Friday, July 22, 2016

How to Gain Legal Experience While in Law School

As we creep up on fall and get closer and closer to orientation season, I have decided to write a series of posts on law school to help all the soon to be newbie law students out there. As a rising 3L, I finally feel like I have finally gotten this whole law school thing figured out and if I can help others figure it out quicker than I did, I'm happy to help. 

When I started law school, I had absolutely zero legal experience. Plenty of experience in the medical field but that no longer seemed relevant. Because of this, one of my main goals going into my 1L year was to gain as much experience as I could. Two years later, I think I have done a pretty decent job. I have interned with a judge, interned with a governmental agency, clerked for a law firm and had both an office job and a RA job on campus. Both of which related to the field I want to practice in after graduation.

I think it helps when you have a strong idea of what field you want to practice in but it's not necessary. If you don't know what you want to do after graduation, try to get a wide variety of experience instead of focusing as narrowly as I did. Heck, it'll probably be even easier to find ways to gain experience.

1L Year -

Many people think that during your first year of law school, it is impossible to gain legal experience because you are forbidden (usually) from working. However, most law schools have a pro bono requirement for graduation and the best time to fulfill those hours is during your 1L year. During later years, you may have an internship or law clerk job and a full class load and you may not have the time to add pro bono to that. Plus, when it comes time to apply for a summer job or internship, you really want something legal already on your resume because many of your classmates will have nothing but part-time retail or restaurant work during college.

By the end of my first year, I had almost 70 pro bono hours completed and half of them were legal. I volunteered for legal research at the clerks office where I researched statutes that defined their duties and requirements. I interviewed a client and wrote a will which you can read about HERE and HERE. Oh and I also volunteered with a program and prepared peoples taxes. All of those programs were offered or publicized through my school but very few 1L's took advantage of them. With the will event, I was the only 1L to participate. And yes, I was asked about it in every interview I have had since then. Every one. I am about to start my 3L year and many of my classmates have just started to think about getting their pro bono hours. At this point, I have almost 300 pro bono hours and all of those hours have paid off by giving me contacts within the legal field. It's even better than networking events except you don't get the free booze.

1L Summer -

Finding a legal job for the summer following my 1L year was one of the things I was most stressed about. All 1L students were advised to get something legal on their resume, no matter what. I knew that I needed to be paid to pay my rent but I really wanted to intern with a judge, which doesn't pay you. So I managed to split those requirements into two part time jobs. Two to three days a week, I worked at my school's elder law office and the other two days, I interned with a guardianship magistrate.  I got two items on my resume in one summer. Score!

I started off my job search by visiting my Career Services department and following the advice they gave me. They looked over my resume and pretty much covered it in red ink but I changed everything they said to change and sent it back. Three times. Then I had to decide whether to pursue a judicial internship through the school or privately. If I went through the school, they found them for me and I just had to apply. However, it also meant I had to pay tuition for the privilege and had specific hour requirements. If I tried to get one privately, I would have to do all the work to find one on my own but had more control on hours. Because my scholarship does not cover the summer semester, it made much more sense to look for one privately. I didn't have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free and I could limit it to two days a week so I could work for pay the other days. Of course, the idea of trying to find one by myself, also filled me with terror but I pulled on my girl pants and got to work.

I first researched all the court systems within a comfortable drive and wrote down all the departments I was interested in working in. For me, that was mostly within the probate courts. Then I researched each of those departments/judges for the different counties near me and found the email addresses for their legal assistants. Yes, those email addresses were all found thanks to Google. Yay Google. I then emailed the various legal assistants with a cover letter asking about their policies for applying to be a summer internship (making sure to use the research I did so it was apparent it was not a mass email). Then I waited. Within a week, I had received a request for a resume from one county and from another, I was sent an application. Then I waited again. Eventually, I was given the news that I had been placed with a guardianship magistrate and I was good to go! And just in case you are under the mistaken impression that I am some perfect person that never does dumb things, read THIS. I managed to get a judicial internship after answering the phone with "wuugaaaackkk!" and giving the legal assistant an incorrect email address. How awkward can I be? (Don't answer that.)

Talking to my classmates, many had a similar approach to finding a summer job with a law firm. If they didn't have a local resource to tap, they researched local firms they were interested in and started calling or emailing. Some worked for free while others got paid but most who put in the work, found a place.

I found the paid job at the elder law office at my school on accident but I couldn't have planned it better if I had tried. Since I knew exactly what field I wanted to go into, I made sure to introduce myself to the employees and professors at the beginning of the year. I would often go to the events they put on for students and I made it clear that I was interested in what they do. Shortly after the Will event I volunteered for, the coordinator offered me a job in the office. It was a combination of receptionist work and legal research for the professors and it PAID. I was sold.

2L Year -

The same professors who worked in the elder law office, got me my government agency internship for my 2L year. Because they knew I was interested in elder law, when an opportunity came up for an elder abuse internship, they passed on my name. I was actually contacted by the agency and invited to intern for them. I didn't need to apply or compete with other students for the job because it wasn't even open to the public. Sweet deal.

If you have an interest in a field, even before you can take classes on that subject (thanks mandatory 1L classes) GO TALK TO THOSE PROFESSORS and let them know you are interested in that field of law. Not only do they know enough about a topic to teach it, they know all the people who practice in that area. Seriously, if I had known how beneficial it was, I would have done it on purpose. I know dozens of people who have gotten job interviews thanks to a professor reaching out for them.

Later on, I was contacted by a professor I was taking a class with and asked to be their RA. Since I was dead broke, I accepted so fast it made my head spin. By chance, my professor was literally writing the textbook for our class as we went along so I basically got paid to prep for finals as I researched for and edited her casebook. It was awesome.

2L Summer -

My first approach to my 2L summer was OCR but in the end, that didn't work out for me. Since I'm so focused on elder law, and those are basically all small firms, there were very few OCR firms I wanted to apply for. I did get a few interviews from it but I did not get any offers. You win some and you lose some. In this case, I lost. As we got closer and closer to summer, I started to freak out a bit. I let everyone I knew know that I was looking for a summer job and ideally, I would love something to do with elder law. I ended up getting two leads on elder law attorneys looking for a clerk so I emailed them. One ended up going to a friend but the other was exactly what I was looking for and it paid really well. I interviewed with them and I got hired right before finals and I couldn't be more pleased with it. The only downside is that there is no chance of a permanent offer because they are not planning on expanding anytime soon. The pitfalls of small firms. Sigh

Once summer hit, I started getting emails from people looking for a student interested in elder law. Once again, by making my interests clear, people passed on my name when a job offer was mentioned. Of course, I already had a job lined up but it really made me calm down knowing it wasn't as last minute as I thought it was.

3L Year -

Although my 3L year hasn't technically started yet, I already know what legal experience I am doing for the fall semester. I applied for the local elder law clinic  and thanks to all my previous work, I ended up getting accepted. Since it is during the fall, my scholarship isn't effected and I get credits for doing it. That means I can take less classes. Sweet! The way clinics work in Florida is that the Florida Bar certifies that I have cleared the character and fitness test and I will actually get to legally practice law (under an attorney's supervision). How is that not the best legal experience possible?

Final Thoughts -

If you look over all the various ways I gained legal experience, they all involved putting myself out there. I'm a classic introvert so I know how very un-fun it can be but 90 percent of my experience came from taking opportunities others weren't. By choosing to take part in pro bono activities in a field I was interested in, I not only got legal experience but I was able to interact with the people who work in that field. Those interactions later led to job offers. I got my judicial internship by taking the time to use Google and contacting perfect strangers to ask for a job. None of this is in my normal comfort level but I made it work.

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