So, Some Law Grads Actually Get Jobs—But How?

cheshire catLaw school graduates have a hard time finding jobs. Yawn—at this point, we’re all aware.

The thing is, even if many schools have low employment rates, none of them have hit zero (not yet, anyway). At least some graduates are getting hired. What are they doing differently?

To figure out which strategies actually work, we spoke with four recent law school graduates in four different fields. One Georgia State graduate ensured he was a bigger fish in a smaller pond to gain an edge in the recruiting process; an Emory graduate found ways to make networking less of a thoroughly uncomfortable experience; a Missouri graduate landed a public sector role with little turnover; and a Brooklyn Law graduate shadowed his way into a job well beyond the legal field.

Different strategies might work for different people, but all four graduates did take one crucial step: One way or another, they figured out exactly what they wanted to do. After all, to paraphrase the all-knowing Cheshire Cat, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 4.10.30 PM“BE A BIG FISH IN A SMALLER POND”

“Go to the best law school you can get into.” It’s one of the most frequently cited strategies for graduating with a job lined up. In this case, “best” usually translates into “highest ranked by U.S. News.”

But Jeff Holt, an associate at Burr & Forman in Atlanta, worked things out his own way. His approach makes the admissions process less of a gamble, though it requires adherents to really keep their noses to the grindstone during school. “If you’re going to go to Harvard or Yale and finish last in your class, that’s probably okay,” Holt explains. On the other hand, if you’re choosing between a number 25 and a number 50? He says you’re better off picking the school where you’ll rise to the top of your class, rankings be damned.

Focus on your class rank instead of your school’s rank: Holt received that piece of advice before law school, while serving as the executive director of the Atlanta Junior Golf Association. In this role, he worked closely with the board of directors. “I’d say out of 12 people, half of them were attorneys,” he says. “They’re part of the reason that I started thinking about going to law school.” It was early 2010, and the economy was flagging; the board members warned him that he’d have to do great to even have a shot at finding a job the traditional way—i.e., through on-campus recruiting. “One of the guys who advised me sort of said, ‘You’d rather be a big fish in a smaller pond than a small fish in a big pond, so find a school that is ranked as highly as you can get into without sort of overdoing yourself,’” Holt says.

He did just that. Holt attended Georgia State University’s College of Law, ranked 64 by U.S. News. “I actually got waitlisted at Emory, and toward the end of waiting on that decided just not to wait anymore,” he says. Emory is ranked 19, but Holt doesn’t regret choosing Georgia State at all. “You get a world class education for a fraction of the cost of some other law schools,” he says. And true to his plan, Holt finished second in his class. “Looking back on it, I may have had as good an experience [at Emory], but it would’ve been a lot harder for me to experience that type of success there,” he says.

Holt’s class rank helped even more than he’d predicted. “So, you’ve been through a year of school, you got your grades back, you sort of know your class rank, and then you see that most of the firms that are participating in [on-campus recruiting] want to talk to the top quarter of the class or the top half of the class, and just to submit a resume or even be considered to participate in that process, you need to be in one of those groups,” he recalls. “You sort of do that in the abstract, but it really hits home when it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, so I need to be in that group to even have a chance at this.’” He imagines that this group is only getting smaller as recruitment becomes more competitive.

Still, Holt stressed that while grades get you in the door, it’s important to have a wide variety of experiences, and to keep the people you meet posted on what you’re doing. Though he went through the standard channels to get a job at Burr, he thinks this additional strategy might’ve helped him; the main partner he works for happens to have been the board president at his old job. “I don’t know what he had to do with it,” he says. “But just knowing him and us having worked together, I think it probably made it easier for me to find a place there.”