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Pressing questions of new lawyers and future law grads

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Lou Helmuth, assistant dean for career services at California Western School of Law, took the time to answer some of the pressing questions on the minds of new lawyers and future law graduates.

Lou Helmuth

Q: How would you describe the legal job market in San Diego right now?

A: The market is definitely getting better. This year California Western's recent graduates saw higher median salaries, higher placement overall (90 percent within nine months of graduation) and more judicial clerkships than any other time in the last five years. With the wonderful students now in our law school, we expect this positive trend to continue and, in fact, improve.

Q: What skills are most sought by employers of new law graduates?

A: In my experience talking with lawyers and judges hiring new law graduates, quality writing skills, confidence and humility are regularly mentioned as the most desirable, and in fact necessary, attributes of a new lawyer.

New attorneys are called upon regularly to write in a concise, clear and accurate manner. They must do so in communications with clients, courts, counsel and others. They must do so whether in a litigation or transactional practice, whether in private, non-profit or public practice, whether in large or small organizations. Written product is often the deciding factor in the success of a matter. Thus, excellent writing abilities are crucial to employers.

Similarly, new lawyers must approach their work with confidence and humility to be successful. Law is a serious business and much is often at stake for the client. As a result, even the new lawyer must bring to bear all the training and analysis she can muster to provide the client with a mature and reasoned product. Confidence enables the new lawyer to exercise the skills she now possesses to the fullest extent. Humility enables the new lawyer to do so while also recognizing the limits of her experience. The combination yields the best quality product from the new lawyer and is therefore sought by employers.

Q: Have any California Western students recently accepted an interesting or unusual job or internship?

A: Absolutely. California Western students continually land themselves excellent positions in large and small law firms, in government legal service, in the public interest and in business. Many seek positions a bit more off the beaten track. For instance, one student will spend her summer working at the Mekong Region Law Center in Bangkok, Thailand. She will be assisting clients in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam who have been victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. A recent graduate just took a position with a boutique-lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., following a Senate office internship.

A legal education continues to open more and broader doors for today's law graduates. Another established her own job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington under a fellowship. With effort and diligence, the opportunities are rich and varied for driven students.

Q: How important is pre-graduation legal experience when it comes to future job placement?

A: It is critical, both from the standpoint of the student and the employer. For the student, legal experience provides confidence and helps the student figure out what he or she wants to do. Does she really enjoy research and writing? Working closely with clients? Representing clients in open court under the student practice rule? Where do her natural interests lie? For the employer, a candidate's prior legal experience gives that candidate a head start in performing work for the employer. It also gives the employer the ability to check prior legal employer references to see how this candidate really performs on the job (as opposed to performance on law school exams alone).

Q: What other kinds of experiences do you recommend students get while still in law school that will help their marketability?

A: Students have many opportunities to enhance their marketability. Law Journal, moot court competitions, advanced legal research and trial practice courses all provide excellent skill development sought by employers. Active participation in any of the many organized bar associations develops relationships and knowledge of the workings of our profession, which are valuable to employers. In addition, publication of articles in areas of expertise sets candidates apart from others when applying for positions within that niche.

Q: What is the number one concern students have about transitioning from a law student to an attorney?

A: The number one concern is debt. Students today face greater debt to income ratios than any of their predecessors. This adds a new and complicating life factor to all the concerns that have always existed as law students mature into practicing lawyers. Fortunately, most of today's graduates are very attentive to their personal finances and conservative in their practices. Nonetheless, and particularly in Southern California, it is very difficult for new lawyers to make ends meet in the settings where most of them start their practices.

Q: How soon do students need to decide what kind of law they wish to practice?

A: Different strokes for different folks. Many lawyers enjoy interesting, challenging and rewarding practices in areas they never even knew of in law school. That said, many enjoy similarly enriching practices in areas of concentration they targeted early in law school. So, it really depends on the student.

It is important that all students continue to explore where their interests lie and what the possibilities for legal work are in those areas. However, not all students will or necessarily should find THE answer to those questions. The beauty of the law is that there are so many possibilities for practice.

On the one hand, commitment to a particular practice area enables a student to target that area and find employment practicing in the field they most enjoy. On the other hand, flexibility in terms of practice area enables a student to explore many different employment settings and practice areas to find the work setting and team of people that suits them best.

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