by Vault Law Editors | April 16, 2020
As COVID-19 has forced law schools to go virtual, lawyers to work virtually, and law firms to cut salaries and furlough employees, it has also affected summer internships and summer associate programs. Some programs have been canceled altogether while others have been shortened. And if you are a law student who was relying on the spring months to land a summer position, opportunities are likely limited.
If you are stressed about not having a summer job and what that may mean for your future career, you are not alone. Vault spoke with Shauna Bryce, founder and principal of Bryce Legal—a career coaching and resume writing boutique exclusively for lawyers—to find out her advice on what law students should do if they can’t find a position this summer, how this gap may affect their future job searches, and what they can learn from the prior recession. Read on for her tips.
Vault: How should law students move forward if their summer internship/summer associate positions have been canceled or shortened?
Shauna: I know a lot of law students have yet not decided what they want to do with their careers, but this might be a good time to start with thinking about that. Students can use this time to build practical skills and build a network that will help them achieve their career goals, rather than have this summer become lost time.
Lost time was something that happened during the contraction in the legal market following the 2008 financial crisis. Many people didn’t react quickly enough to the realities of the slowing job market. They passed up opportunities to build their skill sets and professional networks because they didn’t know the contraction would be as long or severe as it turned out to be. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. We can learn some lessons from that time to help students be more proactive about their legal careers now because this time we know there is a major contraction in the legal market coming. It’s already started.
Vault: What are some ways that students can avoid this period being “lost time”?
Shauna: There are many ways to maximize this time to become a better candidate even if their summer employment falls through. Students can still read legal or business news and lawyers’ blogs so that they can see what practitioners are talking about and really learn current and emerging issues in the legal practice areas that interest them.
There are all sorts of professional groups on LinkedIn as well. Follow the conversations and read the resources they share. Another way to use LinkedIn is to find and make connections with people in the practice areas that interest you. Read their profiles, see who is doing work that interests you, and connect with them. Too often I think people are reticent to reach out, but you can find connections who are open to discussing their careers or who will provide insight into the industry. Don’t ask for a job or help getting a job. Instead, talk to them about why they got into that practice area, why they love what they do, how they got started, and what they wish they had known when they were a student. It’s a low-risk, high-reward way to spend your time. The worst that can happen is they ignore you or say no. The best that can happen is you end up with a mentor and future opportunities.
There, of course, are many resources outside of LinkedIn. One would be the alumni sites that are hosted by the schools. Students should also be aware that they can join—or at least follow—many professional associations, not just limit themselves to the student section of bar associations where you’ll be interacting with your peers. Start looking into the substantive divisions, in which experienced lawyers are involved. Read their newsletters, and get involved if you can. Again, don’t be afraid to reach out to these lawyers to learn more about their practice areas and how they got started.
One interesting way to leverage connections with experienced attorneys is to offer to co-author an article with them. At the end of the day, co-authorship would leave you with a tangible thing to walk away with. It’s a way to demonstrate to future employers that you’ll be a hard-working lawyer who can turn “lost time” into something productive and worthwhile and that you’re genuinely interested in the practice area.
Vault: If a law student’s summer employment is canceled, how can they explain the gap on their resume in future interviews, such as OCI?
Shauna: I think this really does touch upon how the legal industry has changed since the last recession. When I was coming out of law school, if you had a six-month gap on your resume, it was such a big deal. What happened after the Great Recession was that because of the widespread impact, you had so many people who had periods of unemployment, underemployment, gig employment, or other types of employment where maybe they had multiple jobs, that it has become more understandable. There are a lot of lawyers today who have those periods of unemployment and underemployment, so they are more forgiving about it.
Employers may be forgiving that you didn’t have a summer gig; they will be less forgiving if you did nothing productive. Law students should expect that when they get to the interview process, they [will] be asked what they did. It has been much less about the gap itself and more about whether you showed any productivity or initiative in that gap. Most hiring attorneys are very proof-oriented people. Lawyers tend to not want to hear someone say they are hardworking; they want to see proof of that. Saying that you’re genuinely interested isn’t enough. They’re interested in proof of that.
If you can say, “During my summer, I read three treatises on this topic, took two free online courses through this law school or business school, interviewed five lawyers in this practice area, and trained up to run marathon distances,” it shows some initiative, it shows hard work, and it shows genuine interest in the practice area—those are all things employers look for in candidates. And remember you will have to compete with students who did do productive things.
Vault: Would you ever recommend a law student take on an unpaid internship during this time?
Shauna: Obviously, in a perfect world, no one should feel compelled to work for free. One of the reasons employers offer unpaid internships is that they view the payment as payment the experience and the relationships, rather than money. But you shouldn’t just accept any opportunity. Know what you are getting out of it; be clear what benefit you will receive. Not every experience is equal, and you want to think about why you went to law school in the first place and what your career goals are so you aren’t moving off track. If you can afford to work for free and the internship will help you acquire the skills you need for your future career path, then consider it.
The flip side of that is just because you can’t afford to work for free or can’t find the opportunities, doesn’t mean you can’t do things to further your legal career. Set some target amount of time during the week—no matter what you’re doing—to make sure you are furthering your own career so you don’t end up behind.
Vault: What lessons can today’s students take away from what happened to the legal industry a decade ago to put themselves in the best positions possible?
Shauna: The contraction in the legal market has already started. The real question is how deep, broad, wide, and painful it is going to be. It is already here, and I would encourage people to take that seriously. I would encourage students and lawyers at all levels to react much faster than any of us did before. I find that students and junior lawyers, in particular, tend to wait too long to build a career development plan. They tend to wait until things get really bad—like they’ve been unemployed for six months or a year—before they get help to learn how to build and use a professional network, build their skill set, and look for a job. Data suggests 80 to 85 percent of job opportunities are never advertised; that means you have to be more proactive than just waiting for and applying to job ads.
It’s never too early to be serious about your career. The J.D. is only the beginning. It’s the baseline. Students are usually focused on the next goal in front of them: I have to take exams, I have to get my J.D., I have to take the bar. They’re so focused on hitting the next milestone that they’re not usually focused on their long-term careers. The earlier you start to do that and build your technical skills and relationships, the more successful your career is going to be and easier it will be to weather storms like this.
Vault: What is your final takeaway for law students who are worried about the current situation?
Shauna: We want to make sure people incorporate wellness and well-being into their daily lives to help them deal with stress. Find ways in all of this to find things that you love and things that are good for you as a person. And remember, you’re not alone.
With 20-plus years in law and legal hiring and degrees from Harvard Law School and Johns Hopkins University, Shauna C. Bryce, Esq. is a nationally recognized expert in professional development, career development, career planning, career transition, social media, and resumes for lawyers. As a former practicing attorney and member of a law firm hiring committee, Shauna’s private roster of clients includes some of the nation’s top lawyers—at places like Global 100 law firms and companies, Google, DreamWorks, Major League Baseball, and the White House. She has spoken at ~40 events, as well as written 50-plus articles/blogs and eight career books for lawyers and law students, including LinkedIn for Lawyers. Her website now has 500-plus testimonials from lawyers across sectors and career stages. Learn more about Shauna and her work at https://www.brycelegal.com.