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Legal Careers

Here’s what Cornell Law grads have to say about their work and the pathways to success.

Darian Ibrahim (’99)
Assistant Professor of Law
University of Wisconsin Law School
Madison, WI

Law teaching is a dream job. It allows for an intellectual exchange with students and faculty on a daily basis, as well as the opportunity to explore topics of particular interest in one's writing. Its great rewards, however, when coupled with the limited number of positions available, means that positions can be difficult to get. Although paths to law teaching may differ, most successful applicants share certain credentials. While in law school they do very well in their classes, serve on law review, and get to know one or more of their professors (who can later become advisors and recommenders). After law school they obtain a clerkship (preferably with a federal circuit court), spend a few years in practice, and publish one or more law review articles. Post-law school publications used to be a bonus -- now they are a requirement. Because publishing is an essential part of a law professor's job, schools view these early publications as a proxy for both interest and success in writing. Also, applicants must be geographically mobile -- they must be willing to go where the jobs are. In short, it can be tough to get your foot in the door, but well worth the effort!

Abigail Marshall (’04)
Law Clerk to the Honorable Maryanne Trump Barry
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
Newark, NJ

[I] encourage anyone who is considering a clerkship to apply. It has been an invaluable experience on a variety of levels – I feel like my legal writing has improved dramatically, which is perhaps the biggest bonus. A close second is the relationship you cultivate with your judge. On a personal level, it is of course rewarding, but on a professional level it provides insights into effective argument, presentation, and delivery skills that I think are so important for us as young lawyers. You see what sways judges’ opinions, what doesn’t and what makes them downright mad.

Lisa Wolford ('02)
Assistant Public Defender
New Hampshire Public Defender
Concord, NH

There are not many facets of being a public defender that I do not find fascinating, stimulating, and affecting, so it's hard to be succinct about why I enjoy this work so much. My clients are endlessly interesting. The issues of law, mostly ones of constitutional magnitude, are engrossing. It is satisfying to be a vindicator of constitutional rights for a clientele that is otherwise underserved, overlooked, and disparaged. The legal research and motion writing, which are involved in every case, are entirely absorbing. Courtroom litigation can be truly thrilling, if sometimes panic-inducing. Nothing feels quite like wrapping up a really successful cross examination, or delivering an oral argument that does a particularly effective job of marrying fact with law. Piecing together a trial strategy - working with the defense investigators who interview the witnesses, visiting the crime scene, figuring out what evidence will be admissible at trial, anticipating objections - is just plain fun. It is rewarding to successfully establish to a prosecutor during plea negotiations (or failing that, then to a judge at sentencing) that a client is deserving of a punishment alternative to incarceration, because their conduct, while unlawful, is the product not of some form of criminal malevolence, but of years of sexual abuse or untreated mental illness or other woefully inauspicious personal history. In short, it is both thoroughly intellectual and thoroughly personal work.

I went to Cornell knowing I wanted to work in the public interest. I decided on indigent criminal defense after spending a semester in John Blume and Sheri Johnson's Death Penalty clinic and spending my second summer at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Like other areas of law, it is a competitive field, and the interview process is rigorous. After the preliminary interview, anticipate a lengthy second interview in front of the full hiring committee, where, for example, you are required to give an opening argument that you've had 10 minutes to prepare, then answer a series of questions that require you to know the specific rules of evidence. You most want to know the following about a defender office (though these are not necessarily all questions to ask during an interview): What sort of training will you get to start? What is the case distribution - will you start out with only juvenile cases, or will you have a mix of juvenile, misdemeanor, and felony cases? Is there social services support, i.e., either an on-staff social worker, or better yet, a social work department? Are there full-time investigators on staff? If so, what is the ratio of investigators to attorneys? If not, how is investigation handled? How is secretarial work handled? Is there a formal mentoring system? Public defender work is very independent work. You do not work on your cases as part of a team of attorneys (not in my office, at least), so it's important through the first year of practice to have a more senior attorney reliably available to you to help you with your cases.