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.
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.