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Elizabeth K. Peck on Job Fishing, Networking, and Writing a Winning Cover Letter

Elizabeth K. Peck can't stress it enough: cover letters matter.

As proof, Ms. Peck, Director of Career Services at Cornell Law School, recalled a first-year student who applied for a summer associate position at a large firm. He did his homework, researched the firm, and crafted a memorable cover letter. In fact, although the firm didn't hire first-years, the recruiting coordinator said his was the best one she'd read in 20 years. And she strongly encouraged him to resubmit his application the following year.

In other words, he stood out.

Ms. Peck, who has also worked in career services at the Washington and Lee University and the Benjamin N. Cardozo schools of law, says the job-hunting process "isn't magical." It requires hard work and a willingness to go beyond classified ads and form cover letters.

"It takes time," said Ms. Peck, a 1994 graduate of the Duke University School of Law. "I am the first to understand that career searching is extraordinarily time consuming."

Q: What's the biggest mistake law school grads make in their job searches?

A: Not using their career services office. Many recent graduates don't know that our services are free to them for the rest of their careers. Much as we try to tell them that, that message gets garbled as they're graduating and they're just looking to go to their first job. They're not thinking down the road about what they might need.

With students -- sometimes they hold misconceptions about what our services are, who they're focused on. Career services professionals across the country would tell you they're fighting against the myth that all we do is help students in the top of the class get jobs at the big firms. That's not true. The fact of the matter is that we really make our money working with those people that aren't going to the large firms because we get to help them be creative and form more complex strategies to meet their goals.

Q: What attracted you to the career services field?

A: I entered law to help people. In this job, I get to do it every day.

What I really like about my job is that when a student leaves my office, they have an idea that they didn't have before, they have hope for success that maybe had waned before they came into my office, they have new leads, their resume looks better. For me, it is really about making an immediate, positive impact on people's lives.

Q: What's one thing you've learned on the job?

A: A huge part of my job is to help people with the emotional side of what they're going through, even for those people who are having great success. On any given day I can have one student in my office extremely upset because they're not getting the jobs they want. The very next person through the door will be equally upset because they have too many options and can't decide what to do.

Q: How can graduates find the right specialty?

A: The best way is to go to the workplace to see what lawyers do everyday. Students should be taking advantage of semester-long internships for credit. They should be doing shadowing programs; some schools will let you, just for a day. Go and meet with an alum. Summer work is a must. Our students haven't had any real-life experience beyond watching "L.A. Law," "Ally McBeal," "The Practice." Finding where you're going to fit is really about having the chance to see how you might work in a particular setting. It's not just about the kind of practice, although that matters, but it's also the setting in which you're doing it.

Q: What are your top tips for job hunting?

A: The No. 1 is use career services. The next thing is, as much as the word "networking" scares people, 75 to 90 percent of all jobs are never advertised. Even if we don't believe that statistic because it seems impossible--even if we think that somehow that number's too high and it's only, say, half, it still means that 50 percent of all jobs are not going to be in a database or found through on-campus interviewing.

A lot of students feel networking is illegitimate. Either they don't want to do it because they're frightened or they want to get the job "on their own" and not have to use contacts. Making connections with people is really the way most people find their jobs. I've done whole presentations on how to do it and tell many, many true stories of networking success. That's an essential job-search strategy that sometimes takes people a while to learn.

Another secret is to recognize there are two kinds of job avenues. The analogy I always use is the "teaching people to fish" thing. If you're hungry, you go to McDonald's and get a Filet-o-Fish sandwich; that's like going to a database and pulling up a job. But sometimes you have to take a fishing pole and go out there and find them. And the good thing about fishing for jobs--meaning contacting an employer on your own--is that you have a lot less competition. My job is all about teaching people to be more active. A student may say to me, "I really want to intern for this judge." Judges almost never advertise for interns; they're too busy. But if you take the time and ring them up or send a letter -- voila, you may have a job that other people didn't apply for because it wasn't in a classified ad.

Finally, it's really important that students understand that the application documents they send in to employers have to be perfect every time because they are expected to produce perfect documents for clients. This is your first impression on an employer, so it better be good.

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