Grades Or Experience? The Great Debate

Since the economy plummeted and job availability for attorneys went south, the question has been debated by third year law students throughout the country: getting the grades or having work experience–which is better for getting a job after law school.
I can only speak from my own personal experiences, but there seems to be a very apparent catch-22. Employers want a new associate with experience. In order to get that experience, law students need to create enough time and space in their week and work during law school (and, of course, during their summers); however, working during law school most likely means sacrificing on your studies (and as most law school professors might tell a law student, sacrificing on your studies will only weaken your grades). If your grades suffer, the first thing employers notice on your resume is that you’re not in the top of your class (be it the top 5%, 10%, etc. depending on your job market). If you’re not in the top of your class, employers apparently think you lack the ability to perform in the real world of law. By that same token, however, if employers see that you’re in the top 10% of your class, they next criticize your lack of experience. And far be it from me to point out to a potential employer in a cover letter or an interview (if I’ve managed to somewhere scrounge one up) that I’m a law student and law related experience is hard to come by (you would think this would be obvious to the employer–I don’t know many law students with four or five years of litigation experience).
Maybe you’re thinking to yourself though that you’re in the top 10% of your class AND you have actual legal experience so I should be fine. Not to be the pessimist–or maybe to be exactly that–you’re still not guaranteed a job. Surprised? Shocked? Me too! I’m in the top 10% of my class, and I have work experience (two and half years to be exact). Now granted, my experience hasn’t been in front of a judge. I spent a year and a half working in a public defender’s office, and I’ve spent close to a year at the United States Attorney’s office as a law clerk. You would think, however, that this would make for a fantastic resume, and you would be wrong (to an extent). My problem is that my work experience is all in the criminal law field, and when civil law firms see that they either a) question my desire to work in civil law or b) question my ability. Now, I cannot help but be offended when my ability is questioned; after all, I’m in the top of my class, and I’ve only taken 3 criminal law classes (so obviously I’m excelling in civil areas of the law, but alas the civil firms appear to overlook this). I say to ALL the potential employers out there, civil and criminal alike, I CAN DO ANYTHING YOU NEED A NEW ASSOCIATE TO DO!
Word to the wise, perhaps that should be the subject line of all your cover letters from now on. Not that you have legal work experience or that you’re number five in your class, but that you have NO preference for a particular area of the law. Perhaps by making this abundantly clear in your cover letter, when employers read your resume and see that you’re at the top of your class and that you have work experience (regardless of whether it’s only criminal or only civil) they won’t disregard you for what they see as potential strikes against you.
Forgive me for rambling; the point is don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Get a job during law school, but don’t over work yourself at the expense of your grades. And if you’re lucky enough to make the grades and get the experience, make sure it’s in both criminal and civil law. If you do those things, maybe you’ll get the job that I just can’t seem to get (and if you do get that job, put in a good word for me–my resume is posted at http://jodyslaw.wordpress.com/ and http://www.linkedin.com/in/jodysellerslaw).
* Contributed by Jody Sellers is a current 3L law student, who between his limited free time, writes reflective blogs offering insight into the law school experience.