Thanks to Peter Daines for contributing this article
Most law firms—especially large law firms—hire entry level associates almost exclusively through their summer associate programs. Most summer associate hiring is typically accomplished through a formal on-campus interview program.
Most law students don’t start working in a law firm until their second summer of law school (instead, unpaid internships in government or nonprofit entities are common). However, many law firms maintain 1L summer associate programs that are targeted at either diverse students or a small number of students with outstanding first semester grades. In addition, some smaller or midsized firms are willing to hire 1L summer associates.
Note that almost any 1L summer position whether paid or not will be offered after considering only your first semester of law school grades.
If you want to work in a law firm when you graduate from law school, you typically need to work in a law firm during your 2L summer. Most firms (especially large firms) hire entry-level associates almost exclusively through their summer associate programs. Even if you do not want to work at the same firm after you graduate, your job prospects when interviewing with other firms will increase markedly if they see that you worked at another similar firm during your previous summer, especially if you have an outstanding offer to return.
Law firms typically hire 2L summer associates through a formal on-campus interviewing program that is conducted during your 1L summer, and hiring decisions are largely based on your 1L grades (along with your interview performance, of course).
Most law students only have two summers because law school is typically a three-year experience. But if you happen to be pursuing a joint-degree program or have other special circumstances, you may end up with additional summers in need of a job. Unfortunately, your law school is unlikely to offer a special interviewing program just for students in your position, but you may still have some decent options:
- Get a job at your 2L summer associate firm. If you worked at a firm during the prior summer and you didn’t screw anything up, then there is a good chance that they will extend an offer for you to come back and work there full time. Of course, if they want you to work there full time, then there is a good chance that they would be happy to have you for another summer first.
- 2L summer associate on-campus interviews. Your law school may well let you participate in the 2L summer associate on-campus interview process again. If you don’t already have another job lined up, it is probably worth pursuing, but don’t hold your breath. It will almost certainly be awkward. You will be surrounded by younger students. You will be competing with traditional students as a non-traditional student while being judged by a conservative profession. You will be asked to explain your situation to every law firm you interview with, and you will be asking them to make an exception. If they have a perfectly good traditional candidate available, then they are not likely to make an exception for you.
- Snag the leftovers. A few weeks after on-campus interviews have concluded, many firms will have sent out offers, and some of those offers will have been declined (because many firms tend to all offer jobs to the same top tier of candidates, who are then forced to accept only one). In some cases, the firms whose offers were declined will send out new offers to back-up candidates, but those backup candidates may have already accepted offers at other firms, or may not be attractive. Rather than send out an offer letter to another candidate who may no longer be available, and who may not be that attractive anyways, or worse yet, start up an active job search, a firm may be particularly susceptible in that moment to a carefully timed cover letter and resume from a perfectly acceptable candidate who is definitely still available.
- Direct applications. Firms are businesses. Businesses sometimes need additional employees at a particular time for a variety of reasons—they got an influx of new work in a particular area, they had some employees quit or be fired, etc. Firms will eventually post job listings, but at that point, they have opened the floodgates and resumes come pouring in. You should absolutely apply to any acceptable job postings that you come across, but don’t be afraid to also send your resume along with a carefully-tailored cover letter to each firm in the market that you are interested in. You can typically find contact information for an appropriate HR recipient on each firm’s website. Another useful resource is nalpdirectory.com.
Your law school may have an on-campus interview program, but these are generally fairly limited at this stage, and I would not recommend assuming that you will be able to find a job through it.
What can you do?
- Send your resume along with a tailored cover letter to the recruiting contact listed on the “basic information” page of each appropriate firm’s nalpdirectory.com page.
- Check job listings on firm websites.
- Check job listings on your law school’s job board.
Don’t bother with recruiters. They generally are not interested in entry-level candidates with no law firm experience. In-house counsel jobs are typically only available once you have 4+ years of experience.
Strongly consider jobs outside of large firms. Mid-level and small firms may be more open to hiring outside of the summer associate track. Government positions could be a possibility, but they may be highly selective based on your GPA (depending on the position and the level of government), they may require you to apply well in advance of your start date, they may not pay well relative to a firm, and they may or may not have good exit opportunities.
It is critical that you not allow yourself to become “unemployed” for any period of time. Any job is better than no job at all. If you become unemployed for a period of time, no matter what law school you attended or how well you did there, it will be a black mark on your record that you will struggle to explain in future interviews if you ever want to move back into a selective law firm or any other selective environment. Law firms will generally assume that you were unemployed because either 1) you did not really want to work in a firm, 2) you do not have hustle—and thus will not have hustle when working in their firm, 3) you have something wrong with you which repelled the firms that you interviewed with previously, or something else that is generally uncharitable. In short, you will need to be able to explain what you were doing during any given timeframe in a way that makes sense and does not raise problematic questions about your candidacy if do not want to have to fight tooth and nail to make your way back into a law firm environment.
Lateral (including post-clerkship or post-LL.M.)
Lateral candidates generally have two options: 1) contact firms directly (in response to specific ads, or by sending a resume and cover letter directly to the recruiting contact listed on nalpdirectory.com for each desired firm), or 2) use a recruiter. Occasionally, law schools will have specialized interview programs that are available to post-clerkship or post-LL.M. candidates
There are two kinds of recruiters: 1) persons who identify job openings, locate potential candidates, submit their application materials for them, and then collect a payoff if it pans out, and 2) professionals who will discuss the market and your position with you holistically, review your resume, give you interview advice, help you identify and vet firms, submit your materials to the firms identified, follow up with those firms after your interviews, etc. Of course, within both categories, you will find recruiters that are more or less talented, and more or less knowledgeable about your specific area of the law.
I won’t tell you whether or not to use a recruiter. Just keep in mind that if a recruiter submits your application on your behalf, then any job offer the firm gives you will require them to pay a hefty fee to that recruiter (think 5% or 10% of your annual salary). That may affect their hiring (and signing bonus) decisions.