5 Things You Need to Land a Job After Law School

03/26/2015 12:42 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

If you're one of the brave souls who is exploring law schools, or the further distinguished brave ones that has already been accepted, the job market seems pretty bleak. Between the declining employment ratings and negative articles all calling for the "death of law schools," the news of your law school acceptance is more likely to be greeted with "Are you sure?" rather than excitement and well wishes.

However, the real question law students should be asking isn't "Will I find a job?" but "How do I get a job?"

There's been a long debate on the entitlement students feel in getting a career after graduation. I think we can all agree: having a diploma isn't the sole requirement for any job. Nonetheless, as a Career Adviser, it's my job to empower students to identify and secure the tools and skills necessary for eventual employment. I work with students not on the will I, but the how to get a job after graduation. And the reality is, while the legal profession is a challenging and competitive job market, all hope is not lost for J.D. applicants. Success can be realized with the right preparation, skill development, and investment.

Here are five key things that will help maximize your legal education - and most importantly, help you find a job:

Practical Training, Specialized Skills
As clients and employers look to ways to be more efficient (read: save money), they are no longer willing to foot the bill for on-the-job training. It's not like when your parents went to law school then followed graduation with an apprenticeship. Now J.D.s are expected to enter the workforce "practice ready."

Experiential learning provides the education in interviewing and interacting with clients, as well as helping to develop practical problem-solving protocols and situational analysis. Identify experiential learning opportunities that put you in front of clients and situations that are common in the practice of law to better hone your skills. These opportunities can come in the form of externships, in-house legal clinics, or immersion in semester-in-practice programs.

But having practice beyond the classroom is becoming more common, so to maximize this time investment, look to focus your skills training and experience. Lawyering is more intensely specialized than ever and applicants with relevant work experience within a specific practice area stand out among their peers. Whether you're looking to be a private practice lawyer, consumer advocate or wealth management adviser, experience (as well as elective course work) should best prepare you for that career.

Advanced Competencies Beyond Lawyering
Let's face it, when applying for a job, you're never the only applicant. You need to stand out among several other candidates, many with the same qualifications as you. But assuming all candidates have a solid foundation of legal doctrine and theory, it's your competencies beyond lawyering that help differentiation you from other applicants.

Employers are looking to add team members that bring value to the firm or company beyond legal expertise. Skill sets like business development, emotional intelligence, reading and understanding financial statements, and project management are all critical professional skills, but largely absent in many newly minted lawyers. Seek opportunities - either in law school or outside training - to develop and enhance these important qualifications. This will increase your market value.

A Framework of the Changing Legal Landscape
One of the contributors of a declining workforce is that many lawyers and law schools have not kept up with a changing legal environment. In order to land a job, it's important to stay relevant. And in order to do so, you need a substantive framework of the past, present, and future of the profession.

Broadly: you need to understand the intersection of the legal profession and the field in which you plan to practice law.

Specifically: you need to figure out how you fit into a global, technology influenced career.

For example, you might work in a domestic practice in rural Pennsylvania, but represent a client who operates an online retailer. Your client is now subject to international and transnational law. Having baseline knowledge of non-domestic sources of regulation, as well as the ability to research and analyze global law, is a valuable asset to any firm or employer.

The same value can be applied to the understanding of the different applications of law and career choices. Gone are the days of legal jobs being limited to practicing in a law firm or engaging in public service, either in the governmental or non-profit sector. I encourage students to educate themselves on the full context in which they can use their law degree. That knowledge, coupled with specialized skills, will open far more doors.

A Focused Plan, and an Accompanying Strategy

When it comes to identifying and ultimately landing a job after law school, one of the first things students need to understand is that it's important to be active rather than passive. In this economy, especially for law school grads, jobs aren't landing in your lap. To navigate a challenging market, students need to have a focused career plan and a strategy to best position themselves for job offers.

The key: develop a plan as a 1L, don't wait until graduation is looming. Talk to professors, utilize Career Services resources, and identify mentors. Your first year is really all about figuring it out. Honing in on what kind of job you do want, and just as important, the job you don't want. Your plan must be deliberate and detail what experiences and skills you will need. To help students identify their propensity for a particular career, I like to ask the following questions: What brought you to law school? What are your passions? What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses?

As a 2L, you should be putting that plan into place. Gaining experience, learning specialized skills, and developing your personal network during this time is critical. Consider how to maximize and best utilize your time during the semester and over summers. Three years go by faster than you think!

In the final year, I advise 3Ls to hit the ground running. By this time, you should have identified an intended career path, are regularly involved in professional development opportunities, and have established trust among potential employers. Ensure you're polished - from your resume and interview skills, to advice and job referrals. And of course, continue applying for jobs.

A Strong, Connected Network

You may have heard this a million times, but because it's rooted in truth, here it is again: When it comes to getting a job, it's all about who you know and how connected you are. (And I don't just mean connected on LinkedIn or Twitter.)

Developing and nurturing a professional network is invaluable to career success. This is especially true for the legal profession, an industry that is relationship driven. Cultivating a network should begin early in your law school education to establish strong relationships and a positive reputation. Relationships should be authentic and nurtured; and your network should be diversified yet focused.

Attend as many school events (i.e. guest lectures, mock trails, sponsored receptions, student forums, association functions, etc.) as you can; volunteer or hold a position on a student-run committee; and join related professional associations. It's a common anecdote in this profession that only 40% of jobs are openly advertised, while the rest are filled within a network. So many of those I counsel ultimately earn employment from authentically connecting with fellow alum. The Penn State Alumni Association, the largest alumni network in the world, is one of the most valuable resources for our students, and is rich in connections and opportunities.

Once students have been matriculated into law school, the real hard work begins - and I don't just mean course work. This is when your professional career begins. Your destiny isn't to end up part of the statistic of law school graduates who are un- and underemployed. Despite the testimonies of disenfranchised lawyers, you can translate your valuable education into a career. Be diligent and aggressive in ensuring you are well positioned for employment.

The key takeaway is that being well-dressed and having a law school diploma isn't enough; you need substantive, actionable qualifications that make you more valuable than other candidates. And being well connected can't hurt either.