Journaling Your Way to a Job

By: Dana Graber, Regulatory Counsel, Food Marketing Institute[1]

Attorneys are trained to document nearly everything we do.  In law school, every argument is backed by citation to corroborating case law. Likewise, in the real world, law firms spend thousands of dollars each year for document storage. But are law schools missing the mark when it comes to teaching attorneys-in-progress to consistently document their own skills and accomplishments?  I think the answer is yes, which may ultimately do students a disservice during post-graduate job searches.

Washington, D.C., where I live and work, is fiercely competitive when it comes to the legal job market. There are several local top tier law schools whose graduates remain in the District. Graduates from schools outside D.C. also flock to the capital to work at federal agencies and on the Hill. Additionally, the current political environment has resulted in even tighter restrictions on agency hiring.  Taken together, these factors result in very few jobs for a large number of candidates.

Three years after graduating from Wake Forest University School of Law, I found myself facing this scenario. While life at my mid-sized law firm was a wonderful learning experience, I knew it was not my permanent home.  After a few weeks of unsuccessful job searching, I began applying to positions for which I lacked direct experience. Branching out made it difficult to draft cover letters that would open doors and differentiate me from other candidates.

Thankfully, during my final semester of law school, I had participated in Wake Forest’s Metropolitan Externship Program, which places third-year law students in unpaid externships at federal agencies, non-profits, and courts in Washington, D.C. Program participants also take an accompanying course on professionalism. As part of that course, our professor required us to keep a journal memorializing our daily work. At the time, documenting every task I performed at my agency seemed excessive and burdensome. However, during my post-graduate job search in a highly competitive market, I recognized the tremendous value of journaling.  I consistently reviewed my journal to find helpful examples to discuss in my cover letters. For research-intensive positions, I pulled information from my journal regarding research tools I had used that I could highlight to showcase my suitability for the position. While I applied to over fifty positions before landing my current role, using my journal simplified the application process and likely enhanced my materials.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, journaling proved to be one of the most useful exercises I completed in law school, and I would encourage other professors to incorporate journaling in their courses as appropriate. Perhaps doing so is one way to teach law better. Even if a professor does not require journaling, he or she should still encourage students to keep notes of the tasks they complete during their externships for use in future job searches or conflict checks. Remembering the intricate details of past work can be difficult, but journaling ameliorates that burden. Given that most modern attorneys will have more than one legal job in their lives, consider journaling today to help you obtain your dream job tomorrow.

[1] With contributions by Professor Abigail Perdue, Wake Forest University School of Law.

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