Like thousands of new law school graduates across the country, Brittany Peters knew the legal job market she was about to enter could be daunting. It was the spring of 2013; who was she kidding? She had seen the headlines and heard the horror stories. This job search was going to be tough.

To make matters worse, after three years spent building a professional network in the Twin Cities, the lifelong Minnesotan had made the decision to pack her bags and move to Bozeman, Montana, where she knew no one.

But Peters, now deputy county attorney for the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office, had a couple important tools in her back pocket as she approached graduation: three years’ worth of professional relationship-building experience through the nation’s top externship program, and a savvy attorney named Adam Brown.

Since its 1999 founding, the University of St. Thomas School of Law has placed particular emphasis on community and relationships. For years, the School of Law has landed at or near the top of “quality of life” rankings for law schools, with students reporting time and again that the School of Law community makes the rigorous and challenging law school experience a positive one.

That sense of community comes from after-class get-togethers at Professor Robert Delahunty’s house. It comes from a student life division that includes clubs for students of all faiths and backgrounds. It comes from a classroom culture that encourages conversation about the individual values each student holds dear.

But more than that, for St. Thomas law students, community means developing a professional identity that is grounded in relationships – professional, personal and long lasting.

A Personal Introduction to the Legal Profession

As early as elementary school, Colorado native Kelli Riley’s teachers began planting the seeds for her career as a lawyer.

“They’d say, ‘If you’re so interested in being able to make arguments and advocate for things, maybe you’d be a good lawyer,’” Riley recalled with a laugh. “Later, as a teenager, I came to really connect with the concept of advocating and sticking up for people who don’t have a voice.”

A 2012 graduate of the School of Law, Riley was attracted to St. Thomas because of its high ranks for quality of life. A campus visit sealed the deal. “I was just instantly in love with St. Thomas,” she said. “The people were so warm. It felt like the kind of place where I would want to spend as many hours as I needed in law school.”

Those early impressions rang true as Riley became a student and experienced the faculty, curriculum, clinics, externships and student organizations firsthand.

“Not only did I feel like I had great relationships with my classmates, I felt like I could talk to any faculty member about anything,” she said. “They were really receptive and invested in me.”

It was through the Mentor Externship program, though, that Riley realized how great an impact the St. Thomas community would have on her career. From day one, her first-year mentor, League of Minnesota Cities defense litigation supervisor Patricia Beety, began preparing her to become a woman litigator. Later that year, it was with Beety’s guidance that Riley was offered an opportunity to observe Beety argue before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In her second and third years, Riley was paired with Amy Taber, an employment defense attorney with Barnes & Thornburg, LLP, and Paul Lucas, partner with the employee and consumer rights firm Nichols Kaster.

Riley observed depositions, drafted complaints, and connected with other attorneys in her mentors’ networks.

“A lot of students from other law schools leave school already burned out,” Riley said. “My experience in law school was so positive I just couldn’t wait to become an attorney.

“I would meet attorneys at networking events and they would say, ‘Nothing I learned in law school prepared me for practice,’” she added. “I don’t think it was just my naiveté that made me believe that wasn’t true for me. Even the coursework at St. Thomas was set up in a way to help me start grappling with some of the toughest things about being an attorney.”

Now working as an associate attorney with Kaplan Morrell in Greeley, Colo., Riley taps into the skills she learned in her Client Interviewing and Counseling course every single day. In practicing workers’ compensation and heading her firm’s new immigration department, she says more than half her time at work is spent helping clients cope and counseling them through difficult situations.

“The things that make me good at my job are compassion and ethics,” she said. “Law school at St. Thomas prepared me for that.”

Peters, too, has felt the St. Thomas community impact each element of her career. Landing her job, she knows, started long before the job search began.

It started in her 1L year, when she was paired through the Mentor Externship program with Karen Cote, a personal injury defense attorney with Brett W. Olander and Associates. It continued into her second and third years, when she observed depositions, negotiations, trial preparations, mediations, civil trials and counseling sessions with her mentors and employment and labor law attorneys Meghann Kantke of Gray Plant Mooty and Phyllis Karasov of Larkin Hoffman.

