Networking, 'soft skills' are keys to finding jobs

By Mike Scott
Legal News

Finding employment in this job market may be difficult for any attorney, but young lawyers and recent law school graduates are having to rely on advice from their schools and experienced attorneys for help.

The assumption that law school graduates will have jobs waiting for them in the field upon passing the bar no longer holds. With even summer internships difficult to obtain, many young lawyers have to rely upon the same “soft” skills that professionals in other industries use.

Elizabeth Jolliffe is the owner of Your Benchmark Coach in Ann Arbor and a former partner with Clark Hill in Detroit. Her business provides professional guidance and counseling for lawyers. As part of her role at Clark Hill, she also served as a recruiting committee chair, so she is well qualified to help current students and recent graduates deal with the challenges of finding a job in this economic environment, Jolliffe’s primary advice: improve your interviewing skills and take advantage of networking opportunities.

“I agree that these days it is much, much harder to find a job,” Jolliffe said. “I have found that there are a number of graduates who are very discouraged when they can’t get a job. Not only that, but many young lawyers are sending out hundreds of resumes and not even getting an interview.”

Sending out that many resumes alone is not a strategy that Jolliffe would recommend.

Before an interview is even possible, a law school student or recent graduate must get noticed by prospective employers and law firms. And one of the best ways to do that is through strategic networking.
“It takes a lot of time to get results through networking, but the impression you can make it invaluable,” Jolliffe said. “Sending hundreds of resumes takes a lot of time too though.”
Successful networking requires young lawyers to develop a comfort zone, Jolliffe said.

Whether it is through local or specialty bar associations, chambers of commerce, or other trade, business and community organizations, the key is going multiple times and becoming active with other members. That is how relationships, and perhaps referrals to job opportunities, are formed.

And Jolliffe said that young lawyers should not be afraid to ask for help and advice from experienced and employed attorneys. In late July she attended “Wayne Law at the Ballpark” event, a networking evening that included watching the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. There, a number of young attorneys approached Jolliffe with specific questions.

“I was very impressed because everyone received a list of attorneys who would be there,” Jolliffe said. “So many of the younger lawyers researched who they wanted to chat with in advance and had topics selected that they wanted to discuss. You would be amazed at how willing (experienced lawyers) are in helping others if they are simply asked.”

One expert said that law school students should not make decisions on courses to take and specialties based on economic or financial regulation trends. That is according to Sarah Zearfoss, assistant dean and director of admissions for the University of Michigan Law School. Over the last two decades, Zearfoss has seen such fields as bankruptcy and real estate be considered both “hot” and “cold” for employment opportunities several times.

“It may not be a great idea for students to be overly reactive to what may be happening in the legal industry or in the labor market,” Zearfoss said.

Historically when there has been a financial crisis or economic situation that has brought finance to the forefront of the domestic and global news, some law school students who may not have entered school with a strong desire for a particular specialty may gravitate toward a financial area, Zearfoss said. However, they comprise an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the student population.

“We do see some crossing over between corporate and litigation law, both of which can deal with finance,” Zearfoss said.

The likelihood of added federal regulations is one reason for this trend toward litigation. Zearfoss cautioned that it may be a short-lived trend depending on political and economic issues.
Zearfoss also has seen an increase in hiring of lawyers by the federal government, but she isn’t sure how long that trend might last.

Since law school students are essentially determining now what they plan to do for the rest of their legal careers, there should be less emphasis placed on current economic and social trends and more on what the student is passionate about, Zearfoss said.

When she graduated from law school, labor lawyers were not in high demand because the economy was coming out of a recession. A few years later, it was a specialty in demand. The message is that trends change.

“It may be hard for some students but we really want to help them recognize what they want to do in their careers,” Zearfoss said. “There is no longer an easy path for students who may want to working at a large law firm. In the past if you wanted to work in a public interest area as a lawyer you might need a little internal fortitude to get to where you want to go. Now you need that (internal) fortitude no matter what type of legal career you want to pursue.”

That has required law school career services departments to work even more closely with students than in past years. Summer internships have not been as readily available in many parts of the country and the labor market has remained comparatively weak even for law school graduates.

Students should also be familiar with economic and industry trends before and during their law school career, Zearfoss said.

In effect, the reality of the financial market changes and the oft-used description of “The Great Recession” have required law school students considering corporate, litigation, and financial law to make a “quality of life” decision.

“We’ll ask students what will make them feel satisfied in their careers and what will make them happy and keep them motivated,” Zearfoss said. “It’s not about today’s financial trends, but do they still want to be practicing this type of law 10 and 20 years from now.”

One way to quickly gain networking contacts is to volunteer for legal related activities, Jolliffe said.

“It’s a much easier way to get know people because you are (volunteering) and there for a purpose,” Jolliffe said. “It lends itself to networking.”

And once networking has yielded an interview, knowing what to say and how to communicate with prospective employees is critical, she indicated.

“You want to talk about both legal and volunteer opportunities,” Jolliffe said. “It’s not just about grades and having a nice personality. If you want that job, you need to find a way to really stand out.”