Three young attorneys on how to give yourself an edge in the job market

August 7, 2011

Employment rates for new law school graduates are at their lowest levels in 15 years, and a growing proportion of graduates are shouldering student debt of at least $120,000. Here, three successful young attorneys — in academia, government and public interest — talk about how young lawyers can position themselves to compete for the fast-shrinking number of legal jobs.

Erin Sheley

Age: 31.

Education: Harvard Law School, class of 2006.

Current gig: Law fellow at Georgetown University, focusing on criminal law and procedure. Part-time English Ph.D student at George Washington University.


Katie Wheelbarger, former counsel to Vice President Richard Cheney, is now senior counsel on the House Intelligence Committee. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For Capital Business)

First job out of law school: Associate at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, practicing securities litigation.

Claim to fame: Her manuscript, “Fear of Ice,” made it into the top 50 in Amazon’s annual Breakthrough Novel Contest. Her agent is now shopping the novel — a mystery set in Harvard Square about a writer and a detective who uncover links between a kidnapping and the ancient rituals of a Greek goddess — to publishers.

Up next: Sheley wants to find a tenure-track college teaching position.

Advice to young lawyers seeking a career in academia: “Find time to write and produce scholarship,” said Sheley, who wrote the first draft of her novel during her two years at Gibson Dunn by forcing herself to stay at her desk an extra hour after work to write. “That’s the number one. You should have an article or two published. That’s the most important thing.”

Katie Wheelbarger

Age: 34.

Education: Harvard Law School, class of 2002.

Current gig: Senior counsel on the House Intelligence Committee.

First job out of law school: A year of commercial and patent litigation at Irell & Manella in Newport Beach, Calif., before clerking for Judge Steven S. Trott of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Career highlights: Counsel to Vice President Richard Cheney; associate general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security and counselor for Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Advice to young lawyers: “Be open to risk taking. I had a goal in mind to work for the government in national security, but how I ended up getting there wasn’t planned. I just took the best opportunities I could find along the way. Going to DHS was a risk that ended up working well for me. Have a goal in mind and be willing to go off your plan. ”

Laila Leigh

Age: 29.

Education: Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America, class of 2010.

Current gig: Family law staff attorney at Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.

First job out of law school: A fellowship at Families and the Law Clinic at Catholic University, where she worked as a law student.

Advice to young lawyers seeking public interest work: “A lot of law students think, ‘I have to be in law review, I have to be in moot court.’ I just stayed focused on what I wanted to do and selected internships and opportunities that would put me in a position to do what I wanted to do when I was done,” said Leigh, who interned at Break the Cycle (a nonprofit working to combat teen dating violence), Legal Momentum’s Immigrant Women Program (which works with immigrant women who are survivors of domestic violence) and Women Empowered Against Violence. “I wasn’t trying to get an experience that looked good on my resume. I asked, ‘Where can I work with immigrant communities? Where can I work that will get me in a courtroom? Write briefs?’ I wanted to do substantial work. That’s what I sought out, those are what gave me an advantage.”

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for the Capital Business section of The Washington Post. She previously worked at the LA Daily Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Detroit Free Press, the Wichita Eagle and the San Mateo County Times.
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