How can you market your credentials and distinguish yourself amidst a sea of talented lawyers? Begin by assessing your strengths. The story does not end with grades or membership on a journal or the Law Review. For almost all employers, numbers, grades, journals and the like are only a point of reference. Hiring partners look for something else – - young lawyers who can do the job effectively. The following inter-related qualities are as or more important than any of the more traditional indicia of excellence:
While far too much has been written on the subject of assertiveness, there is no question that it is critical to being a successful lawyer. Do not confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness or obnoxiousness. Private and public employers need lawyers who instill confidence in clients and judges and respect in adversaries. Put yourself in the shoes of the older lawyer with an important client or important case. You want a lawyer who commands the confidence and respect of everyone with whom she deals. All the brainpower, writing ability, and high grades in the world are perfectly irrelevant if the young lawyer cannot deal effectively with the client, lawyer, or judge across the table. The assertiveness, enthusiasm, and directness which you project are critical to an employer’s evaluation of your potential. This is measured quickly and carefully during the first few minutes of an initial interview. The lawyer who is lively, interested, quick-witted, and confident is leagues ahead of a student with a higher GPA who is withdrawn, ill-at-ease, arrogant, or diffident.
2. Writing ability and speaking ability
These are the most important tools of the trade. A lawyer who cannot write well and speak effectively will fail —in the courtroom, with clients, and with adversaries. These skills are tough to evaluate in an interview and some employers will simply make assumptions based on journal/law review membership or participation in the moot court competition. Speaking ability cannot be formally tested during an interview, but a hiring partner will draw a conclusion about your likely effectiveness in this area based on how you handle yourself during the interview. How you stand, speak, sit, and react during the interview will be quite significant. A student who is comfortable, articulate, and both inquisitive and responsive will carry the day. Membership on a journal is one indication of a desire to write well — but standing on its own, it proves little. A fair number of employers will carefully evaluate writing samples. An excellent example of substantive legal writing can tip the scales in your favor. All references to clients should be masked or deleted to protect the privilege of your prior employer and, most importantly, you should ask your prior employer for authority to use it as a sample, even in the redacted form. If you have published an article in a journal, or written a complex brief for the moot court competition, you should not be bashful about bringing along copies to interviews and offering them to employers.
3. A capacity and enthusiasm for excellence and hard work
Does someone simply go to school and do little else or do they immerse themselves into the academic environment with meaningful activities? Simply joining several organizations is not impressive. What has an impact on employers is what you actually do — the major, responsible, challenging, and time-consuming projects you handled successfully.
4. The capacity to work well with others
This highly subjective and intangible quality is terribly important to all employers. A lawyer who cannot work well with partners, associates, staff, judges, adversaries, and clients is a professional and economic risk to her or his firm. And, an initial judgment about this quality will be made during the on-campus interview.
5. How Important are Grades?
They are important, but they do not control your opportunity. If your academic record, like 90 percent of your classmates, has a blemish or two, do not despair. Hiring partners are looking for the best lawyers and those who will work well within their firm. That you had a low grade in one course (or two for that matter) will not be fatal to your career. The question is — how did you deal with this adversity. If the low grades were in one semester, did you improve in the second? Have you become active in extra-curricular activities, which demonstrate intellectual excellence?
Once you have an honest, complete inventory of your strengths and weaknesses you are ready to market your product. Johnson & Johnson survived the Tylenol murders because they faced problems and overcame them. Audi watched its market share collapse because it could not deal correctly with allegations about faulty acceleration. Perrier sales in the U.S. fell when it did a poor job of meeting rumors about contamination. Law students who deal with weaknesses in a constructive, pro active way will take a decisive first step toward convincing employers to look at their compensating strengths.
These tips are provided by Frank Kimball, a principal of The Kimball Partner Group, a Lateral Link Company. Frank has interviewed, hired, placed, or counseled more than 11,500 law students and attorneys, and is the only principal of a search and consulting firm to work as a former hiring partner at one of the nation’s twenty largest law firms.