Monday, February 13, 2006

"I'm Not in the Top Ten Percent! I'll Never Get Hired!"

It's that time of year when 1L's encounter on-campus interview schedules for the first time.  For most (about 85% of the class), it isn't a pleasant experience.  Many of the interviewers expect to see and to hire primarily those in the top 15% of the class, and the message to everyone else is clear:  if you are not in the top 15% after the first semester, you can forget about getting a job for this summer and probably ever.

Of course, that message is neither intended by anyone nor accurate; but it seems a sensible conclusion to the students outside looking in on the campus interviews.  They simply don't have enough information about how the profession operates to draw any other conclusion.

For that reason, I like to take a moment with my first-year students and explain a couple of things about law firm economics.  I ask them, "If you are in a law firm with 300 attorneys and you send one of them to interview all day at a law school, what percentage of billable hours has your firm lost for the day?"  Answer:  less than 1%.

Then I ask, "If you are in a firm with only five attorneys and you send one of them to interview all day at a law school, what percentage of billable hours has your firm lost for the day?"  Answer: 20%.

Finally, "If 90% of lawyers did not graduate in the top 10% of their classes, where do you suppose they are while the big firms are interviewing on campus?"  Answer: working on things that generate billable hours.

In other words, I tell my students, on-campus interviewing is not routinely conducted by the firms that employ most of the attorneys out there because those firms are not large enough to justify the loss of billable hours.  Billable hours are how law firms and lawyers make their money, so they expend their time in efficient ways.  Sitting over in the law school interviewing for one or two clerks is not really particularly efficient.

So how do they find clerks and future associates?  They do it through networking.  Someone knows that someone else is looking for a clerk and puts a student in touch with the hiring firm.

After that explanation, I have them do a couple of short exercises that are good for their confidence and are practical ways to start a job search.

Excercise 1

First, I have them make a list right then and there of all the lawyers and judges they know.  The lists are usually very short.

Second, I have them make a list of all the people they know who might have an attorney.  I remind them that people who own businesses, people who have wills and trusts, people who have been injured, people who have adopted children, people who have been divorced all may have attorneys.  That list is longer.

Third, I have them circle five people on that list whom they could comfortably call and say, "I am in law school and would like to get together with people in the practice and pick their brains about opportunities in the law, including summer clerkships.  Would you mind if called your attorney and, using your name as an introduction, asked the attorney to lunch?" 

I tell them to then contact each attorney, ask her to lunch, and keep the conversation focused on opportunities "out there."  Don't put her on the spot and ask for a job (attorneys are bright enough to know what you want and will broach that subject if they think you may be a fit); but take along several copies of your resume in case the attorney says that she knows several lawyers who might need help and that she would be happy to send your resume along.  Be prepared to write down the names of attorneys she thinks you should talk to, using her name as an introduction.

The strategy gets them out of the doldrums, tells them that there are many more jobs out there than would be apparent from on-campus interview lists, and gives them a practical way to start using the contacts they already have but hadn't thought about.

Excercise 2

Another exercise I like first-years to do is to brainstorm all of the strengths they would bring to the practice of law.  They have to brainstorm freely and widely, thinking about experiences, character qualities, skills, and other attributes.  The key to this exercise is free association:  they must list as fast as they can anything that comes to mind, whether it is accurate or not.

I then have them pick the top three strengths that they believe are most accurate about themselves and have some possible transfer into the world of legal practice.  For each, they spend about five minutes free writing (brainstorming in prose) about why that strength will serve them well in the practice.  At the end of each free writing, they are to reread it and distill it into one or two sentences that capture the essence of what they have said.  They keep those musings to review before they go into any interview.

They tend to surprise themselves in this exercise.  One third-year student came to me a couple of years ago and said that he had an interview with a litigation firm and that he had no idea what to tell a potential employer that would set him apart from other candidates.  Law was a second career, and his first was spent as a fire fighter and gave him no skills to transfer to law; he had no business training or other traditional professional skills.

I had him brainstorm out loud the skills and character qualities he had to have in order to be a fire fighter.  He discovered that he knew how to keep his head and think clearly in the midst of chaos; he knew how to make critical decisions when lives were on the line and there was little time to think; he knew how to function as part of a team, holding up his end and trusting colleagues to hold up theirs when the chips were down; he knew how to put his personal safety, comfort, and convenience aside when another person was in desperate need of his skills; he knew how to subdue fear when someone else needed him to do his job under dangerous, stressful conditions; he knew how to show up every day, tired or not, motivated or not, because others depended upon him; he knew how to take control of a situation that was by definition out of control. 

The list went on like that.  All I had to do was have him connect the dots to a busy legal practice.  He realized that even the busiest legal practice would never present challenges to match the stress or the rapid-fire, life-and-death decisions he had routinely made for years as a fire fighter.  He realized that he had skills and character qualities his younger colleagues at the school hadn't lived long enough or had the opportunities to develop. 

And he got the job.

Sometimes, all you have to do is help them see what is already there. (dbw)

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