From temporary positions to big law: An interview with Gavin Phelps, NDLS 2016

Earlier this summer, I got to catch up with NDLS alumnus, Gavin Phelps. Gavin recently started as an associate in Lewis Brisbois’ insurance coverage group in Chicago. I really like the story of how Gavin landed his firm job because it proves wrong the perception that seems to float around that if you don’t get a firm job through the 2L OCI process, you will never get one. Well, Gavin landed a great firm job two years after graduating from law school so his career story totally blows that perception out of the water. Let’s hear it directly from him:

KMB: Tell me about your law school experience. 

GP: My law school experiences and summer internships were very litigation heavy. I interned for a Michigan Supreme Court justice my second summer and for a state trial judge through the Chicago program.

KMB: What did you do after law school?

GP: I went where the job took me, which for two years meant temp work. I started with an in-house position and then moved around to other similar in-house legal departments or the occasional short term doc review project for two years until I got my full-time offer as an insurance litigation associate with Lewis Brisbois in Chicago. Those jobs were with great legal departments such as Discover Financial Services, Faegre Baker Daniels, Axiom, and Aon. A highlight was working for the American Dental Association’s legal department in a three-month maternity leave position. I highly recommend applying for maternity leave positions. You get to step in and do exactly the same work as the person who is on leave was doing, so basically you get experience you otherwise would not get until you have been practicing for five years.

KMB: How was starting the firm job after two years of temporary positions? 

GP: I was worried I wasn’t going to meet their expectations. However, my fear was unwarranted. Reading, writing, and research skills are all universal and I had continued to build those through my past work experiences.

KMB: How did you get your firm job?

GP: By networking like crazy. Linda Weaver, a Notre Dame alumna and connector in the insurance industry, was tremendously helpful. I always go to her events and recommend that everyone in Chicago interested in connecting with insurance lawyers do the same. These events include morning networking breakfasts, which helped connect me with non-lawyers, the key being that non-lawyers, aka clients, have many needs beyond a single area of law and as such were able to connect me with attorneys in a variety of different practices. By contrast, the attorneys I met generally limited their network to their own area of practice.

KMB: How did you actually touch base with someone at Lewis Brisbois? Was that through Linda?

GP: It was a convergence of several coincidences that all overlapped by chance. I had just applied for an insurance litigation position with Lewis Brisbois when a college friend of mine contacted me to say he was in town for a national conference of actuaries to discuss insurance risk assessment. Coincidentally, Linda also informed me that the national conference for insurance coverage attorneys was happening at the same time. With Linda’s help, I volunteered to be her assistant during a happy hour she was hosting for many of the people who attended those events. This got me face time with many of the insurance attorneys who gave me great advice that helped me with my upcoming interview.

KMB: Have you always been good at job interviews? 

GP: No. It took trial and practice over the two years doing temp and contract work to learn how to interview. I learned three key things:

1: Never speak poorly about past employers ever!

A corollary of that is do not gossip on the job. You’re on the bottom of the totem pole. Be positive!

2. Don’t talk about what you want. Talk about what you can offer.

The employer doesn’t care what you want! They want to know how you can make their job easier.

3. Figure out early in law school what kind of job you want and what area of law you wish to practice.

When you get asked in interviews, “is this the work you want to do,” or “I see you’ve done a lot of X work, are you ready to do Y work?,” you should have a good answer ready but it should always be supplemented with the final remark of “I am too young in my career to say I am specialized in anything. Now is the time to help in any way I can and get my hands dirty before deciding on a specialization.” At my current firm, associates are free floating and we help on various projects so if you say you only want to do one thing, you won’t be helpful to the firm or its culture and they won’t hire you.

KMB: What else did you learn about searching for a job along the way?

GP:Tailoring your resume to the job you’re applying for is huge. People hate doing it but it’s really important. It is key to make more pronounced that one bullet point that each unique interviewer will care to see first.

KMB: I feel like I saw you in Chicago involved in other networking efforts too?

GP: I am involved in the Chicago Bar Association, Small Business Advocacy Council, and ND Club of Chicago. The SBAC is largely made up of many small firms and they are immensely dedicated to supporting each other through referrals and advice, so they are great for networking. The CBA Young Lawyers Section is the best way to socialize with peers outside of work and to get work advice, because they are in a similar boat. I also attended every ND breakfast.

KMB: You spent two years after law school in temporary positions. How did you manage finances?

GP: It was not easy and I had to be frugal. They key is to never stop applying for work because your current temp position won’t last long and it could take several weeks to line up the next offer.

KMB:  Based on what you know today, what would you have done differently in law school?

GP: Honestly, my path led me to where I am today and I am a better person for it. I wouldn’t change a thing. That said, as a piece of advice, it’s important to cultivate a personal brand starting as early as your 2L year. Switching paths after that can make things much more difficult.

If you want to get in touch with Gavin, email me and I will put you in touch.

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