How to Establish Yourself Post-Law School

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Law school is unquestionably a great step towards a fruitful and fulfilling career. Lawyers perform needed tasks for the public, serve respected positions in the government, and help to uphold our justice system. But establishing yourself as a new and respected lawyer is no easy task.

Like most careers, practicing law demands experience. General practice firms are more difficult to come by all the time. These days, most lawyers specialize in a particular area of law and build up experience and knowledge before tackling higher profile, more complicated cases. So how does a new JD graduate break into such a specialized career?

Why we’re asking:

After spending seven (plus) years in post-secondary education, law school graduates are more than ready to start their career. But we know it is never that easy. We are looking to our successful legal resources for advice for new graduates to ease their immersion into the work force.

We look to our Legal Resources to learn more:

How do you establish yourself post-law school?

How do you draw attention in an already established firm?

Is it a good idea to start your own firm immediately upon graduation?

How much experience should new lawyers accumulate before they are considered “specialized”?

We look forward to hearing your advice for recent graduates!

Legal resources, please post your answers in the comment field below!

10 COMMENTS

  1. I want to preface this with saying that I have been practicing law for over 30 years. I have practiced as a solo practitioner, in a small firm, as in-house general counsel and with the largest law firm in MN. When I graduated, the market was dismal and it was said that no one was hiring inexperienced lawyers. Impossible to find a job they said. Yet, we did. I hear the same thing today, as I have throughout the last 30 years. Nonsense, I say. Be creative. Figure it out. Ask for help. Go get it!

    How do you establish yourself post-law school?

    Do your best to find clarity about what you want to do. Find something you
    love and dig in. Volunteer. Write articles. Attend bar-sponsored seminars
    and webinars. Informational interview attorneys and clients in that field.
    Ask a lot of questions and network. Not networking in the sense of always
    seeking a connection to a job, but in the sense of genuine curiosity and
    interest in your field. How can you learn more without a lot of expense?
    Who can you talk with? Can you shadow someone? Can you help with details
    on putting on a seminar. Can you volunteer to do some legwork for a bar
    committee? Essentially, define what you want, be curious, and go after it.
    And, let go and trust the process. Mom used to say, “follow your nose.”
    She was right!

    How do you draw attention in an already established firm?

    In an established firm, you draw attention by doing incredibly great work,
    going the extra mile and billing like a maniac. Creative, workable
    solutions are also appreciated. Also, take your time to identify at least
    two really good mentors who may not necessarily be in your department. If
    you are a woman, other women mentors are a must!!! – both within your firm
    and outside your firm.

    The following is the best advice I have ever received from one of my
    mentors is to observe your bosses and think about what would be helpful to
    you if you were in her or his position. Approach your work always keeping
    that in mind. What would make your bosses life easier? How can you make
    him or her look good? Whether you are in an already established firm, or
    working for in-house corporation, or working as a barista until you land
    your dream job, this is seriously good advice. Walk a mile in their shoes.
    There’s Mom being right again.

    Is it a good idea to start your own firm immediately upon
    graduation?

    That really depends on the person and the circumstances. It would have
    been an abomination for me to start my own practice just out of school. I
    like to learn from others and get the lay of the land. Plus at that time,
    there were only 5 women attorneys in private practice in my home town. I
    could have starved to death.

    Some of my classmates did start their own law firms immediately and have
    done very well. They are financially successful and like their practices.
    They did cultivate relationships with other senior lawyers who they could
    talk with to get advice when needed. That and a lot of chutzpah were the
    two elements that helped them succeed.

    How much experience should new lawyers accumulate before they
    are considered “specialized”?

    Again, it depends on the area. Some areas are extremely complex, such as
    ERISA benefits and securities fraud. Other areas are more easily learned.
    As a general rule, I would say, give yourself a good 3-5 years. It is
    better to be safe than sorry.

