Setting Realistic Career Goals

Q: I'm fresh out of law school. I just took the bar exam and I feel very confident about my performance. However, I struggled through law school but I graduated. I participated in client counseling exercises, moot court, trial advocacy and completed a year-long internship as a junior attorney in a legal aid clinic. My problem is that I graduated at the bottom middle of my class -- meaning about 70-75% of the people in my class did better than I. The reason for this is that I had a difficult time adjusting to law school. Learning to communicate like a lawyer was something others in my class were fortunate enough to know about beforehand. I came from a low-income family. I won a merit scholarship to college and then a scholarship to law school. I was shocked to discover how hard I had to work to make C's and I still don't understand completely what I could have done better other than to absorb all the material.

My fear is that I have incredible advocacy, litigation, speaking, and interpersonal skills that I will never be allowed to use in the legal profession because there are so many doors closed to someone with my grades. Can you give me the straight story on what my options are? Did I go to law school for nothing? Is there any way for someone like me to persist and end up in a great law firm?

A: First, you didn't attended law school in vain.

No matter what you end up doing, the knowledge, discipline and skills you developed in school will serve you. And as far as obtaining a law job, that shouldn't be impossible either. You said you wanted to end up in a "great law firm." There are many ways to define that -- does it mean the one with the most lawyers, the best known, or that which pays the most money or that handles the biggest cases? There are many "great firms" that are comprised of two or three very motivated lawyers doing work in practice areas that they find compelling.

Of course, you must set realistic goals for yourself.

You probably won't get an offer from the very largest, old-line firms -- they want graduates from a top-20 law school, on law review, with either superb grades or experience. Even some of the mid-size firms dwell on grades or school name. But there are a sufficient number of very good smaller firms or solo practitioners who are looking to hire and won't even ask your grades -- if you have a Bar license, with relevant interests or experience, that might be good enough for them. Thus, don't bring your grades up when applying for a job. Don't put your class standing or grade point on your resume or talk about either in an interview.

Instead, you could list titles of selected courses you have taken that will enhance your image for a particular position. And if asked your grades, you could always answer, without apology, that you were in the 3rd quartile, then switch the conversation to how well you did or how interested you were in selected classes that were meaningful to you, spending no time on your grades or standing.

If questions persist, you can address how well you did in college, but that legal studies were so new to you, that it took you time to adapt. However, you shouldn't bring that up unless absolutely necessary. And because you have now adapted very well, you could move into discussing your advocacy, speaking and interpersonal skills and the benefits to a practice from your abilities.

How to set realistic goals for your legal job search.

1. Reexamine why you went to law school -- did you go just to get a well-paying job, for the prestige, to do a particular type of work, because you were bright and didn't know what else to do? Once you know why, perhaps you can figure out which avenue within law will best utilize those reasons for becoming a lawyer. Or maybe you'll determine that you didn't really want to be a lawyer -- you went to law school solely for the prestige or to please your parents or for the money -- but there are other ways to obtain these.

Or maybe you had a goal to help people; however, you can do this in many other ways as well, by working in law in a public interest position or with a non-profit (as a lawyer or not), etc. It's important to figure out what is important to you and what your skills are, because if you can convey your motivations and skills to an employer, your grades won't matter as much to them because your hands-on abilities and work ethic will impress them.

2. Next, you should do a thorough analysis of your skills, so that you can convey that information to employers, to make them understand why you are the most qualified for a certain position even though your grades may not be in the top tier.

3. Decide realistically how much money you have to earn to make your living, not the larger sum of "what you'd like to earn," but the more realistic sum of "what you need to pay your various bills." That figure will help you determine which practice areas, law firms, government agencies, and non-profits you can afford to work for, so you can direct your attention to applying for jobs in the best sector for you.

4. Lastly, here are a few suggestions of jobs that might fit your interests: lawyering in a non-profit organization, in a field that interests you; setting up your own office, either alone or with a few colleagues who want to practice in the same way, and picking your own important cases to pursue; working for a government agency, choosing a field you find important and becoming the expert in the field.

Often enough, after a few years as a lawyer with a government agency, you can find a legal job with a corporation or entity that specializes in your former agency's areas of practice (i.e., moving from the EEOC to the human resources sector of a corporate legal department, or moving from the EPA to the environmental legal section of a corporation).