How to Ask Professors for Job-Hunt Help: Gentle Hints

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Earlier this week Ann linked to this funny post from The Little Professor on “How to ask questions on academic listservs: gentle hints.” The 1L job-hunting season inspires me to write a few words of advice for students. What is the best way to ask professors for assistance in your quest for summer employment? My thoughts organize around two basic facts. First, common advice to job-seekers is to let others know that you are looking. Second, most people who go to law school want some law-related employment experience. Unfortunately some students mix these two facts into a hefty dose of unprofessionalism. Consider, for example, this e-mail, sent by a fictive student to a fictive professor.

I am a first year here at Big Law School and I’ve never met you [subtextual interpretation by professor: the student is too lazy to actually come to my office and introduce himself or herself.] I am very interested in the ____ [fill in type of law] field. I was told that you are the person at Big Law School that I should contact. I am trying to find internships for the summer that have ____ [fill in type of law] practices so that I can get experience and find out if that is really the area of law that I want to focus on. [subtextual interpretation by professor: this student can't focus a sentence, let alone a job search]. I was wondering if you had any suggestions for me pertaining to what if any firms you could suggest that I send my resume, etc. to [sotto voce mumble by professor: ummm...isn't it a no-no to end a sentence in a preposition? I'd better not introduce someone with such poor grammar to anyone I know]. I would greatly appreciate the information [What information? Am I supposed to e-mail you back everything I know on the general subject of this area of law practice?] and if you have time I would love to meet with you to discuss my job search. Thanks so much for your time.

Here are my gentle hints to this fictive student, with a nod to The Little Professor’s sense of humor:

1. If you have not yet done any research on employment opportunities, stop now. Do not e-mail the Career Services Center at your school. Do not e-mail your professors. Do not e-mail anyone. Get out of your chair and go to Career Services Center ASAP.

2. Spend some time in the Career Services Center looking at any available reference materials. Even the most financially-constrained schools will have access to directories of legal employers, basic job-hunt manuals, notices of job fairs and maybe even job listings. Your school may offer workshops on resume preparation, writing cover letters, how to find summer internships in particular fields, etc. See what the Career Services Center has to offer and avail yourself of the opportunities and resources.

3. Once you have some basic sense of the type of employment or opportunity you seek, ask someone in the Career Services office for suggestions on where to look beyond where you have looked already. Meet with a career counselor, if that’s an available option. It’s ok that you don’t know exactly what type of law you want to practice. If you have a general idea of what issues interest you or what part of the country you want to target, that is a way of starting to focus one’s search.

4. If you think you want to work in a law firm, you must at the very minimum do a Martindale search to generate a list of firms that have lawyers doing the type of work to which you seek exposure. Identify any alumni of your school who are at those firms. Identify the hiring partner or the head of the Legal Personnel department. Put all of this information in a list or database.

5. You may be feeling the urge to e-mail family members, friends, professional contacts, your professors. Does your e-mail look like the one above? If so, you are not ready to e-mail anyone. Try to articulate what you are looking for, why it may be of interest to you and what steps you have taken already to educate yourself about employment options. Only when you can do that are you ready to e-mail.

6. Once you’ve accomplished #5, start spreading the word that you are looking for a certain type of job in a certain field or a certain part of the country.

7. Some professors are very glad to help students with career questions and advice. I sure am. But don’t let e-mail substitute for an old-fashioned knock on the door: “Hi Professor X. I’m Sue from your Contracts class. I wanted to introduce myself and see if you might be willing to chat with me at some point about job opportunities in the [fill in type of law] field.” Even if you don’t have a class with the professor you want to approach, go ahead and knock. I’ll be glad you did.

8. It’s much easier to help someone who has already helped herself or himself. Once you meet with the professor, let the professor know what research you have done. Demonstrate that you have followed Steps 1-6 above. Bring a copy of your resume. Bring the list of firms/judges/organizations that you may want to target. Don’t ask the professor, “Where should I send my resume?” Ask if the professor knows of particular employers whose needs might match your own. Ask the professor if she or he thinks you have overlooked anything in your search. Ask your professor how similarly-situated students have gotten jobs in the [fill in type of law] field. Don’t ask the professor for contacts; the professor has to offer them.

9. After you have met with the professor, make sure to follow up, or at least thank him or her. E-mail is ok, but a note is nice, too. My whole family loves a good thank you note. Especially if your prof gave you one or more contacts, make sure you follow up with the contact and with the professor. From the prof’s perspective, he or she is spending professional capital in asking a colleague to speak with the student. If the student never calls the contact, it looks bad for the prof (and the student, for sure, but the prof is the one who spent the capital).

10. Keep in touch. Once you decide on a summer job, let your prof know what you decided. You may know what you’re doing, and all your friends may know what you are doing, but your profs don’t necessarily know. Think of that knock on the door or short note as adding one more person to an analog, old-school Facebook.

-Bridget Crawford

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