  2. I think we invented “standing out after law school” as a concept and a way of life!

    We started by harnessing the power that we’d always had while we were law students: the power of the big mouth. Since law school, we’ve built an award-winning business, been published authors, done a ton of public speaking, appeared on many talk shows, and have had our own reality television series, Staten Island Law, on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

    The way we stood out is by showcasing our personalities. We say it like it is and we aren’t afraid to say it in regular old, non-lawyer language.
    It’s actually very easy to stand out in a room full of experienced lawyers — wear anything OTHER than a blue pinstriped suit, and act like anything OTHER than a boring, stuffy lawyer!

  3. This is a great question. As a legal marketer, and not an attorney, my job has me interacting with new associates often. I personally feel getting into a firm and developing your craft is important before thinking about going out in your own. Once in a firm, remember the partners are your “clients” and listen to them. Honestly, the years of experience is a gift from them to you. I wish I had seen that early in my career myself!

    If you want to get noticed, go find the work! Don’t wait for a partner to come to you!

    My last note, as a rule of thumb, take another lawyer you know, a friend in another professional service firm or go to a networking event at least three times a month. It takes years for a practice to grow and relationships are the key!!

  4. How do you draw attention in an already established firm?

    I have never worked for a firm except when I was an intern in law school. However I would suspect it would be the same. You need to work like you own the business. Always go above and beyond. Look at ways that you can make yourself irreplaceable. Pick some niche in the practice that you can specialize in and you will be hard to replace. Show up early and stay late. Customer service is the most important thing there is to any business. Always return phone calls within 24 hours.

    Is it a good idea to start your own firm immediately upon graduation?

    This question makes me smile cause who does this….I did. After law school I moved to Colorado and looked for a job for over a year after I passed the bar. I interviewed with several firms however they always wanted me to do a hodge podge of cases and I only wanted to do criminal defense. So I decided to take every criminal defense attorney out to lunch and pick their brain. I was repeatedly told time and time again that I should open my own practice. I was like who does that right out of law school. I guess that is what malpractice insurance is for right. So after about 1 year I decided to take the plunge. I would go to court and hope and pray that they would not call my case first. I would listen to the other attorneys and repeat what they had said until I figured out what was going on. I found an attorney who was willing to mentor me and send me cases that he didn’t want or people who could not afford his expertise. All those other attorneys that I had wined and dinned did the same thing sending me cases. I soon became very comfortable in the court room. I eventually made a name for myself and started getting new clients based on my reputation and of course the frequent fliers came back a round time and time again. I have never regretted the decision I made it was the best decision for me. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to specialize and is business savvy. It is hard work yet the rewards are well worth the costs.

    How much experience should new lawyers accumulate before they are considered “specialized”?

    I became specialized right away as I engulfed myself in my niche and became a expert very quickly because that is all I did. I knew the statutes that were applicable, I studied case law and took as many CLE’s as I could to make myself an expert. I don’t think there is a time frame in which one needs to become a expert.

  5. ow do you establish yourself post-law school? Most new lawyers throw themselves into their work and try to get their recognition through work well done. That is certainly one way to do it, but I recommend balancing work with activity in an organization like the New York State Bar Association. Most firms encourage the type of legal-based networking that comes with a Bar Association membership. And the new lawyer is exposed to more senior attorneys in their line of business. The caveat is that you must also join a Section. When I first joined the New York State Bar Association, I was not really engaged. Sure, there was the annual meeting and the monthly Journals, but there was no real involvement. Once I joined the TICL section, it was a whole different ball game. I began creating what I call my Personal Board of Directors – other attorneys from whom I could learn specific things.. I’m learning how to network effectively, where to look for new business, how to balance work and life, etc. – all by talking to one attorney at a time. Most important, by working hard for the TICL Section (helping to organize events, volunteering to teach Continuing Legal Education classes, taking a leadership role in the Organization, etc.), I have proven myself time and time again. Now, fellow TICL members consider me a go-to person. I have received numerous awards from NYSBA for my work on Diversity and in the Insurance field. All that looks great at the firm, not to mention that it’s invaluable marketing.

