Should Young Lawyers Do Volunteer Work?

Volunteering for Young Lawyers
Does it really help?

In a legal market where jobs are harder and harder to come by, many law students and young lawyers are looking to volunteer to try and distinguish themselves from the pack.  The question is – does it work?

In a recent podcast about job interviews I suggested that the profession was seeing far too many clones coming out of law school.  It seems that all young lawyers have decent grades, a little experience, and usually some volunteering under their belt.

There’s a few problems with this pandemic of volunteering young lawyers and law students, and I thought I’d explore it a little today.

Is Volunteering Really Good for your Job Prospects?

Yes and no.

The problem is that universities have stuffed the heads of young students with the concept that they are prime job candidates if they:

  1. Get good marks;
  2. Get some job experience;
  3. Volunteer with a legal organisation of some sort.

These all sound good in principle, but the difficulty is that EVERYONE IS DOING IT.

In a candidate rich market, your goal is really to stand out to your employer (or prospective employer) in a positive way.  So ask yourself this: if you’re doing the same kind of volunteer work, job experience and activities as every single other candidate out there – do you really stand out?

When is Volunteering Bad for your Career?

The biggest issue, by far, with volunteering is when it isn’t genuine to you personally.

This is a common trap for young lawyers.  They feel that, simply because they are lawyers, they should only ever volunteer for legal roles in legal areas.

Is there anything wrong with volunteering for a community center?  Of course not.

Except where you have no passion for it.  If you genuinely WANT to use your skills and training to benefit people in a strict legal field, then please do.  But if you’re volunteering in a legal arena because you need a “I volunteer for” line in  your CV, then you’re grabbed the wrong end of the stick.

You see, any lawyer or HR manager interviewing you can spot a fake a mile away.  And when they ask you about community legal service, and your frozen, fake smile betrays the fact that you actually hate the volunteer position, then you instantly go down the list.

In short: don’t volunteer unless it’s authentic.  You’re doing yourself a disservice, and you’re not doing your job prospects any favours – instead you’re just becoming a clone.

So what SHOULD you volunteer for?

It might sound like I’m down on volunteering, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.  Rather, I’m down on volunteering when you don’t care about the organisation you are volunteering for or, more importantly, about its clients.

Instead, find something you’re passionate about.  Your training as a lawyer gives you transferable skills in a variety of areas.  You can write newsletters, help with emails, answer the phone, assist small boards with compliance issues.

I’d be amazed if you can’t find a charity in a niche that you care about – you’ve just got to look.  Volunteering for an organisation where you have a genuine personal connection with the cause can offer great fulfillment and enrich your life in ways that you won’t even anticipate.  But without the genuine passion, you will gain very little, and offer even less.

So now think about this – which of these candidates stands out more in an interview:

  1. The candidate who’s sister has breast cancer, and so they volunteer weekly for a cancer organisation devoted to providing assistance to families affected by cancer; or
  2. The candidate who volunteers for a community legal center, but when asked why can’t actually say what about it they are passionate about.

To me the answer is obvious.  But what about you?

Got ideas for charitable areas where young lawyers can help out?  Please let us know in the comments!

Happy lawyering!

  • What happened to volunteering to give back to our communities and things we care about? It shouldn’t be all about whether it helps our careers and getting ahead.

    • Hi Louise – I suspected somebody might say that so I really appreciate your comment. What you point out is exactly the problem. Young lawyers AREN’T volunteering for that reason – they’re doing it because they feel like they have to get the line on their resume. I absolutely encourage people to give back to the community – but if the only reason you’re there is for your CV and not because of a genuine interest in the cause, then you should be finding some other outlet that you actually care about instead.

  • I volunteer with Dads In Distress (hasn’t helped me get a job),

    but having lost a close friend during my uni law degree, and helped another mates through their Family law problems, it isn’t about helping with my career, job, etc.

    I don’t list my volunteer work on my resume, nor is it included in application letters or the like – sorry, but i probably would even mention it during an interview.

    but then I am a “mature” grad …

  • I’m a middle aged (some might say older) lawyer and sole practitioner. Whether or not I employ someone is not impacted by volunteering in legal services or even using their legal skills in any voluntary basis; their skills and knowledge are more important. However, I strongly believe that we should all contribute back to our communities, whether that is using the skills we have as lawyers or not. Being engaged in outside activities and involved in community groups is part of being a rounded human being, lawyer or not!

  • >