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Top six career mistakes made by law students

|Written By Kevin Sambrano

Soon after I first began my legal studies, I felt a distinct “disturbance in the force.” At the time, my fellow classmates and I were focused almost exclusively on our studies — case briefs, moot trials, exams. I soon recognized we were so focused on the present that we were effectively ignoring our future. And it’s no wonder — career development in law is often underplayed and undervalued. Career development needs to be ongoing. If it’s not, students will make costly career mistakes even before they graduate.

Here are the top six career mistakes I’ve seen over and over again.

Mistake #1 – Not printing a business card your first month of school

Some legal students believe they need to have something to sell before they create a business card — but you need to sell yourself. A business card can help you begin building your network of friends, contacts and like-minded professionals. It helps in networking situations and can even be attached to the top of your resume when you are applying for that articling job or placement. It sends the unmistakable message, “I am business-minded.” Even as a student, printing a business card with your name, and your area of interest and study, is an excellent way to keep you on someone else’s mind. It’s not about who knows you, but rather who remembers you.

Mistake #2 – Not having a LinkedIn account

LinkedIn is the business equivalent of Facebook. LinkedIn can help you increase your legal network by connecting with other legal professionals, particularly the connections you might be interested in working for in the future. At a recent legal event, I was surprised to realize I “knew” the majority of the people in attendance. I hadn’t actually met them, but they were part of my upwards of 500 LinkedIn connections. It was an excellent opportunity to meet with them face-to-face. There is no easier way to begin a conversation than by using this sentence: “Hi! My name is [your name here]. We connected on LinkedIn.” Consider each and every connection a job lead, as well as a relationship. But remember the healthiest relationships are built on mutual respect and reciprocity.

Mistake #3 – Not choosing a practice area before you complete your studies

An individual’s value and earnings increase the more specialized they become. I have had conversations with both paralegal and law students in their final months of studies, and they often have one trait in common — they have no idea what area of law they would like to pursue. Doing research and making that decision sooner rather than later is important because it allows for the immediate culmination of knowledge and skillsets in your chosen area of expertise. And as an intern you will become that much more valuable.

Often students will confess they don’t know what area they would like to practice in.   Fair enough. I changed my area of practice three times before I decided on human rights and employment law. When it came time for my placement, though, I sought out and found my own placement in the firm I wanted, in the area of law I wanted to pursue. The takeaway is simple: You will become more valuable to a prospective employer if you choose an area of law early in your studies.  

Mistake #4 – Not keeping up with current events

There are legal students who know nothing about the recent demise of Heenan Blaikie. It has very little to do with the study of law, but everything to do with the business of law. One of the best ways to network with a contact or to impress a potential employer is to be able to discuss current events in law. This demonstrates your interest is beyond simple academics and that you care about the industry enough to become engaged in it.

What’s the easiest way to stay informed? Subscribe to an online magazine or to the multitude of legal e-mail lists out there, and have legal articles emailed to you. You don’t need to know about each and every event in the law world, but do stay on top of the big ones, as current law trends and events can help you to decide on an area of practice.

Mistake #5 – No legal web site or legal blog, only Facebook

What better way to establish your web presence than a web site full of all your legal writings and accomplishments? When a potential employer or contact searches your name online, do you really want the first hit to be your Facebook page with last year’s frosh week photos? What you do want is the first hit to be your legal blog or even a law student resource blog. It will help you to build web presence, as well as showcase your dedication, knowledge, and legal writing talents. What should you put on your blog? You know all those case briefs and assignments you’ve had to write? What better place than to publish them where peers, contacts, and future employers can readily see them? Just remember the legal disclaimer.

Mistake #6 – Not dreaming big

What is the biggest legal career mistake students make? With few exceptions, most students forget to dream big. As future legal practitioners, we need to ask ourselves some questions: “Where do I want to be when I graduate? What kind of lifestyle would I like?  Where would I like to work?”

Legal graduates are in a profession that is highly respected, highly regarded, and provides the opportunity to change the very quality of people’s lives. Don’t be intimidated by that — be empowered!

Don’t sell yourself or your dreams short. Every successful lawyer or paralegal began the exact same way: As a student. Dream big, then go out and make it happen. 

Kevin Sambrano is a paralegal candidate. He is a former small business coach.

