Embarking on a new legal career

Issue September 2015

Law director has some tips for finding a job

Massachusetts Bar Association member David S. Merson is the associate director of professional and career development at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. He previously served as a pre-law advisor at Northeastern University's Career Center. Prior to his career in higher education, Merson practiced law for about 15 years, starting out as an advocate in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps, and also serving as an assistant district counsel and special assistant U.S. Attorney for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Merson has also worked as an immigration and business lawyer at a large private practice firm. He later opened a firm with a colleague, before ultimately starting his own practice focused on business and immigration.

Along with MBA Law Practice Management Section Chair Damian Turco, Merson was a panelist on the Sept. 9 MBA program, "Your Law Career: A Panel Discussion." Merson recently spoke with the MBA's John Blazo about finding a job in today's legal market.

What is the most asked question you get in your role in career services at a law school?

"How I can find my next job?" They want to know where to look and what they should be doing.

What are your top three job searching "tools" every job seeker should be using today?

I think the number one is LinkedIn. It is probably the most powerful tool you can use to find work. It allows prospective employers to find out everything about you professionally and personally in one place. Second is whatever documents you are using, such as resumes and cover letters. Third, keeping up to date on what you want to be doing. For example, if you are in immigration law, be up to date on immigration law. An attorney doing an interview on campus asked students if they saw what was going on with Google at the time, and none of them did. Yet all of them said they were interested in business law.

What skills are in demand in the current legal job market?

The ability to communicate effectively, both in writing and orally. The forms of communication change, but effective communication is definitely the most important one. Also, the ability to work in teams and appreciation of the field you want to work in.

Are there any areas of law with a particularly hot job market right now?

Areas of law that are hot depend partially on the area of the country you are living in. Financial compliance and contract compliance work is hot right now in Massachusetts. But energy law might be a hot area in Texas or North Dakota.

What is the most common job-search pitfall new lawyers fall into today?

The most common pitfall is just looking for postings and applying for jobs. A lot of people send out virtually same materials where instead they should customize them to the postings you see. They need to think more broadly.

What about experienced attorneys?

Getting locked into work. Not that they are complacent, but they forget about their professional development [or] don't stay active enough. You should always be moving, even if you think you are going to be at a job for 10 or 15 years.

What is the best thing lawyers can do to ensure their networking efforts are meaningful and lasting?

LinkedIn is great. It constantly keeps you connected with your contacts without having to personally reach out to them. It helps you maintain professional contacts that you might not need now, but might down the line.

For a law student or new lawyer, is it important to specialize?

Your first year and your first summer are just about skills -- learning how to be a better legal writer [or] researcher, learning how to better working with attorneys or clients. It doesn't even matter what the subject matter is. That's even true for second year and summer, but then at least you should be exploring areas you think you want to specialize in. Career exploration is very important to figure out what you like or don't like.

How important is social media in developing a professional network?

If you are looking at it from an individual or organizational perspective it can differ. As an organization it is important to have a website that is more than just text and provides information to clients and prospective employees. From an individual perspective, blogs are important --- having a blog or something where you are actively engaged and constantly involved in the conversation.

What is one piece of advice you give now that you wish someone had told you when you were starting out in your own legal career?

When you are a law student and a new lawyer there is always this expectation that you always need to be climbing this ladder -- that you are supposed to be doing something for three years then doing something else. They blindly follow this career progression without figuring out what they like to be doing. It is fine for your first couple years, but four or five years out you need to figure out what you like doing.

How can bar associations, such as the MBA, enhance your job search?

For students especially it can be helpful in a lot of ways. They can meet new attorneys to not only grow their professional network, but also their knowledge base.