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A Recipe for Career Success

Kim Gattuso and Heather Karns

Kim Gattuso and Heather Karns

Building a law school’s professional development office from scratch is akin to making a complicated dessert. Both require several individual components combined in specific ratios to produce the desired result. Adding Wilmington University School of Law’s student-centered approach to the mix is the proverbial cherry on top. Crafting a robust career services office with a focus on student success involves balancing a variety of components, including supporting and advancing students’ career goals, connecting students with members of the bench and bar, preparing students for the job application process, aiding students in building a network, and immersing students in experiential learning opportunities. Finding the right balance of these elements creates a recipe for career success. 

Student Career Goals 

Desserts come in all shapes and sizes. Some prefer a sweet dessert, while others prefer savory. There are simple desserts and very decadent. Just as there are many variations to satisfy, the variety in career goals is equally diverse. Each student enters law school with a unique background and life experience, and each has plans to obtain a Juris Doctor and (likely) take a bar exam. Some students come to law school with career aspirations that are well-defined, such as working as a solo practitioner with a general practice in a smaller town, working in a large law firm on government contracts or bankruptcy, representing the underserved through Legal Aid, or serving the community through government service, just to name a few. Alternatively, other members of our inaugural class may have goals that are not yet fully formed. Each student’s journey during and after law school is unique. WilmU Law helps each student evaluate career options by exposing them to various career paths available with a law degree, assisting students in charting a course toward personal career goals while helping them learn about themselves, and educating students on the esteemed role and responsibility lawyers hold in our communities. Although charting a career path can be daunting, by providing an outline, action steps, and support, we hope to facilitate a positive and manageable experience.

Job Application Process

As with most things in life, what you put into something directly correlates with what you get out of it. Put simply, ingredients matter. Good ingredients and best practices yield optimal results. The same is true of the job application process. Quality application materials are essential to securing a position that will aid in advancing one’s career goals. Throughout the job search process, it is important to keep in mind several key points. At a minimum, job application materials will consist of a résumé and cover letter and may also include a transcript and writing sample. These documents form the basis of a potential employer’s first impression. As such, they should be tailored to the specific employer, clearly express your interest, and address how your unique experiences and skills might best serve the organization. Another aspect to consider in a job search is focusing on volume. Increasing your volume by submitting more applications and broadening your job search will bolster your results. Rather than focusing narrowly on a specific area or type of position, approach a robust job search by removing search filters to yield more potential opportunities. The greater the number of applications sent, the better your chances of being invited to an interview. Often it is easy to combine the ingredients and just let it bake without another thought. While that might be the easier route, checking as you bake is important. The same is true for applications. Just because you sent materials and are now waiting and hoping for a reply does not mean the process is complete. It is always good practice to follow up to ensure your application materials were received and demonstrate continued interest. Over time, your applications and targeted follow-up will lead to an interview and offer. Lastly, while you might have the “perfect position” in mind, the reality is that it may take some time to get there, and sometimes our plans change along the way. It is important to focus on gaining experience. The truth is there is something you can learn and new people to meet with every position and at every organization. Keep in mind that your first job does not need to be your last job. No matter the position, you will gain valuable experience and increase your connections along the way.  

Mentoring 

Over the past decade, we have seen a resurgence in the vocalized need for mentoring across all professions. The legal profession and environments where lawyers work are no exception. Due to the ethical standards and expectations of those who help us in our most critical moments, the need for mentoring may be even greater at the beginning of your law school journey. The question then becomes: What is mentoring, and why is it so important? While some may use the term more casually, a true mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. Like a head chef, a mentor is an individual who has gained knowledge and wisdom through experience and, as a result, can offer support, perspective, and guidance. Mentoring allows someone with this experience to share unique insight with someone less experienced in a specific area, field, or topic. Mentoring must be received; therefore, the person being mentored (often referred to as the “mentee”) needs to be open to accepting the guidance. The mentor-mentee relationship is ineffective if the pair does not have a general understanding of what each wants out of the relationship and some guidelines for how to fulfill those expectations. WilmU Law is excited to introduce mentoring into the first-year law student (1L) experience. Each 1L will be paired with a mentor based on student preferences. These mentors will have the unique opportunity to become involved in the lives of our new law students. Through regular interaction, mentors will bring to the forefront topics of importance to the legal profession and the legal career trajectory of students. Mentoring topics include professionalism, civility, societal responsibilities of lawyers, community involvement, and supporting the communities they serve with pro bono legal work. This mentor-mentee exchange will not only immediately connect students with a practicing attorney or judge in the community, but the information exchanged will become part of the student’s legal education and provide insight that will come from beyond the classroom. 

Networking 

Just as you need to preheat an oven before baking begins, students need to start engaging with members of the legal community and learning more about different areas of practice and potential career paths during the first semester of law school. Whether through the mentoring program, engagement with panelists and speakers at the law school, attendance at local state bar functions, or interacting with classmates and colleagues, students’ focus on making and maintaining connections throughout law school and beyond is paramount. The process of building a robust network is similar to the artful assembly of a layered cake where the people you meet and the paths you cross combine and layer to create a cohesive unit. Assembling this network takes time, so taking advantage of every opportunity to make connections will benefit students throughout their legal careers. One of the most important aspects of networking is remaining authentic and allowing others to get to know who you are and what you are about. Making connections with classmates and members of the legal community exposes students to different career paths, environments where lawyers work, and significant issues facing the legal community. Creating a network also provides avenues for future referrals and opportunities for collaborations. It enables students to create a support system for sharing challenges, seeking advice, and finding solutions to unique or complex issues. WilmU Law supports students with their networking efforts by creating workshops and events focused on improving networking skills, developing strategies tailored to students’ career goals, and fostering opportunities to meet and interact with members of the legal community.  

Experiential Learning 

Once the baking process is complete, each dessert needs to cool and stabilize  before it can be presented artfully. In addition to equipping students with the tools to advance their legal careers, WilmU Law’s curriculum provides practical legal training through experiential learning opportunities in the legal community. These opportunities allow students to gain pragmatic, real-world experience beyond the confines of the classroom and present a mechanism by which students combine legal theory with its application in the professional setting. 

Through experiential learning, students work on resolving legal issues on active cases with actual clients under the supervision of a practicing attorney.  This real-world experience exposes students to a wide range of practice areas and various legal environments, including law firms, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, corporate legal departments, and judicial chambers. Another important aspect of experiential learning is reflection on the experience and insights gained. With the focus on required courses in the first two years and externships and experiential learning in the third year (or fourth year for evening students), students will have essential courses before working with clients in a supervised setting. They will be expected to reflect on their daily activities.

Under WilmU Law’s proactive approach to learning, students graduate with all the ingredients necessary to navigate the next step of their professional journey. By crafting a thoughtful and intentional plan focused on individual student achievement, WilmU School of Law is building what it hopes will be a dynamic and energetic approach to student career success — layer by layer.

By Kim Gattuso and Heather Karns

Kim Gattuso, Esq., is associate dean of Experiential Learning at Wilmington University School of Law. Heather Karns is its associate dean of Career Services.

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