What qualities do YOU look for in your legal secretary?
September 16, 2008 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Future-lawyer seeking experience while still an undergraduate. Any chance of being hired?

Essentially I'm looking for any type of position within a law firm that will afford me some real-world experience. (Read: mail room, up).

I've been sending out resumes pretty regularly for the past few months, and have yet to see any real responses.

Admittedly, my resume does not contain any experience in law, or office-work. Its heavily focused on technology, as that was my field-of-choice out of high school.

So my question is, can any lawyers perhaps shed some light on what they would be looking for in an assistant/secretary? Without a degree, what qualities should I be focusing on to make myself at least worth an interview?

Should I just go to waiter route until I have the Poli Sci degree?

Thanks so much.
posted by aleahey to Law & Government (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The kind of things they are looking for in a low-level secretary are basic clerical skills. Can you write memos/file things/use Excel/etc.; not legal background. I'd wager it has more to do with your being in school still, because these positions tend to be full-time.
posted by softsantear at 10:09 AM on September 16, 2008

Also, why the rush? You will have plenty of opportunities to work as a grunt during law school.
posted by softsantear at 10:10 AM on September 16, 2008

Well, the rush is because I am in need of employment, and I feel like it would be double-plus good if it was applicable to my future career.

Thanks for the input, I have applied for part-time positions, but you may be right on the scheduling front.
posted by aleahey at 10:21 AM on September 16, 2008

I'm not sure what you expect to get out of working for a law firm and "real world experience" is an iffy term that doesn't add much. Working in a non-legal capacity at a law firm, whether it be as a paralegal or not, does not teach you much about being a lawyer any more than selling peanuts at the ballpark doesn't teach you about being a baseball player. Furthermore, top law schools may in fact look disfavorably on this experience as they get tons of applications from paralegals.

The grunt work you'll do as a lawyer is not the same as the grunt work done by the staff at a firm. I'd suggest you find something you enjoy doing to get "real world experience." Not only will it help your application, but it'll help your sanity. If you're unsure about going to law school, which everyone your age should be, then working at a firm won't really give you much exposure. The best chance you'd have is to find a very small firm that let you work as an all-around gopher type. Sadly, there are plenty of unemployed law school grads who you'll be competing with for that job. If you just want to work in a faceless corporate entity as a secretary, then sure, a firm is fine.
posted by allen.spaulding at 10:22 AM on September 16, 2008

I agree with allen.spaulding -- do something fun for work in college. If you're undecided about going to law school, work as a paralegal for a year. You'll be exposed to lawyers doing work while pulling a paycheck, and it's a pretty common thing for people to do.

If you're worried about getting into law school, get better grades and a higher LSAT score.
If you're worried about being hired by a firm out of law school, then get good grades in law school or use a family connection.

Working for a law firm in college will not help you get hired in law school, and any benefit you incur from it is vastly vastly vastly outweighed by even minor fluctuations in grades.

However, in the spirit of answering the question, try a local government's general counsel's office.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 10:33 AM on September 16, 2008

Also, spending too much time working "in the field" tends, in my experience, to make law students think they know a whole lot more than they do resulting in them a) being annoying in class and/or b) not working as hard as they actually need to.

I worked with the admissions office all three years I was in law school -- having worked as a legal secretary or paralegal will help incredibly little on your application and virtually none when it comes to the job market.

If I were looking for a good legal secretary, I'd be looking for someone who I didn't think was going to dart off to law school in 9 months.
posted by toomuchpete at 10:45 AM on September 16, 2008

I mostly agree with my classmate allen.spaulding, but would be a little more sanguine about the paralegal route. As he points out, there are lots of law students who were paralegals. That's because it's not a bad idea to do paralegal work before law school. Paralegals often do (more annoying, laborious versions of) the same sort of work many young lawyers do, and they do it in the proximity of lawyers, so you can gain experience that will help you learn more about lawyers' lives.
posted by grobstein at 10:52 AM on September 16, 2008

I know people who hire like this. Just apply, there's no minuses if you don't get it.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:00 AM on September 16, 2008

