Developing Legal Experience

Day Students

Information Gathering

The initial and most important step in developing legal experience is self-assessment.  While it is not necessary to have a crystal clear picture of the type of law you would like to practice, it is important to explore the many legal career options that are available and to begin to evaluate the kind of work environments, clients, and lifestyle which will bring you job satisfaction.  It is a time to assess yourself honestly to determine what type of employer is best suited to your skills and interests.

You can start the assessment process by setting up a counseling appointment with one of the career strategists in the Career Services Office.  Read through the general career planning guides and reference materials which are available in the Career Services Document Library, located in our Symplicity system.  Also, plan to conduct informational interviews by talking with practicing attorneys who work in a variety of legal specialties and with different types of employers.  Each of these experiences will help you identify your career goals and find an employer who matches your skills and interests.

Options for Developing Practical Legal Experience

Employers seek candidates for permanent positions who possess the potential to perform well on the job.  How is this potential demonstrated?  Generally, legal employers are interested in two indicators: 1) academic performance and 2) practical legal experience.  Well prepared law students recognize these important factors and use their three or four years of law school to build their credentials.

Eighty percent of any class do not wind up in the top twenty percent, yet do become employed!  When academic credentials are not stellar, practical experience becomes even more important.  Therefore, the more legal experience you gain while you are in law school, the more you will have to market to prospective employers looking for new associates.  Keep in mind that you have two summers and two full years to develop legal experience.

There are a variety of ways to develop legal experience.  Consider all of the following options:

  1. Law Clerks and Research Clerks: The most obvious way to develop practical experience is by working at a law firm.  See the "Timing of Applications for Summer Law Clerk Positions" section below for suggested application procedures to law firms of different sizes.
  2. The Law Offices of Chicago-Kent College of Law: This clinical program offers students the opportunity to work in the criminal, civil, alternative dispute resolution or tax divisions, or the Advice Desk.  Read the Record and check out the Legal Help Clinic for announcements regarding registration for the clinical program.
  3. Externship Program: After completing first year, students are eligible to enroll in the Externship Program.  They have the opportunity to work within a private or public, civil or criminal environment, under a supervising attorney and Professor Vivien Gross, who administers this program.
  4. Judicial Externship Program: Through this program, which is also administered by Professor Vivien Gross, students gain experience and view the judicial process from the perspective of the bench.  Those who are interested in serving as judicial law clerks following graduation from law school will find the externship experience valuable and essential to meeting their goal, especially if undertaken during the summer of their first year or the fall term of the second year.  Professor Gross announces application procedures in the Record each semester.
  5. Research Assistants: Many faculty members hire students to assist them during the summer and during the academic terms, and they announce open positions in the Record.  Developing good relationships with faculty members can be helpful to your career development.  Faculty members who are familiar with your legal abilities can tell prospective employers about your skills.  They can also serve as an excellent resource, sharing networking contacts and job market information.
  6. Federal Work StudySome students gain legal experience by working for community-based governmental and public interest organizations and are compensated through this program. Note that there are limitations on funding and organizations where students are allowed to work. Please follow the link for more information and a list of community-based organizations currently in the program.
  7. Volunteer: Consider volunteering or interning for a government or public interest organization.  Many of these offices do not have the budget to hire law clerks, but can provide you with excellent experience.  To identify employers in this category, utilize the back section of Sullivan's Law Directory and the various government, and public interest directories available in the Career Services Resource Library. For an onine resource, visit Illinois Pro Bono.org and click on the "Directory" tab to find places where you can volunteer, visit the Public Interest Resource Center at Chicago-Kent, or the Career Services Office public interest webpages. The few agencies that do have funding for salaries frequently post positions in the Career Services Office job postings, but opportunities to work for credit or as a volunteer will also be posted there.
  8. Corporate Legal Department: Although a few corporations list positions in Symplicity, It may be wise to request an informational interview as an initial contact.
  9. Study Abroad: Study Abroad programs are offered by most law schools in a number of locations.  The optimum time to consider participating in a study abroad program is the summer of your first year in law school.  The Career Services Office receives announcements beginning in January, which are filed in the gray files in the office.

Timing of Applications For Summer Law Clerk Positions

1. Large Law Firms: If you are interested in clerking for the large (100 + attorney) law firms during the summer following your first year in law school, the best time to send your resume and cover letter is during the month of December.  At that point, the large firms who participate in structured recruiting programs have completed the major portion of "fall recruiting" (which is geared towards 2L and 3L students) and begin to think about first year students.

