the time comes, just walk into their office, no appointment needed. The downside is that they might be with another student, so you might have to wait. However, students don’t always take advantage of office hours as much as we’d like, so chances are high that you can just walk right in and start talking.
If you are unable to show up during office hours, or want to make sure that you are the only student scheduled for a certain block of time, reach out via email to make an appointment. Often professors will include information on how to make appointments in their syllabus. Some might want you to just email them, while others have links to calendar or appointment software.
Some professors also stick around before or after class to answer questions, or hold group office hours or review sessions. This can be a great way to ease into getting to know your professor if one-on-one seems intimidating.
Now that you know when to approach a professor, how do you do it? Well, first and foremost, be respectful. Call them “professor” unless they have specifically told you otherwise. This holds true for email communication as well as in-person communication. But also remember, as I’ve mentioned, they want to talk to you and help you, so keep that in mind.
You might also be wondering what to ask when you approach a professor. This depends on why you are approaching them. Above all else, remember that you don’t have to be perfect, and it’s okay if you are slightly confused or don’t know what to ask!
If you want to approach your professor about class, here are some question guidelines:
- While there is no perfect question, you want to avoid overly broad questions like “I don’t understand anything about torts.” Professors spend a great deal of time planning out their lectures, so while it’s understandable that you might feel a bit lost after class, you want to be specific about what it is you didn’t quite get.
- Ask about specific hypotheticals mentioned in class, and why they came out a certain way.
- Ask your professor if a certain fact changed in a case, would the outcome be different. This can help you determine if you have the right understanding of which facts are important and relevant.
- If you are lost on a specific concept, like strict liability, ask your professor if they wouldn’t mind giving you a different hypothetical or example from the one given in class. This might help it click a bit more.
If you want to approach your professor to get to know them or learn more about their areas of scholarship, here are some guidelines. (Note: A professor’s scholarship is the topic they tend to research and publish on. If the area of scholarship is of interest to you, you may consider asking your professor if they need a research assistant.)
- Be mindful of the time of year. The main job of a professor is making sure that you succeed as a student, so they might want to prioritize class-related questions at certain times of the semester. For example, a week before finals is not the time to ask them about their scholarship, as they will want to prioritize ensuring that students are well prepared for exams at that time and might be busy. Instead, seek them out at the beginning of the semester.
- Ask them why they chose a certain topic to teach or research.
- Ask them how they ended up as a professor—what was their path?
- Ask them about their first job out of law school.
VI. How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
One of my favorite parts of my job is writing letters of recommendation for my students. However, I realize it can be daunting for the student to ask. Even though it is one of my favorite things to do, and you should never hesitate to ask, keep a few things in mind.
Give us enough time. The only time I’ve said no to a request for a letter of recommendation is when the turnaround time was not possible. I need more than 24 hours. Be respectful of the fact that the person you are asking to write a letter likely has much on their plate, and while they will be happy to write you a letter, they need the time to do so. I would suggest giving the professor as much time as possible. A good rule is to give them at least one week, if not more. If that’s not possible, please state that in the email. For example, maybe you just saw the job opportunity. This happens, but be upfront about it and realize that the professor might not be able to accommodate the request.
Give us as much information as possible about yourself and the job or opportunity. Include a description of the job posting or position, as well as a copy of your resume and potentially your transcript. Don’t be afraid to tell the writer exactly what you want—it actually helps us! The more guidance we get from you, the better. Not only does it make our job easier in writing the letter, but it’s far more likely you will get the letter you want and need. You can even tell us what to highlight on your resume, or certain attributes you’d like us to focus on!
Seek out professors who you have a connection with. The more we know about you, the better. If you are in your first year it’s less likely you’ve really had the opportunity to forge relationships. That’s okay. When you request the letter of recommendation, talk about what you liked in the class or a time you may have chatted with or reached out to the professor. Help them to remember you.
So, how should you write an email requesting a letter? Note that I’m assuming you will be making this request via email. I always encourage my students to email me when they need things, because frankly, I’m getting older and more forgetful. Having something in my email helps me make sure the request makes it onto my to-do list. It also helps me ensure that I get the information correct, as discussed below. Even if you talk to the professor about writing one in office hours or after class, it’s best to follow up in an email.
First, in the subject line, make it clear what you are asking for: use something like “Letter of Recommendation for John Smith.” Start with a formal greeting such as “Dear Professor Hale.” Make it immediately clear what your connection to the professor is, as well as the fact that you will be asking for a letter of recommendation. If you are in steady communication with the professor, you likely don’t need to explain the connection. For example, I have a research assistant that I email at least weekly and know very well. If they emailed me saying “Dear Professor Hale, you might remember me from being your research assistant” it might seem a bit odd. Of course, I know who they are, I’m not that old and forgetful! However, in your first year, if you are in a class of 50 to 100 people and have only had a few individual connections with the professor, it can’t hurt to say “I’m in your torts class and I recently came to your office hours to chat about strict liability.”
