I recently spoke with a third-year law student who is feeling the pressure to find employment in an environment where firms are cutting costs or even reducing head counts.
As we talked, I could tell that she was considering taking any job that came her way, whether it was a good fit or not. She mentioned that, although her interests are in business law, she felt inclined to tell a potential employer anything they wanted to hear in order to get the job, including "why yes, I've always wanted to be a litigator."
As I thought about this tactic, it occurred to me that, very likely, new and more experienced attorneys alike probably have done this at some point in their job-hunting past.
I provided her with my thoughts on why this strategy wasn't worth it and why it's better to find a good fit. Good fit creates motivation to work hard and succeed; it leads to long-term career satisfaction and reduces the phenomenon of jumping from place to place.
So, what does it mean to have a good fit? The following were my suggestions for variables to consider when deciding on the right position:
Do you want to practice as a lawyer? Law schools condition law students to graduate from law school and go to work for a firm. Each fresh graduate, however, must decide whether this truly is the route he or she wants to pursue.
One caution, though, is that it often can be difficult to make good use of a law degree in a non-traditional setting immediately after law school. There is a significant benefit to practicing with lawyers and developing the skills of a lawyer before applying them in a different setting.
Are you better suited for a law firm or in-house? I have worked in both environments and appreciate the pros and cons of both. The primary negative to a firm, obviously, is the need to keep track of hours (which, in reality, is not that bad once you're used to it).
The benefit of working in a firm is learning from other lawyers. Unless you position yourself in a company with a large legal department, you will lose this experience.
A true benefit to working in-house is that, with only one client, you can focus greater attention on that business, you interact with that client every day and become very familiar with the context within which you are providing legal advice.
Again, as a caution, however, many companies will not hire lawyers in-house until they have had firm experience.
What size firm best suits you? A big firm may provide much more structured training and supervision. However, in a smaller firm, you may have the opportunity to interact with the partners more regularly.
Also, in many smaller firms, higher levels of responsibility are given out sooner (e.g., you are much more likely to handle the trial in the first year at a small firm instead of being second chair). Each person should gauge for themselves whether structured learning or the "sink or swim" concept best suits them.
Do the people who you will be working with (specifically management), share your general values? If you believe that every big company is out to take advantage of its employees, then you probably would not be well suited at a firm that only handles employment law on the management side.
Does the environment provide the right opportunity for you to grow and develop? Is the leadership supportive of associates marketing and growing their practice? Do you see a clear path toward advancing to partner or the next level of employment?
Does the environment provide the support for your life outside of the office? As a new lawyer, it's easy to dive into work without any consideration for the people at home, your community involvement, or your personal relaxation and health needs.
Once you've been in practice for a while, these things may start to come back. If you intend to be with an employer for a long period of time (which, hopefully, you do or you should seriously reconsider why you're taking the job), then think seriously about what life will look like 5, 10, 15 years from now and consider whether the environment suits those needs.
While the list certainly could go on and on, I offer one final consideration and I'm providing this last because, in spite of the fact that it would appear to be the most critical question, I'm not convinced that it is:
What area of law are you most interested in practicing?
While I do believe that this question is critical for some people, I ended up loving the area of the law that I came to best understand.
For me, it was purely by accident. I was deciding between tax and more general business when I interviewed with my first firm – a boutique labor and employment law firm.
I had heard great things about the firm and thought I would go see what they had to say. I chose the firm because it met all of my requirements under the items above. It was not, however, the area of law I thought I was interested in. As it turns out, my choice was right.
After clerking the summer after my first year and growing to have a real understanding of some of the areas of employment law, I found that I was drawn to it because I knew it – I liked what I knew.
With my new found enjoyment of my area of practice, I had the perfect combination – an area I enjoyed and a great firm.
So, my suggestion is to keep an open mind as to the specific area of law and look at the whole package the employer has to offer instead.
Going back to the third-year law student who was willing to take whatever job she could get and say whatever was needed to get that job: don't. There are a lot of options available to practice your skills and bolster your resume while you look for the perfect fit.
In almost any city there is a website providing volunteer opportunities. Although it may be difficult financially to hold out for the perfect job, it will be worth it.
Cindy L. Fryda who graduated from Marquette Law School in 2003, is a labor and employment attorney at The Schroeder Group S.C., Attorneys at Law. She started out working at a boutique labor and employment law firm, then she handled labor and employment issues for a $3.5 billion publicly traded company. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.