If you have contacts at any of the large law firms, talk to them.  If you do not have a foot in the door, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) publishes a list of large firms that will consider 1L applications.  The NALP National Directory of Legal Employers will help you identify the hiring partner or recruiting coordinator to whom you will address your letter.

Competition for the few positions in very large firms is national and extremely fierce.  It is the exception, rather than the rule, for 1L's to find summer employment within the large law firms.Your best shot at getting employment at these firms is by participating in the Fall Interview Program during the fall of your second year of law school.  At that time, the firms are interviewing second year students for summer positions following that academic year.  The large law firms typically have strict hiring credentials based on academic performance.  Keep in mind, however; that the large law firms are only one small piece of the legal job market.

2. Mid-Sized Law Firms: Those students who are interested in the mid-sized law firms (25-50+ attorneys) may write to these firms in December and January.  Some of the firms may know their hiring needs at that point, but most will interview students during the spring.  Use the Chicago Area Law Firm List (available in Symplicity) and Martindale.Hubbell (www.Martindale.com) to identify the firms.  Call the firm to request the name of the hiring partner, and then send a cover letter and resume.  Follow up your letter with a phone call approximately ten days after you've sent your letter.  You will probably find that competition is stiff, since there aren't many firms in this category.

3. Small Law Firms: Students interested in the small firm (2 - 25 attorneys) will find that while these firms represent the bulk of the market, many will not know their hiring needs until April or May.  Most of the firms that post listings in the Career Services Office are in this category.  Few of these firms hire early in the spring semester.  In hopes of finding the handful that do, you can start writing to these firms beginning in January, but many firms will ask you to reapply later in the spring.  The only way to uncover the small firms that hire during the winter months is for you to begin the process early.

The peak hiring times for small firms tends to be in April, May and June.  Again, use the Chicago Area Law Firm List (in Symplicity) and Martindale-Hubbell (www.Martindale.com) to target firms which practice in the areas of your interests. 

4. Government Agencies and Public Interest Organizations: The best time to begin investigating these opportunities is at the end of the fall semester.  You will need time to research, network and schedule informational interviews. Every year in late fall, a "Meet the Public Interest Employer" reception, is held at Loyola Law School. In November, students sign up to attend the Midwest Public Interest Law Conference (MPILCC), held every year in February at Northwestern Law School, where students can meet and interview with public interest employers. Starting in December, first year law students can apply for a position through the Public Interest Law Initiative (PILI) that includes the possibility of a grant of summer funding. Increasing numbers of students have expressed interest in volunteering for these types of employers so it is best to begin your planning early.  Make sure to check online, as many government organizations and some public interest organizations have extensive websites. Visit the 1L Career Planning Guide for links to these various opportunities.

Job Search Strategies

1.  Job Postings: Located at the Career Services Office Symplicity site (password required).  Summer clerking positions are listed separately from part and full-time clerking positions. 

2. The Hidden Job Market: It may surprise you that less than fifty percent of jobs found by Chicago-Kent students were actually advertised.  Often, employers find no need to advertise an opening since candidates can be found within the organization, through contacts, through unsolicited resumes or by word of mouth.  Tapping into the hidden market requires a great deal of work and stamina.  Yet, there are a wealth of opportunities available through this means.

  • Network, network, network.  Do not underestimate the power of friends, relatives, former employers, alumnae/i and other contacts.  Most jobs are found through word of mouth, so you must plug into as many of these opportunities as possible.  Don't overlook the obvious:  classmates, professors, community members and organizations to which you belong.  Also consider speaking with Chicago-Kent Alumni about their positions and how they obtained their jobs.  The contacts you make through networking may not be in a position to offer you a job, but they may open doors to potential jobs or to other people who can be helpful.
  • Your contacts will help you set up informational interviews.  These are a great way to gather information and meet persons practicing in your area of interest.  Remember to be open-ended in your discussions.  Gather information and always ask your contacts for names and numbers of other persons you should meet.  Remember to ask permission to refer to them as your source.  See the CSO website for more detailed information about informational interviewing.

