Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Dear Katie column / Life after law school / Uncategorized / Wellness

Dear Katie: getting started in a legal career

By Katie Cowan

I am worried about how to get going in my career in law and have a few questions.  I want to be a lawyer. How do I find a job as a lawyer?  How do I find my niche in law? Is it better to start off with general legal experience or specialise?  Will I ever be able to work at a big firm if I don’t get a grad position? Does it matter what size firm I work at after law school? How can I manage my expectations when starting a job in the legal profession?Alyssa, 21

I love your rapid-fire style, Alyssa.  Feels like I am at a high stakes auction that is somehow taking place on top of race horses.  I have grouped your questions into four acts.

How do I find a job as a lawyer?  

There are the usual ways that I’m sure you know: going through the summer clerk recruitment process for the big firms or the Government Legal Network, searching advertised jobs, engaging a legal recruiter, and sending beautifully laid out CVs with warm, engaging cover letters out to employers who have not advertised.  And of course, there is always my tried and true $5 career advice method.  Being thoughtful, employer-specific, and patient in your method is key.

One route to find a job that I have long given side eye but recently come around to is networking events, particularly ones organised for the industry, not law school.  I used to think these were kind of slimy events where people performed practised handshakes and said things like, “Hey, slick”.  But that’s only one way to do them.  You can also treat them as a chance to find interesting people who already have jobs who you feel comfortable chatting to (the longform name for proper networking, in my view).  Asking questions and gathering information is likely to open up all kinds of new avenues of enquiry.

How do I find my niche in law?  Is it better to start off with general legal experience or specialise? 

I have written a more in-depth response to a similar question over here, but in summary: it does not matter so much, since you do not have to establish the perfect career your first shot out of the gate.  If you have an area of interest and want to specialise, try for jobs in that area.  If you don’t have an area of interest, try for generalist jobs.  There is no right or wrong answer here.  I would lean towards generalist as a blanket preference, simply because it allows you to sample more areas and tasks in practice, so there is less risk of going a long way down a very specific road that it turns out you really don’t like, but my tentative general prescription should not beat your own knowledge of what you like and want to do.

Will I ever be able to work at a big firm if I don’t get a grad position? Does it matter what size firm I work at after law school?

To the first question: yes, definitely possible!  Subject of course to all the usual caveats around recruitment.  It is often easier to get a job when you have 2-7 years PQE than it is to get a graduate position, so a transfer is certainly possible later on.  I have also spoken to a legal recruitment specialist who confirmed that grades matter less than job performance the further you go along in your career.

To the second question: it depends what you mean by “matter”.  If you are really focused on that big firm career trajectory, it follows that a medium sized or bigger firm would look better to that eventual big firm than a tiny firm.  But if that tiny firm is doing specialized work in an area you hope to one day transition into a big firm context, perhaps the specialist firm is better.  I think this question belies an assumption that there are hard truths in this area, instead of options.  To some employers one thing will be attractive, while to other employers the opposite will.  So to answer your question: yes, it probably does matter, but it depends on what you are trying to do in your career and it does not matter as much as you might think. 

How can I manage my expectations when starting a job in the legal profession?

I love this question the best of all your questions, Alyssa.  You haven’t told me what your expectations are so I can’t tell you how to manage specifics, but let me offer some principles that might help. 

First, knowing what your expectations are, including writing them down, maybe in a numbered list, will help.  That way you will be better able to assess whether they are realistic and whether they are yours (or rather a hangover from parental or societal expectations that no longer belong to you).  Know that you will be unaware of some of your expectations until they are disappointed and that’s ok.

Second, expect that your expectations will not all be met, and perhaps if they are met will be met in unexpected ways.  Allow yourself time to feel sad or angry when things don’t come to pass, and then use the new information to make changes or new choices.

Third, know that in your career there will be a lot of stuff you can control but there will be even more that you can’t, and if your expectations don’t account for the bits you can’t control you will feel very sad a lot of the time.  The world is not balanced and a legal career is only partially meritocratic.  Ideally your expectations will account for this.

Fourth and finally, allow your expectations to change.  Try not to let the specifics of some goal or hope cloud out new opportunities or realities you had not considered.  In the time before you start working you really don’t know what you don’t know.  Figuring that out is part of the fun of going through your career.  Try not to deprive yourself of that via strict adherence to outdated expectations for yourself.


It is hard for hard-working high achievers to not be in control of a thing they really want, and that’s what job-hunting is.  It will be difficult and you will likely have to be patient and try many things. Sometimes you will go down roads that turn out to be dead ends.  But that’s ok.  You are clearly being thoughtful and are engaged with the difficulty.  There are no guarantees in the search for a job, but these qualities stand you in excellent stead.  Best of luck.