Ways to Gain Work Experience in the Legal Field
Get your foot in the door of a law firm or corporate legal department
As law firms and corporate legal departments cut costs and operate with leaner staffs, more legal employers are seeking job candidates who can hit the ground running. You might have the education, the ability, and the ambition, but you'll need work experience as well. Fortunately, you have numerous options for that.
Do Contract Work
Contract jobs are a great way to gain work experience in the legal field. Contract employees have become a hot commodity in today’s market as law firms and corporate legal departments look for ways to reduce litigation costs. Contract workers aren't employees of a company. They're independent contractors, hired to work on specific projects on a short-term, contract basis.
The sheer volume of documents produced in e-discovery these days has prompted firms and companies to seek more cost-effective solutions to document review. They're hiring contract attorneys, paralegals, and litigation support staff to handle this time-consuming, labor-intensive task.
Contract employees review the thousands of documents produced in litigation and mark them for relevance, confidentiality, materiality, and privilege. Contractors might handle discovery requests, subpoenas, and regulatory requests. Contract personnel usually bill at rates far lower than employees, so firms can net significant cost savings by utilizing them.
Contract employees are usually hired through legal staffing firms. Although these projects range from several days to several years, the contract employee is usually discharged at the end of the project. But contract employees who perform well and who impress their employers might use contract work as a stepping stone to full-time, permanent employment with the company.
Temporary employment is another method of gaining valuable work experience. The temporary employee (“temp”) is usually placed in short-term assignments through a legal staffing agency. Temporary employees generally earn less than their permanent counterparts because the legal staffing agency takes a substantial cut of their hourly pay.
They're not employees of the company or firm they're doing work for, so temps don't receive benefits or other perks of employment. Benefits might be offered through the legal staffing agency, however.
Temporary work is a great way to explore opportunities with a particular company. Some companies hire temporary employees as a way to recruit permanent staff by first testing them out on a trial basis. These “temp-to-perm” jobs can result in job offers at the end of the temporary project.
Legal Secretary Positions
These positions often depend less on legal experience than they do on administrative experience. Consider taking a secretarial position if you know your way around an office pretty well, then work your way up from there. Required skills typically include a familiarity with computers, software, and clerical duties.
This is a foot-in-the-door option, but legal secretaries often work hand-in-hand with their attorneys, particularly in smaller offices. You'll gain some valuable, hands-on experience to go with your degree. Think of it as a temp job that pays somewhat better and offers benefits.
Part-time Legal Jobs
Even if the firm of your dreams won’t hire you as an attorney, paralegal, or for another legal job that you seek, many have a host of other high-turnover positions which they must continually fill. These include file clerks, messengers, court filers, data entry clerks, copy room personnel, and clerical staff.
File clerks organize, catalog, and manage hundreds of case files. Court filers file motions, pleadings, briefs, and discovery documents with the court. Messengers deliver documents to outside parties, including court personnel, co-counsel, opposing counsel, vendors, and experts.
These jobs aren't typically high-paying positions, but they, too, provide an opportunity to get your foot in the door.
Internships, Externships, and Clinics
Internship and externship positions are available in some law firms, corporations, banks, insurance companies, non-profit organizations, and government offices. These positions are usually unpaid, although you can sometimes earn school credits for them. And, of course, you can include them on your resume.
Internships aren't always advertised, so you might have to do a little digging and research to locate one. Your local law school, paralegal school, or legal secretarial program’s career service office are some of the best resources for locating internships.
Do Volunteer Work
Many non-profits, public interest organizations, legal clinics, and legal aid offices are desperate for volunteers. Although this is another unpaid approach, volunteering is a great way to get quality legal work experience.
Public interest organizations will not assign meaningless busywork. They'll give you substantive, meaningful tasks that make a difference in the lives of people and their communities. Contact your local bar association, legal aid office, or legal association to locate volunteer opportunities in your area.
Extracurricular activities can provide a useful experience that might help you get your foot in the door of legal employers if you're still in school.
Law students can participate in moot court competitions to sharpen their oral advocacy skills through mock oral arguments before a judge. Strong writing skills are necessary for many legal professions, and students can gain writing experience through writing competitions, writing clinics, and school-related journals and newsletters.