Then, be sure to explain the job or position you are applying for. If possible, include a link for your professor. Then explain why you want the position. Finally, tell your professor what you want them to highlight about you, and include a resume and transcript. Also, include a deadline and whether you need it electronically, physically, or sent to the employer directly.
For example, see below.
Subject: Letter of Recommendation: John Smith
Dear Professor Hale,
I hope you are doing well. I was in your criminal law course last semester, which I enjoyed very much. You may remember that I came to your office hours at one point to ask if you could go over that homicide hypothetical, which really helped me feel more comfortable about the final exam.
I’m writing to request a letter of recommendation. I plan to apply to be a summer internship with the Cook County District Attorney’s office. I’m very passionate about criminal law and hope to one day be a prosecutor, so this position would be ideal.
Attached you will find my resume and transcript. If you notice I received an A in your criminal law class. Your feedback on the practice midterm we did indicated that I had a good grasp of criminal law, and I was hoping that you could highlight that in the letter.
You might notice from my resume that I majored in criminal justice for my undergraduate degree, which is something I’d love for you to discuss. This shows that I’ve been passionate about criminal law for a while.
Please let me know if you are willing to write this. The letter should be submitted to email@example.com by March 1st.
If you have any questions or need further information, please do not hesitate to ask!
VII. What The Heck is a Clerkship?
I have a confession: the one regret in my legal career is not applying for a clerkship. When I first heard the term, I thought a “clerk” was like a secretary. My mother was a secretary, and sometimes called a clerk, and I didn’t want her job! I was too embarrassed to ask why people would apply for clerkships and was definitely too embarrassed to ask what they were.
Clerkships are the opportunity to work for a judge, and not in an administrative role. Judicial clerks do extensive research for their judges and often draft the judicial opinions. This makes clerkships incredibly prestigious, and a fantastic stepping-off point to any legal career.
Clerkships often last a year, though sometimes they can last two. Although each court may differ, they typically start in August or September and end in May or June of the next year. The salary is typically not great, but the prestige makes up for the lack of salary. If you can continue to live as a student, so to speak, for another year, it’s worth it.
There are federal and state clerkships, and both are valuable experiences. Each court will have its own hiring process and timeline for clerks, so yet again, I encourage you to seek out your CSO. Typically, you want to start applying the summer before your third year of law school or the fall of your third year.
Most federal judges use OSCAR to hire their clerks. It’s a website portal that facilitates the applications. From the OSCAR website: “OSCAR, the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review, is a web-based system for federal law clerk and appellate staff attorney recruitment. OSCAR’s extensive set of features allows users to easily manage every aspect of the hiring process. Using OSCAR, applicants can easily apply to federal clerkships.”4
Also according to OSCAR, the duties of a Federal Law Clerk are as follows:
The duties and functions of a federal judicial law clerk are determined by the employing judge. In most chambers, law clerks concentrate on legal research and writing. Typically, the broad range of duties assigned to a law clerk includes conducting legal research, preparing bench memos, drafting orders and opinions, proofreading the judge’s orders and opinions, verifying citations, communicating with counsel regarding case management and procedural requirements, and assisting the judge during courtroom proceedings. Some judges also may assign maintaining the chambers library, and other administrative duties to the law clerk. Because there is a myriad of tasks that may be assigned to a law clerk, the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR) permits a judge to identify any particular duties that are required in the position announcement.5
Typically, to be eligible for a federal judicial clerkship, you must be in the top third of your graduating class and have some experience with law review or law journal.
Though it is often assumed that federal clerkships are the most prestigious, there are many opportunities to clerk at the state and local levels. In fact, these clerkships might give you more opportunities for relationship building, which might serve you further along in your career. Your professors and mentors will also likely have closer relationships with the local judges, so do not overlook these opportunities!
Supreme Court Clerkships
These are the most competitive clerkships. Typically, those who clerk for a Supreme Court Justice have had at least one prior judicial clerkship. You would typically apply for this program after graduation from law school. For more information on the program, you want to check the Supreme Court’s website.6
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of how to navigate the professional legal world and feel a bit more confident in your knowledge. I cannot stress this enough, but you do not have to have it all figured out right now. Sometimes I feel like my career was a series of happy accidents that put me where I am today, and there is nothing wrong with that. Your first job out of law school might not be your ideal, and that’s okay—it might lead you on a path you didn’t even know you wanted. Do not assume that you have to have it all together when you graduate. Talk to lawyers, and your professors, and ask about whether they had any happy accidents in their career path. You might be surprised.
“Being a First Gen who doesn’t typically like to network, it’s good to notice and appreciate those professors and deans who are intentional about being of service to their students. As an African American Woman who had no idea what she was getting into, my community assisted me with externships and were supportive in my roles in BLSA as well as SBA. Additionally, my Sports Law Negotiation Team coach is what I like to call my Law School Dad and has not stopped making sure I am doing well even after graduation. You don’t have to know everyone, but make use of those who are willingly making themselves available to you. They may need you one day as well, so make sure there are at least three real and valuable relationships made and maintained throughout your law school journey.”
-Tanesha O., C/O 2021