Starting a Legal Career in a Virtual World Requires Greater Intention

Dec. 15, 2020

As attorneys nationwide continue to work remotely, new approaches to networking are required for law students to stand out in a virtual working environment for the foreseeable future.

In a panel discussion titled “Starting Your Legal Career in a Virtual World” led by Bloomberg Law legal analyst Robert Brown, legal experts discussed current challenges students are facing. Despite the pandemic-induced obstacles, opportunities abound for law students, particularly as legal tech transforms the industry, panelists said.

“It’s never been more exciting to be in our profession,” said Jennifer Leonard, chief innovation officer and executive director of the Future of the Profession Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School.

Among the encouraging signs, the growth in legal services provides the opportunity for new entrants to think “entrepreneurially,” Leonard said.

As artificial intelligence-driven technologies address more rote tasks, new legal entrants can focus more on showcasing their “judgment element,” said Chris M. Smith, partner and co-head of DLA Piper’s New York real estate practice.

When tasked with a research question, for instance, “the job is to tell me [partners] the question I should have asked if I knew what you knew,” Smith said. This more advisory approach will get prospective employers “excited about what you can add to the equation,” Smith said.

Yet getting a foot in the door in the first place now requires extra effort, as legal practitioners at all levels of the law world grapple with the “ultimate in social distancing,” Brown said.

“It’s a much lonelier enterprise than it used to be,” Smith said.

This shift presents unique challenges for job seekers. New entrants may feel “blind and ignored” in this virtual world, Leonard said. As a result, law students must be even more self-directed and “intentional in outreach,” Leonard added.

[To watch a replay of this event, and others related to your early legal career, check out our on-demand webcasts for law students.]

Most immediately, job seekers should narrow their focus, Smith said, and avoid mass-emailing prospects or “a scattershot approach.”

The importance of researching prospects can also not be overstated, panelists said. Job seekers should start with the basics, such as company structure or number of offices globally.

Being versed in industry headlines is also important, Smith added. In parallel, job seekers must persuasively articulate their intent in joining a firm. “When I’m interviewing somebody, I want to understand why they’re coming to me,” Smith said.

Persuasiveness hinges on speaking from the law firm’s perspective, not that of the job seeker. This is “one of the biggest challenges I see for law students,” Leonard said. In an interview, job seekers should resist the temptation to discuss how a career at a firm fits into their broader career plan.

Far more effective is to shift the interview to “I’m interested in this practice area, because I’ve developed the skill sets that can help the clients of your organization,” Leonard said.

In this way, emotional intelligence among job seekers is crucial, both in interviews and email outreach. Honing the craft of effective writing is also critical, as networking has gone virtual, panelists said.

“You need to become digitally [versed] in how you write to people, in a way that is different than 20 years ago,” Smith said. In a virtual environment, “there are fewer social cues to read,” Leonard added.

Job seekers should similarly avoid appeals to prospects with any hint of a transactional undertone, said Claudia Chafloque-Siu, real estate associate at Eversheds Sutherland who joined the firm last year after getting her J.D.

[For more information on how Bloomberg Law helps law students build their careers from day one, see our Essential Career Toolkit.]

Communication should be “genuine,” said Chafloque-Siu, who also notes the importance of strong school support, such as in securing visa sponsorship for law school students from abroad.

To bolster genuine communication, it is important to remember details. Leonard advised law students to keep detailed notes of conversations in spreadsheets. This practice can trigger an earlier memory and leave a favorable impression in follow-up conversations, Leonard said.

Yet in a virtual working environment, where there is now “no end to the day and no end to the week,” as Smith said, it’s particularly important to respect people’s time. When conversation does occur, keep it brief, Leonard said, advising no more than 15 to 20 minutes. Brevity also keeps a conversation focused, Leonard said.

Similarly, when sending an email, it’s wise to condense the main points into a central email, said Chafloque-Siu, noting that walking down the hall to ask a question is not currently possible.

More broadly, as the job search gets underway, students must find ways to “embrace ambiguity,” said Leonard, noting this mindset may prove challenging for those who, “by our nature, tend to be Type A personalities.”

Yet law students have every reason for optimism, panelists stressed.

While “it remains to be seen what things look like on the other side of this pandemic, I’m not seeing anything yet suggesting there’s any massive disruption in employment opportunities,” Leonard said.

Getting a foot in the door may be harder in a virtual world, but job seekers should not lose sight of the potential advantages either, panelists said. While networking virtually is different than face-to-face events and social gatherings, Leonard said, “take that energy and focus it on designing an introduction that is professional.”

[Your future begins now. Learn how to start your legal career smarter with Bloomberg Law, and register for an academic account.]

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