    How do you draw attention in an already established firm? See above. It’s easy to find someone who is going to work 14 hours a day and meet billable hours. It is much harder to find someone who is going to represent the firm well and sell it. Marketing the firm in a positive way (by teaching a class to other lawyers, participating in other civic organizations, taking part in career day at local schools, etc.) is what makes you stand out from a group of attorneys who are all doing the same thing (meeting billable hours).

    Is it a good idea to start your own firm immediately upon graduation? I would not recommend that. I think young lawyers need to be around other lawyers. No one is born with knowledge of everything. Law school is a different world from the practice of law. Even something as inane as filing documents with the court has to be learned. Sure, one could learn through trial and error, but why would you do that, when you could learn so much more painlessly by working at an already established firm for a year or two?

    How much experience should new lawyers accumulate before they are considered “specialized”? Lawyers (at least in New York) cannot advertise “specialties.” Unlike doctors, we don’t get “board certified” in any particular field. For instance, I have come to be known as someone who is knowledgeable in the insurance field, but I could get up tomorrow and decide to do Trusts and Estate work. Ultimately, it depends on the person; some people pick up information quickly and others don’t. Some people are just as knowledgeable but don’t advertise, don’t teach, etc. I think an attorney becomes specialized when their peers start to seek their input on certain issues. That would probably take several years, at least.

  6. As a career management coach with over 20
    years’ experience and a focus on working with attorneys, I have a few thoughts:

    – If you want to work for a law firm, your focus should not be only on job
    postings. Use your law school alumni association list (and join the
    group) to connect with graduates. Also, use Martindale Hubbell to connect with
    lawyers at law firms who have something in common with you — like specific
    law school history. Also if you have talent in a specific sport and some
    law schools play in a basketball or softball league, mention that when you
    contact the firm.

    – If you would like to work for a company or non-profit organization, use
    networking to make contacts. Also, write a specific letter of introduction
    to the organizations where you have special interest (I have had very good
    success developing such letters for my clients). And identify
    professional membership organizations where the people you want to contact hang out.

    – Unless money is not an issue, starting your own practice right after law
    school is not a good idea. Think about what clients would want to hire
    you if you don’t have experience.

    – In my view, you need at least 4 years experience in a specialty area
    before you can be considered “specializing”

  7. How do you establish yourself post-law school?
    -If you have just graduated and are trying to establish yourself you are already too late. With SO MANY LAWYERS and so few available jobs budding young lawyers need to begin establishing themselves before they step foot in law school by volunteering or getting jobs with organizations in the field they think they want to practice. If you are interested in practicing divorce law, for example, you can work at the local courthouse assisting pro se divorcees file paperwork, or get a job with a divorce attorney scanning mail and running errands. If you are interested in corporate law intern in the in-house counsel office of a corporation. This will give you a slight head start and will separate you from you fellow students when you are looking for a job. In addition to the exposure to the type of work you will also make a few contacts with whom you should stay in touch during your law school career so you can keep them informed of your progress. These contacts might be able to introduce you to job openings before the opening is public..

    -Once you are out of law school get involved with your local bar association. Whether it’s your state bar’s Young Lawyers Division or a local bar association, you can stand out and make a name for yourself volunteering for their pet projects. After a couple years your name will get around and you will be nominated for a leadership position.

    -Judicial politics is another great place to inconspicuously promote yourself. Local judges are always looking for people to stand on street corners or at polling precincts Election Day holding signs while waiving to voters. Before the election, there are never enough volunteers to plant signs around the community, organize fundraisers, or volunteer to distribute campaign literature. Because judges have long memories, your assistance in helping them get elected or retaining their seat will result in more favorable rulings on continuances, discovery issues, etc.

    How do you draw attention in an already established firm?
    -VOLUNTEER. Firms love good PR, and showing that you are raising money for a charity, serving on a local board of directors, or speaking before a group on a topic of interest to your firm will show you are a team player and will help separate you from your co-workers come promotion (or layoff) time..

    Is it a good idea to start your own firm immediately upon
    graduation?

    -HELL NO. You have no idea what you’re doing and don’t have the experience that comes with the business/client side of running a practice. I know times are tough and people have loans that need repayment, but you need to work for someone getting hands-on experience first. You can’t learn how to practice law merely reading a treatise.

