PUBLISHED:March 19, 2008

Alumni offer advice to LLM students on finding jobs in U.S. market

Feb. 20, 2008 ― Three graduates of the Law School’s LLM program offered informal career advice to current LLM candidates at a lunchtime panel on Feb. 4. Lin Chua ’00, managing director and general counsel of GE Commercial Finance Working Capital Solutions in New York, Paul Hespel ’95, a partner at Goodwin Procter in New York, and Hugh Hollman ’00, an associate with Jones Day in Washington, D.C., shared their strategies for finding a niche in the U.S. market.

Hespel, a native of Belgium, promoted networking and direct contact as key strategies for establishing connections with prospective employers. He noted that he obtained his first U.S. job by directly contacting a Charlotte, N.C., law firm and pointing out how he could help its attorneys with their increasingly international clients and cases, adding that American firms are increasingly recognizing the unique strengths of LLM graduates.

“When I graduated in ’95, LLMs were a strange animal — no one had any idea what they represented or what their value was. But in today’s market people are a lot more sophisticated about what [it] represents, and the quality it brings to the table,” Hespel said. LLMs in search of U.S. jobs should also seek out Duke Law alumni and lawyers from their home countries, he said, encouraging students to become student members of the American Bar Association in order to facilitate networking within its specialty sections.

Chua counselled students to establish mentoring relationships early — before they actually need to rely on mentors for references and career advice. “If you need the relationship when you are building it, it’s too late,” she said. “Approach your lecturers after class and get to know them now.”

Having practiced corporate finance and tax law in Australia before coming to Duke, Chua, a Singapore native, worked in leveraged financing and corporate law at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York before continuing that specialty with an Amsterdam firm. She stressed the importance for attorneys to establish solid grounding in the “mechanics of financing,” expertise she now looks for when hiring external counsel all over the world.

“As early as you can, go in, ask questions, and find out how that transaction really works,” she said. With strong fundamental skills, international status “is a bonus you use to sell yourself,” she added. “Don’t underestimate the value that you will have individually, whether it’s your language skills, the environments that you can move in, your knowledge of various jurisdictions — all of these will be helpful to your work as a financial corporate lawyer.”

Hollman, originally a South African litigator, shared his path to becoming an international antitrust specialist. After graduating from the LLM program and spending three years in an investment management practice in Washington, he returned to get his JD from Duke. Specializing in antitrust law after several years of general litigation, he said, was a process of discovering the opportunities for storytelling and immersion in a client’s particular business in an area he had mistakenly thought of as “purely regulatory,” as well as strong mentoring from senior colleagues. It’s a particularly good field for international lawyers because many antitrust cases have global implications, he added.

Urging students to actively consider their interests and “not leave matters to chance,” he remarked that in today’s job market it is “getting much harder to demonstrate your value when you’re a generalist.”

In addressing the question of how LLM graduates might best present themselves to employers, Chua emphasized honesty coupled with genuine interest. “As an employer I would rather hear someone say, ‘I have an interest in this area,’ or ‘I don’t pretend to know all about it but I’m interested to find out more,’” she said. The job search is, said Hespel, an “ongoing process” requiring persistence, initiative, self-knowledge, and perhaps a share of serendipity.

In the end, all agreed that integrity underlies success. “When a deal is done, you carry your reputation and the client goes away,” said Chua. “Keep that in mind as you embark on your career. The reputation that you choose to make is what you’ll live with. Don’t compromise your integrity.”