No 1L left behind: Inside the Career Development Office

Is it stereotype or reality? A first-year student scurries into class, realizing too late he’s missing his case briefs for today’s assignment. Then he overhears a classmate bragging about a prestigious internship she just landed for next summer – and it’s only October. “How am I possibly supposed to find a legal internship,” he wonders, “when I can’t even find my homework?”

Tulane Law’s Career Development Office doesn’t want that anxiety to be reality. Assistant Dean for Career Development Sarka Cerna-Fagan and CDO Director Katie O’Leary explain how their office is making sure no 1L is left behind in the legal job search— through professional development, one-on-one counseling and mentoring opportunities.

Q: How would you describe the role of the CDO for first-year law students?

CDO Director Katie O'Leary has an initial career counseling meeting with 1L (name).

CDO Director Katie O’Leary has an initial career counseling meeting with a first-year student.

Sarka: I think the most important thing we do is introduce the first-year class to the steps they need to take, the timeline for taking them and the many opportunities there are. Even though some students come from a legal background, many have no idea what being a lawyer entails or don’t realize how many opportunities there are.

Katie: We try to help them design a job search strategy that’s going to work for them. We also try to think short-term, in that students don’t want to get too stressed out yet about what they’re going to be doing at graduation. We try to focus them on what they’re going to be able to do this summer to get some experience on their resumes.

Sarka: We have classes in which we cover topics that should be relevant to every student, and then we have one-on-one counseling sessions with them individually. . . . One of the things I think people don’t realize is that having a career is really just stepping from one stone to another to get across the river.

Q: Do students tend to focus more on their endgame and not think about the little steps it takes to get there?

Katie: A lot of them come in with very specific goals of what they’d like to do post-grad, which is great. But it’s not always possible to get there right away. So, for example, if they come in and say, “I really want to be in-house post-grad doing something corporate—”

Sarka: Or “working for the Saints.”

Katie: That’s a great example. “I want to be in-house for an NFL team.” It’s our job to show them how they get there — what practical steps they can take for the first summer, for the second summer, what they will do initially after finishing school — and helping them see how these little experiences could build into what they ideally want to do. The other thing is, we know from experience, the interests many come in with are not the interests they have later.

Q: When do you begin working with the 1Ls?

Career Counselor Pat Guzman-Weema and Asst. Dean for Career Development Sarka Cerna-Fagan lead the 1L mini-course on professional development.

Career Counselor Pat Guzman-Weema and Asst. Dean for Career Development Sarka Cerna-Fagan lead the 1L mini-course on professional development.

Sarka: We started the mini-course Monday, Oct. 13. There, we cover topics like resume and cover letter writing, job resources, networking, interviewing and describing different legal practice areas. That’s another thing – students have little exposure to anything other than litigation, so many think they want to be litigators. But there are many other practice areas they may enjoy, and many first-year students haven’t been
exposed to them yet.

Katie: However, we don’t actually meet with the first-year students one-on-one until Oct. 15, and that is due to [National Association for Law Placement] guidelines. Every ABA-accredited law school follows that same timeline, because our 1Ls are supposed to be focusing on assimilating to law school, study habits, learning to brief cases and things like that.

Q: What else should new students expect in terms of developing their career interests and starting the job search?

Katie: One thing we encourage, particularly in the first semester and certainly in the second semester, is for first-year students to explore the educational programming throughout the law school. . . . For instance, if I want to do public interest this summer, I should definitely be at the PILF summer internship program; I want to do judicial, I should be at that. The other thing first-year students do is once they’ve had their initial counsel appointment, gone over what they’re interested in in terms of location and maybe type of position, and reviewed their materials, they should touch base again during the semester. Do they have more polished versions of their resumes now that I’ve made critiques? Do they need me to review their cover letters now that Sarka has gone over how to write one? . . . Once holiday break comes, that’s when we really suggest they get their job search in gear, after focusing on their studies and finals.

Sarka: Over holiday break, first-year students absolutely need to conduct five informational interviews, which we try to prepare them for. Additionally, they are lucky that in the South, there’s a tradition of law firms hosting holiday parties they can attend. Also, some of the bar associations have events, and they should really try to go to at least one of those.

Katie: One of the beauties of being a first-year student is there are a lot of opportunities during school to learn, enrich themselves, develop interests and network, and there are also a lot of opportunities to intern in the summer. It’s very rare that a 1L can’t find a summer internship. . . . There are so many opportunities, and they’re not under the pressure that maybe upperclassmen are to pick something similar to what they plan to do post-grad. They have a lot of latitude to just try things out, which is great.

Coffee with the CDO

Students chat with the CDO’s Pat Guzman-Weema and Sarka Cerna-Fagan over breakfast.

Q: Can first-year students expect any other professional guidance or mentoring?

Sarka: I think the school realizes how difficult the job search can be, so we are trying to give each student like a little village — “it takes a village to raise a child”— surrounding each student with several mentors. For the next incoming class, all students will be matched with alumni mentors when they are admitted. Right now, each first-year student already gets a student mentor, faculty mentor and an assigned career counselor. Once they go through first year and have a better idea of what they want to do, they will be matched with a secondary counselor and, if necessary, a secondary faculty mentor.

Katie: And they can, at any point, receive an additional alumni mentor from us. The plan is that they’ll all be matched with an alumni mentor during the admissions process, but if a student, no matter the year, comes into our office and says, “I’m interested in working in this field or this city, and I want to talk to someone in that arena,” we’ll always put them in touch, to the best of our capabilities, with someone who may practice in that area or live in that market. . . . I think it’s the same thing with student organizations, and 1Ls should take advantage of those opportunities to get additional mentors.

Sarka: Many times, a third-year student can tell a first-year student, “This is what I did for my first summer. Do you want me to call my former boss, tell him about you and put you in touch?” That should be happening more often than it does.

Q: How do you work with incoming students who just aren’t sure what they want to do?

Katie: It happens all the time, and I actually think it’s a good thing, because they’re more open to opportunities. If a student really is not sure what he or she wants to do, we try to promote internships that may be a little more general in nature, where we think the student will get practical, concrete legal skills. Also, students like that may feel anxious about the fact that they don’t know what they want to do, and maybe their classmates are very focused. Part of it is just reassuring them it’s really not a big deal and the whole point of the first summer is to explore.

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