I think it is a good idea. You will learn more. I've been at firms that hire this way. At some point as my own firm develops, I will be looking to hire someone like you.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:03 AM on September 16, 2008

How about looking into working for a process server/legal support company? They typically do stuff like this: Service of Process - serving documents on parties involved in a case (divorce proceedings - serving the Respondent with initial paperwork), Court Filings - picking up court documents from attorneys and filing them at the court, Court Research - obtaining documents from Court and other government offices, Special Deliveries of documents (as in I need you to get these documents to so-and-so's office by 3 pm today to obtain a signature).
posted by Sassyfras at 11:09 AM on September 16, 2008

I teach LSAT and lots of my students have done low level unpaid internships at law firms. This isn't the KILLER aspect of their law school applications - really GPA and LSAT score are what matter.
posted by k8t at 11:14 AM on September 16, 2008

Yes! Call your local Public Defender! I just met with a freshman from Georgetown University who took my deposition for a grand jury I am facing on Sept. 30. So, there's a place to start.
posted by parmanparman at 11:19 AM on September 16, 2008

Another suggestion, if you happen to have a particular interest in a certain type of law (IP, health, international) would be to look for more substantive (and likely more fun) positions in those fields. Experience in another field may make you a more interesting law school candidate.

For example, during college and in between law school and college, I worked in nonprofits organizations related to health and education and in a state health department. Now I'm a lawyer and work in an academic medical center.
posted by Pax at 11:34 AM on September 16, 2008

Lockstockbarrel has it on the nose. I worked for a couple of little firms in high school and in college, both of which made me realize that I at least liked some of the grunt work of the law, so I think it was worthwhile for me. The telling bit about both setups was that I had personal contacts at both firms, and that's how I got hired. I still suggest you go be a camp counselor or something, but personal connections are the way to go for these short-term, lackey with a future sorts of setups.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:44 AM on September 16, 2008

See the AskMe question just above yours.
posted by netbros at 12:26 PM on September 16, 2008

Another law-oriented option is to get involved with a third party documents processor. Electronic discovery is beyond important in the field of law and will only increase in importance as time progresses. Plus it sounds like with your techie background you might be helpful and learn a couple of tricks as well working with various firms that outsource their document production.
Note: that i am not advocating you merely scan and code documents for law firms.
posted by wocka wocka wocka at 12:36 PM on September 16, 2008

If you need work but are struggling to find a position with a firm you have a few good options:

(1) Do you know what area you'd like to practice in? Figure out what you might like to focus your practice on, then get part time work in that field.For example, your tech experience may correlate with a position in the tech industry; this would be useful in getting a position with a firm in their Intellectual Property (IP) division (a growing and lucrative legal practice - not mine though, I'm in indigent criminal defense).

(2) If you want to work for the public sector (city attorneys, public defenders, etc) or non-profits (ACLU, Legal Aid, EFF, etc) find a position that is low or no pay (volunteer) with them: this will help with getting into your law school of choice which (unfortunately) heavily impacts your employment prospects. It might mean a financial hit now, but law school will also cost you dearly (even public universities are costly, Boalt is going to be over $40,000/year plus living costs soon).

Honestly, if you don't know why you're going to law school, put it off for a year or three: having a clear idea of your purpose will help you focus on learning that area and prevent you from being sucked into a field which pays well but leaves you unfulfilled or with no time outside of work. There are many fun and interesting things to do with your JD and many of them pay very well though not as much as firms - it's a trade-off you're better off knowing about and deciding upon before entering school.

Best luck to you in your applications, practice, and everything else (which is what really matters).
posted by unclezeb at 1:03 PM on September 16, 2008

You might swing a job as a filing clerk at a small firm; that just means taking legal documents, maybe scanning them if the firm is technologically advanced, then physically filing and distributing them. Basically a mail clerk. You'll at least learn basic classifications for pleadings (i.e. motions vs. pleadings vs. discovery) which is actually very helpful; becoming comfortable with legal-looking documents is good for would-be lawyers. Such a job can be a part-time position.

Actual "electronic discovery" positions tend to go to people with actual legal experience, unless you work for a third-party vendor that needs you just for totally non-legal tech support.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:49 PM on September 16, 2008

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