    How much experience should new lawyers accumulate before they
    are considered “specialized”?

    -Be VERY careful about using that term. Most state bars have rules prohibiting attorneys from using that term unless they have accumulated certain experience, are board certified, etc. Alternatively, you can say “I limit my practice to X”; or “my firm practices exclusively X.”

  8. I am by no means a legal expert. I am just an attorney. But, I think my experience might give me some good perspective on your questions. By way of background, I graduated from Georgetown Law in 2009. I then moved to Florida to take a job with a prominent litigation firm, Boies, Schiller & Flexner. I had no ties to Florida but moved to Fort Lauderdale solely to work for Boies Schiller. It was a tremendous opportunity.

    When I went to law school, I knew that I wanted to start my own practice at some point. I just had no idea when or how I would do it. Working at Boies was great. I got lots of great experience, learned lots of the basics and managed to save some money. In April of 2012, I decided to take a leap of faith, leave Boies and start my own practice. I figured I was young, and if I was going to strike out on my own, it was now or never.

    (1) Starting a practice right out of law school

    Law is one of those fields where it takes a while get really good at it. Don’t get me wrong– there are lots of first and second year associates out there who do amazing work. I was one of them. But doing great work as an associate at a big firm is one thing. Having your own firm is something else entirely. When you work in a big firm, or even a firm where you have a handful of other attorneys working with you, there are usually a number of firewalls (for lack of a better term). There are layers. If you’re working on a big case, you do your best and you strive for excellence, but you also know that there are other people working with you, often other very intelligent people, who might spot something you missed or might offer a different perspective. That is invaluable. That is how you really learn to be a good lawyer. You work with other good lawyers, you observe, you collaborate. You see how the great lawyers operate and you model that. I was very lucky because I worked with so many brilliant lawyers at Boies.

    Consistent with that, I do not think it is advisable for people to hang their own shingles right after law school. Yes, I understand that sometimes there may be no other options. And if that’s the case, then necessity trumps. But, if possible, I think people graduating from law school should try to spend two or three years, or maybe more depending on their comfort level, working at a firm, for the government, or a non-profit organization— working with other lawyers.

    Law is a vast, complicated array of statutes, cases, doctrines. The world of law is massive. It takes a few years just to develop an understanding of what I’d refer to as first principles— the basics. If you try to start your own firm before you get a handle on the basics, you probably will not do very well.

    (2) How you establish yourself in law

    Regardless of whether you go to a firm or the government or hang your own shingle, I think you establish yourself the same way: You do good work. Doing good work, as a lawyer, has lots of different elements. That means working hard, taking your profession seriously, constantly striving to get better at what you do, being thoughtful and methodical, being willing to take on new challenges. A big part of being an associate at a big firm is writing. So doing good work necessarily entails being a good writer. And becoming a good legal writer takes lots of practice. You learn how to write from doing it; from getting feedback from other associates and partners; from reading other briefs the firm has worked on; from pulling other briefs off Westlaw and reading those. Learn how to write. Not just write a memo or write a section of something, but instead, learn how to research and write entire briefs on complicated issues. An associate who can turn a legitimate first draft of a complicated brief is incredibly valuable. Another thing: Know the record. In all of your cases, know the record; the facts; the dates; the key players. Endeavor to know the record better than anyone else on the case. That’s another way to add value.

    If you start your own practice, establishing yourself involves all those things and more. It involves doing good legal work, but it also involves business development. Writing a brief or arguing in court involves a totally different skill set than developing and managing clients. A big part of developing and retaining clients, especially corporate clients, is being interested in their businesses; learning what they do and coming up with solutions for their problems. When a company casually raises something that might be an issue and you can respond, “You know, I was thinking about that the other day and I have some ideas for possible solutions”, that makes you valuable. That also shows that you are interested enough in their business that you have given some thought to their needs off the clock.

    (3) How much experience should new lawyers accumulate before they are considered “specialized”?