“These experiences helped me see the forest through the trees,” Peters said. “They enabled me to place classroom concepts into the real world.”

Community-Based Career Strategy

So where does that savvy attorney Adam Brown come in? Through Brown, it’s clear that the School of Law’s community runs deep.

A career strategist with the School of Law’s innovative J.D. Compass pro- gram, which hit the ground running in its inaugural year in 2013, Brown works closely with the Career and Professional Development team to help new grads like Peters find meaningful jobs, even in a down market. A 2006 graduate of the School of Law and an attorney with the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals, Brown helped Peters and many other 2013 grads make all the right moves to land their first legal jobs. (See a profile of Brown.)

“Adam taught me how important it is to get out of your comfort zone, take chances and put yourself out there,” Peters said. “This was especially important for me, as I had migrated to a new community where I didn’t know a single soul. Taking Adam’s advice to ‘get involved,’ I joined our local bar association, volunteered as a legal advocate for our local domestic violence assistance program and participated in several clinic-type opportunities in the community.”

It was through the relationships she formed in those settings that Peters discovered and was recommended for the position she now holds with the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office.

The relationship between a new graduate and his or her career strategist can make all the difference. When Peters told Brown she’d landed an interview, he sent her dozens of resources for potential interview questions, then took the time to help her develop an organized plan for the interview.

“Because I went into my interview knowing that truly there was nothing more I could have done to prepare, the nerves melted away and I was able to make a good presentation to the
four people on the hiring committee,” Peters said. “Since being hired, I have been told that it was obvious how much time and effort I put into preparing for the entire application process – from my résumé to my responses to interview questions – and that was one of the factors that helped me stand out from the other candidates in the applicant pool.”

Frank Aba-Onu ’10 knows the process well. He had a job lined up with Aafedt, Forde, Gray, Monson & Hager, P.A., at the time of his graduation from law school, but transitioned into the public sector two years later, where he now serves as assistant attorney general with the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General.

As a J.D. Compass career strategist for the class of 2013, Aba-Onu put his own professional relationships to workon behalf of up-and-coming attorneys. “I don’t take credit for anyone landing a job; I just nudge them in the right direction,” he said. For a 2013 graduate who was interested in civil rights work, for example, Aba-Onu – who once worked as a certified student attorney for the St. Thomas Community Justice Project – reviewed application materials, conducted mock interviews and offered networking advice.

“Through J.D. Compass, we have an opportunity to really help people at the time of greatest need,” Aba-Onu said. “Many students are really stressed about taking the bar and finding a job. Having someone out there in the profession who is actively helping you find meaningful employment is a comfort.”

After three years of mentors, a yearlong judicial externship, a year working as a certified student attorney with the Elder Law Clinic, working with Brown in J.D. Compass and doing a job that she loves, Peters, too, knows that success in the legal profession is all in the relationships. It’s a lesson learned in law school that has carried on into her career.

“Professors at St. Thomas are quick to point out that law is a collaborative profession – you won’t get very far unless you’re willing to ask for and offer help,” she said. “While students were competitive for top marks in their courses, I received help or advice countless times from other classmates who were competing for the same grades I was. Law school is hard enough as it is; why make it harder on one another?”

Mentor Externship

The innovative Mentor Externship program at UST Law has been ranked No. 1 for externships nationwide since 2010. Through a network of nearly 500 lawyers and judges, the program pairs every student with a legal professional for each year of law school, helping students gain work experience, develop relationships and navigate the legal field.

J.D. Compass

The groundbreaking J.D. Compass program pairs each UST Law graduate with a career strategist who works to help graduates secure full-time, long-term employment. Career strategists fall under the umbrella of the Career and Professional Development team to help graduates identify job openings, develop application materials, provide feedback on job strategy and offer support through networking, among others.

Read more from St. Thomas Lawyer.