Finding mentors and referees

Developing a career in law is more than just taking courses and doing good work. It is about making relationships. Along the way, people considering hiring you will look to others for feedback and help. Many employers have a lot of choices in who to hire, and they look for guidance to learn what they can below the paper record. It is up to you to figure out who your references will be, and make those relationships work for you.

Plan to have two – three faculty who know you and who can say something good about you. All three need not know you equally, but someone should know you really well.

Think about this from the perspective of faculty. We consider providing these recommendations an important part of our job. (It is also nice to place one’s students well.) Still, as is always the case, students have us out-numbered. It requires initiative on the part of students to develop these relationships.

Here are some tips on developing mentoring relationships:

  • Be practical! Sure, you loved Professor X in the first year. So did the other eighty or more people in the room. Professor X can’t be a reference for all of you. There are many, many faculty here; many teach upper level courses with fewer students and have more space for this sort of mentoring.
  • It helps to develop at least one relationship with someone who is on the full-time tenure-track/tenured faculty. Lawyering and adjuncts professors are of course also valuable, but diversify your portfolio. (Even yet, faculty move around, and it is useful to have someone back at alma mater.)
  • Think about the 1 + rule. If you did nothing other than take one class with a professor, especially a large lecture, that is not likely to be a top referee. So think about what else you can do with the same professor to develop the relationship further. At the least take another course (though, again, two large courses are still just two large courses). Be a research assistant, write a paper for the professor. Again, if you have to prioritize these, try to work with a full-time faculty member who is likely to be here as you move along your career.
  • A research assistant relationship is particularly strong. We run a program after the 1L year for summer RAs, or you can work during term time. We strongly recommend this.
  • Talk in class! If there is any comment faculty offer again and again, it is that students sit quietly in class for an entire semester, get a good grade, and want a reference. But we do not know you at all with that limited interaction. Prepare for class. Speak up! (Okay, don’t overdo it! :-))
  • Approach faculty on their turf. The faculty are all involved in research as well as real-world endeavors. They often need help, and obviously like to engage with people who share similar interests.