Law schools once were a harbor for college graduates who hadn’t settled on a career. Schools even billed themselves as the equivalent of a “graduate degree in the liberal arts.” But the escalating cost of legal education, combined with a shrunken job market, has made that approach a bad bet for students. Most students who pay to attend law school today want to be lawyers. Should law schools consider the likelihood that individual applicants will achieve that goal? Or that the applicant will appeal to legal employers down the road?
Some business schools, according to the Wall Street Journal, are asking these questions as part of their admissions process. A few of these schools are including career services staff on admissions committees, and others are sending career counselors to admissions fairs. With both techniques, the schools say that they aim to (a) assess an applicant’s plan for using the MBA; (b) judge whether the applicant’s employment background, academic aptitude, career plans, and soft skills will appeal to employers; and (c) give the applicant useful feedback about the likelihood of capitalizing on an MBA.
What if law schools adopted a similar approach? What impacts would that have?
Building employability into the admissions process might force schools themselves to assess job outcomes more realistically. If a school is placing only 50% of its graduates in jobs that require a law license, should the school continue admitting twice as many students eager for those positions? If the school believes that other kinds of jobs are attractive for its graduates, should it admit students who express specific interest in those outcomes? If we believe, for example, that compliance jobs are attractive for part of our graduating class, should we seek applicants who know about those jobs, understand the salaries and career tracks, and are eager to use a JD in that world?
Connecting placement to admissions, in other words, might give schools a healthy dose of reality about the number of students they admit and the types of work they will find after graduation. The connection could complement–and further enhance–increased transparency about law school job outcomes. More important, it could push schools to think more deeply about the type of jobs that JDs want and that the degree qualifies them for.
What about the admissions process and admitted class? Some prospective students might welcome the opportunity to be judged on their employment background, the seriousness of their career plans, and their interview skills, rather than simply on LSAT scores and GPA. A school that involves career services in admissions might also impress applicants with the school’s attention to that goal.
Students applying to schools with an employability focus would have to research legal careers more thoroughly. They would no longer be able to rely upon essays proclaiming a broad desire “to help the world” or “become a BigLaw associate” if they had to converse with an interviewer knowledgeable about specific areas of law practice. But maybe that’s a good thing. Both law students and their schools might be better off with classes composed of people who have formulated serious career aims. Few people seem to choose medical, dental, or veterinary school as a generic “Plan B.” Does that fact give those schools more professional gravity?
Stressing employability, on the other hand, cuts against two notions that many legal educators cherish deeply. One is the idea that law is a broad intellectual discipline rather than simply a trade. But I don’t think of medical schools, dental schools, or veterinary schools as mere “trade schools.” If they are, I’m pretty thankful for their trade focus when I need a root canal or other help. And to the extent law school once was a program of intellectual study preparing graduates generally for thoughtful careers, we closed that door ourselves by raising tuition as high as we have.
A second strongly held belief is that law practice builds on a general foundation, that students should study many aspects of law, and that students shouldn’t have to specialize too early. If students shouldn’t specialize, then how could we possibly ask applicants to declare planned career paths?
I understand this belief–I certainly didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I was 22 years old–but it may be outmoded. We live in a sped-up world in which education is very expensive. People who choose to invest in education, especially graduate programs, may need to have specific plans for that investment.
Perhaps more important, today’s world is much more fluid than the old one. As a result of that, I think students understand (much better than I did thirty years ago) that no initial direction lasts forever. Planning a career involves setting a target, moving toward that target, and remaining adaptable as the environment changes. Ironically, fluidity may require more direction than the more static world of yesterday. If the economy, technology, and job market shift constantly, then someone with no direction may be completely lost–not just maintaining their options. To succeed in today’s rapidly changing world, it may be key to have a firm sense of direction combined with skills that allow continuous monitoring of that goal and adaptation as necessary.
I think of this as the GPS view of careers. A GPS device is exceedingly adaptable; it will take you anywhere you want to go. But the device won’t take you anywhere at all unless you ask for directions to a specific site. Maybe we need to start assessing our applicants’ GPS strength as well as their GPAs.
Hat tip to Richard L. Kaplan for the reference to the Wall Street Journal article.