How To Gain Experience As A Young Lawyer

After starting this series, I realized that many readers might be fresh out of law school (or perhaps still in it).  Not having had a full-time job, you may be short on experience.  So how much experience do you really need to become a solo attorney?  And in such a poor job market, what do you do to get that experience?

To be honest, becoming a solo with no work experience is not ideal.  It’s no secret that law school does not prepare you to start lawyering from Day 1. Some work experience–I would say 2 years, at a minimum–provides an opportunity to learn substantive law and practical lawyering skills in your chosen practice area, without having to continually reinvent the wheel.

Obviously, the best option would be to work at a firm or other organization that can foster your development as a young attorney.  Unfortunately, however, this is becoming less of an option.  Jobs are scarce, and many employers increasingly prefer to hire experienced attorneys rather than take the time and resources to train new law grads.

It’s a difficult catch-22 , one faced by many entry-level job seekers.  I need experience.  But without experience, I cannot get a job that will allow me to get experience.

For me, a big part of the solution was volunteering with a non-profit.  Non-profits are an excellent place to gain practical experience.  Frequently, these organizations do excellent work and do a good job supporting attorney volunteers.  And they are always looking for new attorneys because the always-high demand for direct legal services has spiked during the economic crisis. 

The great thing about volunteering with a legal non-profit is that the scope of their cases is often small enough for one lawyer to handle.  This offers young attorneys a highly valuable, ground-up learning experience.  I learned so much in law school about the jurisprudence of tax law, and even did some internships.  But I had no clue when I graduated how it all actually worked on the ground.

When I was still a fresh law school grad, hunting for a job, one of the first things I did was locate the nearest low-income tax clinic in our neighborhood.  I found a great one, the Chinese Newcomers Center in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The clinic managers were more than happy to receive me.  Naturally, they were swamped with cases.

I had such a good experience there that I kept it up even after I got a job at a law firm.  Initially, I did it as pro bono work that I could feel good about.  But later on I realized that there was a valuable personal benefit, the experience I was gaining.  Through the clinic, I was able to handle matters that were far and above what I was ever able to do as a young associate.  For instance, I personally tried a case in Tax Court (something no law firm partner would ever have let me do on my own).  I also got immediate experience dealing with IRS agents and appeals officers. Only through the clinic did I begin to understand how the IRS really works, which in my field is just as important as knowing the law.

So, for young lawyers seeking a foothold in the profession, I strongly advise finding a law non-profit in your practice area.  If they take you on, be appreciative and be reliable.  The organization’s staff will come to appreciate you and so will the clients you are helping.  It can really be the best of all worlds: you’ll be doing a good deed for others, and for yourself.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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4 comments on “How To Gain Experience As A Young Lawyer

  • If you’re thinking about going solo (out of necessity or otherwise), working for a small firm during the summers can be another good way to start learning the nuts and bolts of managing a legal practice. I worked for the same small firm during both of my summers (and part-time during the school year), and I felt like it gave me a good jump-start on building toward the transition into solo practice. As far as how long to wait (if possible) before launching on your own, I was in full-time practice for 21 months before taking the leap–and looking back I still think this was a reasonable amount of time. That said, it will largely depend on what you are doing to prepare in the meantime. If all you’re doing is drafting discovery requests and performing document review for 2 years, you’re still not going to know how to handle clients and manage a solo practice. Take advantage of the opportunity to study and learn everything you can, and see what lessons you can apply and what things you can do differently (read: better) to start running your own business.

  • Law students need to be thinking about gaining experience while they’re still in law school. Clinics, externships, clerkships, and pro bono programs all help with this. Too many law students don’t hold a legal job of any kind until they’ve graduated and been sworn in. Then, when they can’t find a job, they’re left with the options of doing contract work or hanging a shingle (with NO experience). Some is better than none, and some is appreciated by potential employers too. Overall, getting experience while in law school is a win-win.

  • There are so many unemployed or underemployed people willing to work for free to gain experience and are getting turned down due to the lack of demand. Even legal aid offices are resorting to just advising people how to handle their own cases.

    It’s really ugly out here for people that cannot get jobs. I feel we could be losing a generation of lawyers due to the lack of hiring to replace older lawyers. Even the older boomer lawyers are losing a nice chunk of change going into retirement due to the lack of money circulating. You have people that graduated 4 or 5 years ago that have simply given up on practicing law.

    • Agree with you J. I have been barred just over 5 years and never could get a job practicing law as I have no lawyer experience. Did doc review for a year..sat on unemployment for over a year and now I am a paralegal with 6 digit law school debt I will never be able to glad I busted my ass for nothing!

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