    It really depends. Some areas of law are much more complicated than others.. If a lawyer does commercial litigation, generally, and wants to develop a particular specialty, that will take years. It probably takes at least two or three years of general commercial litigation experience to develop a good foundation (i.e. first principles). A good commercial litigation attorney can step into a new case, on either side, and immediately have a sense of the landscape: legal issues, factual issues, obstacles, basic strategy, etc. This requires knowing the basics, and not in a theoretical law school sort of way, but in a practical sense. This means understanding things like standing, jurisdiction, pleading requirements, private rights of action, choice of law, forum selection clauses, removal, immunity, preemption, etc. A lawyer just starting out might have to research each one of these aspects of a case, or even worse, might not even realize that one of these things poses an obstacle to his client’s position. A lawyer who has a good understanding of first principals might take a look at the case and immediately have a good idea of the important issues and a basic sense of strategy.

    A lawyer, at least a commercial litigator, needs to get that basic grounding before specializing. It probably takes two or three years for a lawyer to get that sort of grounding. After that, they can start to specialize.

  9. How do you establish yourself post-law school?

    I worked in non-profits for a few years before being inspired to start a
    holistic law practice. I had a false start – a 60-something year old
    lawyer invited me to share office space, be trained, and eventually take
    over his practice. It soon became clear that he was looking for free
    office help and I extracted myself. An experienced lawyer friend then
    invited me to open up a law practice with him. I thought his experience
    would be helpful for learning how to practice, but I wanted to do family
    law and he was a criminal lawyer who didn’t even know the basics of divorce
    law. I ended up learning by “trial and error” (in the most literal way).
    I also had to learn to ask my colleagues for help. Luckily, they were
    willing to answer my questions…most of the time.

    Is it a good idea to start your own firm immediately upon
    graduation?

    No, but sometimes that is what is necessary. Starting a firm takes guts
    whenever you do it.

    How much experience should new lawyers accumulate before they
    are considered “specialized”?

    In my state, you can’t say you specialize unless you have taken an exam and
    recognized by the state bar as a specialist.

  10. How do you draw attention in an already established firm?

    I see this as a necessary combination of being a great attorney and a very good business development person. It is essential for me to serve in both roles. A background in business in college was helpful for me as well as some key role models from whom I was able to watch and learn.

    Being involved in the community is a necessary element and I happy to enjoy serving in multiple roles in many organizations. If you wish to be involved in your community, consider participating in organizations that are driven by your interest. If the organization does not hold your interest, and the people in that organization don’t make you want to attend meetings, happy hours and other functions, it will show. And you will not develop the relationships needed for them to trust you with their business. I am involved in my community, my church, my high school alumni association, and local business organizations such as chambers of commerce.

    Consider working on your “elevator speech” and don’t be afraid to get your business card out there. You should be able to convey to someone in a short conversation what your firm does, what you do within that firm, and how you can add value to someone’s business (or perhaps personal situation). But you have to remember that nobody gives you the keys to their business after meeting you once. You build relationships over time.

    Is it a good idea to start your own firm immediately upon graduation?

    I don’t believe it is a good or bad idea to start your own firm. The idea of law school is to give you enough knowledge that you can hang a shingle and practice law for any potential matter that comes through the door.

    Opening your own firm requires a varied skill set. You’ll need to develop ways to market yourself which can generate a steady stream of new business. You also need to find time to hone your skills in whatever area of law you are practicing. Law school gives you a basic understanding of the law, but it does not teach you how to practice law and be successful as a business person, skills required to start your own firm.

    How much experience should new lawyers accumulate before they are considered “specialized”?

    I think too much emphasis is placed on being “specialized.” In my mind “specialized” means you are a one trick pony. You have pigeon holed yourself into doing one type of law and you are acknowledging that is all you can do. The law is truly fascinating. I practice litigation. I tell everyone who asks what I do … “if it involves going to court, I do it.” And in 5 and a half years, I think that is a very accurate description. I have done personal injury, workers compensation, social security disability, business litigation, bankruptcy, probate, landlord tenant, traffic, criminal defense, DWI defense, and family law.

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