  • Self employed

    Sister Jay
    I am not into law, but reading this,
    I knew it was not sound advise.
  • I knew

    Joan B
    I knew exactly what area of law I wanted to practice after 2L. Tax Law.With a background in computer science I needed to be challenged with complexity. I didnt like IP but I really enjoyed tax. All other areas were dry and relatively simple. So I took as many courses as I could in tax. I am now a 5th year call,practicing exclusively in tax.
  • Lawyer

    Matt Tinsdale
    Why the heck would CLM publish this tripe by someone who is not a lawyer, and who is just a student at that?
  • Lawyer

    Eliza Moore
    This is terrible advice. Are you actually a lawyer, or law student, Kevin? Ah, I see someone else has pointed out that you are a paralegal candidate. You should not be offering advice like this, and it's disappointing that Canadian Lawyer is printing it.
  • lAW

    IMMS B
    Thank you so much Eliza and others. As someone preparing for an Articling Interview 2 days from now, this Article went against everything I have been told and learned. I will be avoiding Lawyermag for now so as to not confuse my myself given the already nervy articling process.
  • Lawyer

    Ms. Watson
    "Kevin Sambrano is a paralegal candidate. He is a former small business coach."

    Read: Not a lawyer, not a law student. Frankly, CanadianLawyerMag, this post is a disappointment. This is not the type of advice that should be thrown amidst curious minds who are searching for practical and legitimate answers to the practice of law. It should certainly not be "Featured".

    Students: Read the commentary section and embrace the advice of experienced practitioners and their candid thoughts. Those comments should be the "Feature".

    Above all, just be yourself. Let your passions guide you through the practice of law. I will agree with #6 - Dream Big. The sky is the limit.
  • Partner, McCarthy Tetrault

    David Hamer
    I respectfully disagree with this advice:

    Mistake #3 – Not choosing a practice area before you complete your studies.

    Specialization may be fine a few years out, but we often find the best lawyers are the ones who've learned something about a number of disparate areas of law before narrowing their scope.
  • Articling

    Bill B
    I don't find any of the above to be all that great of an idea - #1 and #5 come across as pompous and pretentious (qualities that most lawyers are self-conscious about, and don't want to be associated with), #2 isn't a big deal at all in my view (LinkedIn doesn't help or impress people who already have your resume - I think it's more of a headhunting aid), #6 is a useless platitude, and I think #3 is flat out wrong for most students. How are you going to walk into a law firm pretending to be a specialist when you haven't practiced law a day in your life? Law firms don't need specialization from their students and young lawyers; they primarily need team players who will work hard on whatever tasks are too tedious or time-consuming to justify the partners' hourly rates. Walking into a law firm and fancying yourself a specialist doesn't make you valuable; it makes you a corkscrew in a room mostly full of beer bottles. #4 is a fine tip for anyone who needs to engage in small talk.
  • articling student

    Nick Smith
    Re Mistake # 5 -- um, has the author never heard of FB privacy settings?
  • Mediator

    Peter Cooper
    This is outrageously moronic.. Don't burden students with this rubbish.. Linked- In is handy, however handing a card round you're school is ridiculous (perception of such a student?).. Take interest in people who come to speak get a contact email and talk to people , be a human not some robotic product of a biased and out of touch magazine.. Just work hard and develop as a person, law school is not everything, neither is a 'legal' career.

    P.S how could you trust such a poorly designed website, it does not speak credibility, utterly lackluster a truly sad effort.
  • Mr.

    El Willow
    Absolutely none of the above are true for law students. Having recently been through the hiring process (and now seeing it from the other side), I can say with confidence that branding yourself as "[insert practice area] guy/girl" only comes across as disingenous. The reality is, you have no idea what kind of lawyer you want to be until you start to practice. Most of the lawyers I know will readily admit that they truthfully had no idea what kind of law they wanted to practice in law school, or if they did, were mistaken.

    Nothing would be more creepy than a law student handing out a business card at a student event, or asking a lawyer about general trends in cross-border M&A. Big time red flag.

    Embrace being a clueless law student - just be eager to learn when given the chance.
  • Lawyer

    John Roggeveen
    None of the above are mistakes for law students in law school, but once you have been admitted to the bar, you should keep your resume up to date and keep in contact with legal headhunters. Some of the above may then also be relevant.

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