Keep the Job Search in Perspective

Paid legal employment--and occasionally even volunteer internships--can be difficult to find the summer after the first year of law school.  Remember that when employers respond to your application by saying that the job is filled, it does not necessarily mean that you were too late in applying.  Summer clerking opportunities filled by early January have probably been filled by 2L students hired through fall interviewing programs or continuing a clerking position started in the fall term.  Most employers would prefer hiring students with two years rather than one year of law school experience.  In some instances openings are filled very early on with relatives or law students who are contacts of attorneys at the organization.

Once You Have the Job. . .

Once you have landed your clerking position your goal is to gain as much substantive legal experience as possible.  If you've accepted a "general" clerking position which requires you to perform primarily administrative or clerical duties, perform these to the best of your ability.  Learn how the office is managed, how a law firm works, how to file documents in the courts.  After you have mastered these duties you may wish to request additional responsibilities.

Be sure that you are challenged, that you are learning and building your level of experience and confidence.  If it becomes clear that you will not be given increasingly substantive assignments, it may be time to think of moving to a new job.  Remember that the way to prove your real potential to the firm is by performing "lawyering" tasks.  If the firm is uninterested in discovering your professional potential, find a firm that will.

Students must also be aware of their limitations.  As a law clerk you are not licensed to practice law.  Therefore, you may not handle any task which can not be further reviewed by a licensed attorney or which is considered to be advisory and will impact a client.  In the past, students have occasionally been asked to perform tasks for which they are not qualified or licensed.  Protect yourself from future professional difficulties by knowing your limits.  If you have any questions regarding the appropriateness of specific assignments, talk to Professors Vivien Gross.

We Wish You Luck As Your Develop Your Legal Career!

The Career Services Office is here to help!  If you are following the suggestions listed and don't see results, or feel that something is not going well with your search, make an appointment to meet with a career strategist in the Career Services Office.  You can make an appointment by stopping by suite 360, calling 312/906-5200 or e-mailing us at kentcso@kentlaw.iit.edu.

 

Evening Students

As an evening student, you face a special set of challenges.  You are required to devote countless hours and an amazing amount of energy to preparing for law school classes, synthesizing classroom material, preparing writing assignments and studying for exams, while continuing your high level of performance at your current job.  Chances are that you are involved in balancing these expectations with a demanding personal life.  The prospect of taking on another task can be daunting. . . .

Yet the legal community expects evening students to take on another challenge during their law school years: the challenge of developing practical legal experience.  Legal employers want to hire you with the confidence that you can apply the skills you've learned in law school to the legal task at hand.  They want to know that the excellence you've demonstrated in your current career will extend beyond the law school classroom and into the practice of law.  They want to see proof that, given a legal job, you'll hit the ground running.

Due to your unique circumstances, we suggest that you meet with a career strategist in our office as early in your legal education as possible.  The Career Services Office offers evening appointments by appointment throughout the year.  We will help you tailor your job search strategy and identify ways you can complement your professional experience with experience in the legal community.  In addition, you'll want to revise your resume and incorporate either law related work you currently perform or identify transferable skills that you want to market to legal employers.

Below are a number of creative ways evening students can develop practical experience.  No matter what your situation, meet with your Career Advisor to discuss all your options.  The Career Services Office has evening hours on Tuesdays, but your assigned advisor will always work with you to find a time to meet that is convenient for your schedule.  Phone appointments are also available.   We're here to help!

