Law school graduates pursue a vast range of careers, from family law to technology law to the frontlines of social justice. Some choose not to practice law at all.
Among those pursuing a private sector legal career, many hope to join a global law firm helping high-profile clients with multifaceted legal issues. On-campus recruitment for law firm positions can be extremely competitive. Many law students work hard for the opportunity to distinguish themselves as a law firm summer associate.
Raj Shah is a partner at DLA Piper, a global law firm with more than 4,000 lawyers operating in more than 40 countries. Beyond his work counseling notable companies in complex litigation, Shah chairs DLA Piper’s Chicago Litigation group and the Partnership Nominations Committee.
As the co-national hiring partner for associates, Shah shares with U.S. News his advice for aspiring lawyers contemplating a career at a major law firm. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What do law firms like DLA Piper look for in the law students they hire? Is there anything that candidates too often overlook?
We focus heavily on intellectual curiosity – the general willingness and eagerness to dig in and learn about the client, its business goals and objectives, and the matter at hand.
Most candidates have a sharp toolkit and can apply the law accurately, but often lawyers operate in areas where the answers aren’t clear. We want to see aspiring lawyers who can become experts about their clients’ mission and marketplace to offer them holistic and tailored advice. Can you solve problems and provide innovative solutions?
Of course, we also gauge an individual’s passion for the law, as well as their resilience to adversity and ability to overcome challenges. It’s also critical to be a strong team player.
Q: What can an aspiring lawyer do before law school, in school or in the workforce, to best prepare themselves to become a lawyer at a major firm like yours?
It’s important to emphasize that there is no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all approach to becoming a successful lawyer. Of course, your grades and your experience are important indicators of success, but it’s not simply the face value of where you worked or where you attended school. We value different perspectives and experiences. Whether you studied art history or math is less important than demonstrating the ability to apply what you have learned to your craft. Showcase how your unique skill set and experience translate into a successful career as an attorney.
Q: Do you have any advice for applicants worried that they don’t fit the mold of a typical “big firm” lawyer?
There is no one path to landing a job at a major firm – don’t worry if you feel like you have taken an unusual journey to this stage, because you may be able to bring a valuable new perspective that others might not have. Be your authentic self and show how you can add to the culture at the firm.
Q: Many law school applicants know that jobs at major law firms are prestigious and competitive, but they’ve also heard horror stories about the demands and downsides of the job. What is your advice for those uncertain about whether working at a major law firm is right for them?
The biggest mistake a candidate can make is treating all big law firms the same. Do your homework on a firm and go beyond historical data, which just tells you where a firm has been, not where it is going.
Talk to classmates or alumni who interned or worked there. Come prepared to an interview with questions that align with your career objectives. For example, does the firm focus on practice areas, industries or geographies that align with your goals? How do team members interact with one another outside of formal mentorship programs? Does the culture of the firm align with your goals for your future? There are a lot of intangibles about a firm of any size that will make it the best fit for you.
Being at a large law firm because it is “prestigious” should not be the sole goal. The goal should be going to a place that allows you to learn, do work you find rewarding and build your career for the long-term, whether you remain at the firm or move on eventually to a different type of legal work.
Q: What are some emerging trends in the legal profession that someone aiming to build a successful legal career in the long-term should consider?
When it comes to trends in the legal profession, artificial intelligence is driving a lot of the conversation right now. To embrace change responsibly, we’re utilizing AI technologies that will enhance the quality and timeliness of the services our lawyers provide.
AI will enhance our work, not replace it. In fact, strong legal analysis, writing, organization and oral advocacy will only be more important as AI starts to take on some of the more research-focused components of our jobs.
While understanding how AI is set to shape our profession is important, candidates can’t lose sight of the skills that will continue to be critical: judgement, discretion and intellect.
Q: Finally, more law schools are reintroducing interviews into the admissions process, either live or with recorded questions. As someone who’s surely participated in many interviews, on both sides, do you have any interview advice for law applicants?
If you’ve conducted thorough research, a live interview should be a welcome opportunity to distinguish yourself and connect with your interviewers. Use the interview as an opportunity to showcase some of the soft skills I highlighted as well as your passion for the profession. Also, use it as a chance to learn and ask meaningful questions that will allow you to find the right fit for your future.