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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Public Interest Interviewing Tips

February 7, 2010

For many public-interest minded law students, whether they are hunting for summer or postgraduate work, winter and early spring constitute interview season. Harvard Law School’s Office of Public Interest Advising maintains a very helpful interviewing resource webpage, which includes lists of questions to expect from interviewers. And PSLawNet offers a concise, bullet-pointed interview tips guide. Some key points:

- Take advantage of mock interview opportunities. Explore with your career services office the possibility of setting up mock interviews so that you can work out the kinks and develop a comfort level with the formality of interviews. Ideally, the (mock) interviewer will be an attorney with some experience in the area of work that you are trying to break into. Even if you feel you are a strong interviewer, there is absolutely no downside to practicing. For instance, you may be asked a question in the mock interview that challenges you. By thinking through it and developing an answer in a no-consequences environment, you can hit it out of the park during a real interview.

- Be able to explain your motivation. Public interest employers look for students who have a genuine interest in their organizations’ missions. If you have past work experience in an area related to the job you are seeking, that demonstrates a personal commitment. By all means, you should highlight this experience during the interview. Even if you do not – and many law students do not have a lot of public interest experience under their belt when they begin school – you must prepare to explain what motivated you to apply for the specific job.

- Don’t just prepare to answer questions; prepare to ask them. A good interview is a conversation, and you risk seeming disinterested if a potential employer offers you an opportunity to ask questions and you take a pass. You should prepare a short list of questions based upon your pre-interview research about the organization, and perhaps even a question for the interviewer personally, such as, “How did your career path lead you to your current position?”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Five Things I Wish I'd Known in Law School

The following was written by Andy Cowan. Andy graduated cum laude from the Cornell Law School in 2008. He summered at the Pro Bono Project of New Orleans and the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and now works as a public defender at the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Lowell, MA. Andy is an editor of the Public Defender Blog “Incorrigible Dicta” at http://www.dictablog.net.

Some of these “five things that I wish I had known” come with advice that I did in fact follow, but in many cases I did so out of stubbornness more than any specific knowledge that they might be good things to do. I didn’t load up my schedule with criminal law and say no-thanks to corporations in my third semester because I thought it would get me a job, I did it because I liked criminal law and thought corporations would be boring!

1. The “Standard” Curriculum and Career Services Advice May Not Fit Your Needs.

Depending on where you go to school, much of the career services and professional development infrastructure (including advice you get on course selection) may be designed to set you on track for a job you don’t want. If you have a public interest career services office, take advantage of it! Also, ask the advice of other public interest law students. Why should you take corporations, taxation, and securities regulation in your third semester if you want to be a public defender? You shouldn’t! I’m not saying you should never take those classes (see #4, below), but remember that the beginning of your second year is when you need to be thinking about setting yourself up for a second-summer job. If that’s not going to be in the same field as your first-summer job, you’re going to need to convince interviewers that you’re serious about it–and one way to do that is to take classes related to what you really want to do. When I interviewed for my second-summer job at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, I had just finished a first-summer job in New Orleans doing civil work. When Jen Thomas interviewed me, her first question was, “I see you spent your first summer doing civil legal services. You know we do criminal work, right?” I was fortunate that I was not only able to say “oh yes, that’s where my heart really is!” but also that I was taking criminal procedure and a number of capital defense classes (including clinic) that semester to prepare myself for a career in criminal defense. Put your tuition money where your mouth is! And if you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to do with that second summer, cover your bases.

2. Moot, moot moot for the home team!

In a similar vein, you hear a lot of emphasis placed on being editor-in-chief of law review as the key to a good job. If you’re looking to go to a Vault 100 firm, this may be vitally important. Law review gets a lot of emphasis, but consider moot court or mock trial, too! When you’re going to start your career in a courtroom, it helps immensely to have courtroom experience–even if it’s make-believe. I would not be nearly as fluent with case law nor as able to withstand grilling by an unfriendly judge, had I not mooted my heart out in law school. I took nearly every moot court opportunity available to me, and by the time I graduated I was entirely accustomed to hearing strangers in black robes batter me with irrelevant questions. I wish I had known at the time how important it would be; I might have done even more!

Also, if you are going to do a journal, consider a public-interest-focused journal over the “top” journal at your school. In our business commitment can be a lot weightier than prestige. I worked on the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, and never regretted my choice not to enter the competition for Law Review. Likewise, PSLN’s Katie Dilks worked on the Georgetown Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, and I cannot imagine that anybody here looked down their nose at that experience!

3. Relocating is Hard

I grew up in an academic family. Relocating was part of the experience. For as much as the legal market stresses geographical connections, I was raised on the notion that one goes where the job is, and that might be thousands of miles. As I conducted my nation-wide job search for a public defender job, I found my flexibility to be both an asset and a liability. The asset part is simple: being able to say “I want to be a public defender more than I want to live in any particular place” shows commitment like nothing else–so long as you sound sincere and are sincere. On the flip side, when I interviewed for my current job at CPCS, the director of the Northampton office (where I was interested in going) suggested that I might have heard thus-and-such about Northampton. I had to admit that I had, in fact, heard nothing at all about Northampton. On a good day, I’d be able to point it out on a map. I also told the hiring committee to place me as far away from Boston as they could, because (having spent no time in Boston), I assumed that Boston was like New York, and I did not want to spend time there. I now commute from Boston. Oops.

Relocating is hard for another reason. If you’re moving someplace just for a job, you may be walking into an environment where you don’t know anybody except your coworkers. That may be more or less of a problem depending on how social you are and how easily you make friends, but remember that you may not be moving with an instant network of similarly-situated people like you may have done if you relocated for college or law school.

4. You should take classes that aren’t directly relevant to your intended career.

I eventually took corporations, and I’m glad I did. Less than three months into my job as a public defender, we had to figure out how we could serve a discovery subpoena on a foreign corporation, and I would have been totally lost without that background. Once you’ve established a foundation with classes relevant to your career pursuit, take a wide variety of other classes, because you never know what will be useful in practice. Have some intellectual curiosity, and don’t be so snooty about the “public interest track” versus the “corporate track.”

5. Cover letters are important, and not hard.

I know, I know–you hate writing cover letters, it’s like pulling teeth, you have twenty million things to do and who’s going to read them anyway? Nobody, if that’s your attitude. And they’re not going to hire you, either. I felt very much in the dark about cover letters until we had a support staff vacancy in my office and I started helping out with screening resumes. The difference between a good cover letter and a bad one is startling, and important. Your resume says a bit about who you are, but it probably doesn’t say why you want the job or why the job should want you. It’s not rocket science. Write a bit about what you bring the table, why you’re an asset. If it’s not obvious how your experience prepared you for the job you’re applying for, explain that. And do not address your cover letter “to whom it may concern” or “dear sir or ma’am.” Addressing your cover letter to the person who makes hiring decisions shows interest and attention to detail. If it’s not obvious from the vacancy announcement, call and ask “to whose attention may I address my application?” It also shows that you’re applying for this job on purpose. A form cover letter or a one-line “find attached my resume” suggests that you are not serious about this and need to get out the door before the bar tab runs out. If you’re still feeling lost about how to write a good cover letter, ask the internet–or better, your career counselor.

While we’re on the topic, skip the “objective” section on your resume. It’s an unpersuasive waste of ink; at best it duplicates your cover letter. At worst somebody looks at it and says “too bad that’s not what we’re hiring for.”