  • Work with your current employer.  To the extent possible, work with your current employer to gain legal experience.  Some things to consider: 
    • Legal Departments: If your employer has an in house legal team, consider asking for projects from the department, or to be reassigned as a member of that team.  If neither option is viable, consider building relationships with department members through informational interviews.
    • Sabbaticals:  Students have been able to obtain sabbaticals from some employers, whether for a semester or eight week summer session, allowing them to take on outside legal work or participate in clinics.
    • Flexible Work Schedules:  Rearranging your hours by coming in later, leaving earlier, taking long lunches, etc. can provide additional opportunities.  For example, a 4 day work week with longer hours per day allows you to use one free weekday to gain practical experience.
    • Strengthen your "legal" skill set: Seek out research, drafting, and analytical project opportunities at your current job, developing strong transferable skills.
  • Volunteer: Volunteer your time to a public interest group or government agency.  You'll develop practical legal skills and relationships with attorneys who will attest to your legal abilities.  Contact organizations in which you are interested to learn whether they have evening or weekend hours. Two good places to look for volunteer opportunities are Illinois Pro Bono and Chicago-Kent's Public Interest Resource Center. At Illinois Pro Bono, click on the "Directory" tab to identify legal aid organizations. Click on the organization you are interested in to find out if they take volunteers. Chicago-Kent's Public Interest Resource Center produces a newsletter, "Public Interest Matters", which lists volunteer opportunities.
  • Utilize Your Networks: Evening students often have naturally occurring networks, whether through their current employment, a neighborhood or condo association, parent-teacher associations, non-profit involvement, or government board membership.  Let your networks know about your transition to a legal career as many opportunities develop through such casual conversations.
  • Informational Interviews:  If your schedule is too packed to allow you to gain any direct legal experience, informational interviewing becomes a crucial tool for gathering information to sound knowledgeable to prospective employers.  Learn what issues are central to your practice areas of interest, and what kind of experience employers are seeking so you will know how to counter concerns about any lack of direct experience.  Once you are ready to look for a legal job, talking with practitioners, classmates, alums, etc. will make you aware of position openings and meet persons with the ability to assist you in your career goals. Informational interviews can also accommodate your schedule in that you can contact persons by phone or e-mail, and then follow-up with a meeting (perhaps during your lunch hour).
  • Work for a law firm: Working part-time or on a project basis for a law firm will help you develop the on-the-job skills that are important to success in law practice.  Ask attorneys about specific assignment work; you may be able to draft motions, briefs, etc. and work on other matters on your own time, making adjustments for your current work schedule.  Some evening students opt to find full-time employment as a law clerk or paralegal for a law firm during their four years in law school.  This is an excellent means of acquiring practical legal experience.  In some instances, employers have offered attorney positions to their clerks or paralegals, once they have completed law school.
  • Faculty Research Assistant: Students hired for these positions assist professors with their current research.  The assistantship can give you the chance to sharpen your research and writing skills and develop closer contact with a faculty member who is researching one of your areas of interest.  And, many professors are willing to accommodate evening students' schedules.  During the legal job search, it can be very helpful to have a faculty member who has worked closely with you speak about your analytical and writing ability.  Faculty members can be excellent networking contacts as well.
  • Chicago-Kent's Clinical and Externship Programs: Though clinical and advanced externship programs require a commitment during daytime work hours, some evening students have been able to arrange a clinical schedule around their current employment. The summer term is only eight weeks long, and may work better for your schedule.
    • The Law Offices of Chicago-Kent offers in-house work on real cases in a variety of practice areas.  All provide an excellent opportunity to develop practical experience and earn credit.
    • Judicial Externship Program allows students the unique opportunity of acting as a "junior law clerk" for a judge.  The externship provides you with the opportunity to see the judicial system first hand, to better understand judicial process, and to gain hands-on experience drafting opinions and doing research.  Although most judges will require that you take time away from your daily responsibilities, some judges and their clerks are flexible in scheduling in-chamber meetings and some of the research and writing can be done at night or on weekends. A summer externship may offer more flexible scheduling.
    • Legal Externship Program, another clinical program, gives you the opportunity to work for a law firm, corporate law department, or government agency for the period of one semester.  It's a great way to make contacts and learn about one of the legal fields in which you're most interested.
  • Bar association activities: Become an active committee member through one of the many available bar associations.  As a committee member, you can network and work side-by-side with attorneys who practice in the areas of law in which you are interested.  The Chicago Bar Association has committees in over 70 practice groups that meet during the lunch hour at the CBA's downtown headquarters.  Suburban bar associations are great options for students working outside Chicago, and have active and involved members.  Visit our website for a listing of bar associations in the Chicago area.
  • Write an article: Write a law-related article for publication in a legal or non-legal journal.  An article is a great way to show a prospective employer that you have a sincere interest in a particular area of law.  Legal employers recognize the time and commitment that go into writing a publishable article.  Publishing an article can help you transition from your current career to your legal career by demonstrating your high degree of interest in and level of commitment to the legal profession.
  • Attend Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Classes:  CLE courses cover a wide range of practice areas and topics, and can assist you in building knowledge of specific legal areas.  In person courses also offer great networking opportunities with attorneys in careers that interest you.  Webcast CLEs are convenient for busy schedules, and students can often get discounted rates or attend for free. 
  • Making the leap to legal employment:  Whether you maintain your current employment throughout your time at Chicago-Kent, choose to pursue a new position through OCI, Symplicity postings or other contacts, or move to the full time division, you need to make a plan for your transition to legal employment.  Meet early and often with your Career Advisor to discuss all your options and develop the career