Three Adaptations to Attract Applicants

December 3rd, 2013 / By

I wrote earlier this week about three forces that will continue to dampen law school applications, even if overall employment rates improve. Those forces are (1) the greater transparency of job outcomes, (2) the changed composition of those jobs, and (3) the narrowing of entry-level career choices. These trends may have little impact on the fortunes of a few top-ranked schools, but I think other law schools would be wise to consider them. Here are three suggestions for responding to these forces.

Stress Career Paths Rather than Options

Law schools have traditionally stressed the flexibility of a JD, noting the many career paths that follow from legal education. It is true that lawyers pursue many careers, but the immediate choices for individual graduates are relatively constrained in today’s market. Law students, moreover, have to specialize early in law school to compete for some of those positions.

Rather than fight these facts, we should capitalize on them. After working with millennial law students for several years, I’ve observed that they often ask for designated paths. They are less likely than last century’s students to seek open-ended options. Instead, they want to know how to get from “A” (the first day of law school) to “Z” (an entry-level job as a prosecutor).

Today’s applicants, I think, would respond well to specialized programs–as long as the programs offer demonstrated pay-offs in the job market. The next era of transparency may measure outcomes for particular programs. If a law school designs a program for future prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, and if 90% of students completing the program secure one of those jobs, that will impress applicants. The same principle would hold for other areas of law practice or particular settings, like small firms.

Schools could easily create these paths with existing courses, clinics, externships, and extracurricular activities. The building blocks are there; we just need to switch our mindset from one that favors options to one that focuses on paths. We also have to be willing to articulate these paths and measure success rates. If we create successful paths with demonstrated results, and share that information honestly with prospective students, I think that applicants will respond.

If you’re tempted to resist specialization, consider this: Document review requires no specialized education–any law school graduate can do it. Don’t you want something better for your graduates?

Blend Education and Employment

Government agencies, mid-sized law firms, small firms, and businesses hire most of our graduates. These employers care about people skills, personal qualities, and hands-on experience. They want new employees who already possess those skills and experience; better yet, they like to hire graduates who have already worked for them as summer clerks, part-time employees, or externs.

It’s a buyer’s market, so there’s no point arguing with employers about these preferences. The preferences make sense from the employer’s perspective, and they carry pedagogic weight as well. Some of the best learning occurs when students can combine classroom and workplace experiences.

Law schools already encourage students to work during the summer, permit upper-level students to work part-time during the school year, and field an impressive number of externship programs. We can build on that base to create more dynamic programs that blend education and employment in more central ways.

In part, this requires a simple attitude shift. Rather than treating externships and part-time jobs as necessary evils that compete for classroom time, we should embrace these experiences as positive additions to our students’ learning. We should take those workplace demands into account when scheduling classes. We should also consider charging by the credit hour, rather than the semester, so that students can integrate classroom and workplace experiences year-round without paying extra for summer classes or a seventh semester.

Most important, our faculties should engage with the organizations that employ our students. What do our students do for those agencies, firms, or businesses? How does that work fit with their classroom experiences? Are there doctrinal principles or skills that the employers would really like to see taught on campus? Are there experiences they would be willing to offer that would complement classroom work?

Too often, we draw a line between campus and the workplace, announcing that we will teach up to the line while employers provide everything else. Why not negotiate the line? Or work together during the students’ three years to create the best overall learning experience?

Blended learning fits well with my first recommendation, the creation of professional paths. A student who wants to become a commercial real estate lawyer should not have to figure out the right assortment of classes, internships, and jobs; she should be able to rely on the cooperative discussion of professors and lawyers in the field.

Create an Undergraduate Major in Law

I’ve written before about the benefits of creating an undergraduate law major. In addition to those benefits, an undergraduate law major would allow legal education to retain the “option maximizer” aura that JD programs used to enjoy. BA’s with a law major could pursue the jobs open to other liberal arts graduates, as well as some of the “JD Advantage” jobs. These graduates could also, of course, choose to attend law school. A law major encompassing half of our current JD training wouldn’t allow graduates to “do anything,” but it would open numerous doors in the entry-level, post-college job market.

Under this framework, JD programs would offer two years of more advanced training. Those programs would lend themselves well to the specializations and blended classroom/workplace learning described above. Taken together, a BA+JD program would strike the right balance between options and specialization.

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  • Benjamin Barros

    I really like these suggestions. I think it is important that students start focusing on job strategies at the beginning of the second year. Many of the employers that hire the majority of our students (as you suggest, government agencies and small firms) like to hire people they have worked with before. It is important that students make the most use of their time in law school to put themselves in the best position to get a job after graduation. Many law faculty assume that employment follows the judicial clerkship/big law tracks that they followed in law school. Those particular tracks allow for the delaying of specialization and focus because the targeted jobs (clerkship/big firm junior associate) are not specialized. The majority of students at a majority of schools do not follow this track. In my experience, students who focus earlier on jobs do better later on. This is true even if they decide to change direction, because any job experience develops skills and networks.

    I completely agree with your point about advising millennials. They welcome guidance, and will follow through if directed to do something.

    You also make a point about faculties that is fairly explicit in your post, but might be easy to miss. Law faculty need to become engaged in the employment process, and should not just rely on career services professionals to do the job. The career services folks have a lot of expertise. Faculty, however, have a unique relationship with students. Faculty knowledge of the employment process and employer preferences would also provide an informed basis for curricular innovation.

  • Kevin Outterson

    While I don’t agree with every post, I’m grateful for the thoughtful way you raise these questions. Keep up the interesting work.

  • Barry_D

    The only quibble I have is that you are claiming that a JD is flexible. No school has proven this, or has even offered evidence of it.

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