Now They Just Need Jobs

July 31st, 2018 / By

Legal education is regaining some of its luster: The National Law Journal reports that applications for this year’s entering class increased 8% over last year. The news for next year is even better: LSAT-takers increased 30% this summer compared to last year. But observers, including LSAC’s president Kellye Testy, urge caution. The entry-level job market remains relatively flat, with fewer 2017 graduates finding long-term, full-time positions requiring bar admission in 2017 (23,114) than in 2011 (24,149). Those employment levels don’t accommodate our current, reduced class sizes–much less an expanded class.

Integrating employment data with admissions is a tricky business, as I and several others note in a recent ABA Journal article. On the one hand, it is worrisome for schools to charge tuition to students who are unlikely to find jobs that will fully use their expensive degrees. On the other hand, limiting admissions to reduce the supply of lawyers can raise prices for consumers (although lawyers, unfortunately, are not known for their competitive, cost-saving innovations).

However your school strikes this balance, this is a good time to consider how we can improve employment prospects for current and future students. Here are my top five ideas. Some may help expand the market for entry-level lawyers. Others could give your students an employment edge over those from other schools.

1. Think “Career Development” Rather Than “Career Services”

Most law schools offer their students “career services,” but that sends the wrong message. Only a handful of law schools can “serve” careers to their students. At most schools, students develop their careers–with the help of faculty, alumni, mentors, and career development professionals. Developing a career requires personal introspection, commitment, and other types of hard work. Let’s make this clear to students: during law school they will work, not only to learn the law, but to develop a fulfilling career related to the law.

2. Give Career Development Professionals the Respect and Money They Deserve

Career development requires much more than simply matching students to jobs. Today’s professionals draw upon a substantial body of knowledge about how to help students identify their career goals, research those goals, and design strategies to achieve success. They also cultivate contacts with a wide range of employers, creating opportunities for students. And then, of course, they offer all those counseling sessions, workshops, job panels, and employment fairs. Not to mention gathering and reporting job statistics in excruciating detail.

If your law school has increased its entering class size (or anticipates doing so next year), give some of the new tuition money to the career development office–for salaries, professional development budgets, and/or programming. An additional $100,000 for career development will do more to enhance employment than the same money spent elsewhere in the curriculum. And let’s not forget that employment success affects a school’s rank in US News and other ranking systems.

3. Learn from Employer Focus Groups

Law professors know very little about what employers seek in their new hires. Most of us practiced for a select group of elite employers–often years ago. Even when we meet alumni and other practitioners today, our conversations are relatively superficial; we are unlikely to gather strong insights into today’s legal market.

There’s an easy way to remedy this: conduct regular focus groups with employers who hire (or you would like to have hire) your students. Before you start, read a good book on holding an effective focus group. I like Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Applied Research. You’ll learn that the most effective way to gather information from focus groups is to convene a series of small, homogeneous groups. I.e., don’t try to mix a new hire at the public defender’s office, a senior partner at a mid-sized firm, and an in-house contract manager. You’ll learn more from groups composed of people who share key attributes: their insights will complement and build upon each other.

If you ask open-ended questions with groups like this, you will learn a lot–both about your graduates’ current strengths and the ways in which they might better equip themselves for a successful job search. I hope to conduct some focus groups later this year as part of an independent research project. If I do, I’ll post some ideas for conducting these sessions (and welcome suggestions from others).

Note that employer focus groups have the potential for a triple-win: (1) You’ll learn information that will give your students an edge in the job market. (2) You’ll nurture contacts that may pay off directly in jobs or networking for students. (3) Assessments by lawyers and judges also affect your school’s rank in US News. Just like everyone else, judges and lawyers tend to like institutions that seek their opinion.

4. Give Employers and Career Development Professionals a Say in Curriculum Development

Faculty control the curriculum, but shouldn’t we seek input from our career development professionals and employers? Those groups know less than we do about pedagogy, but they know more than us about today’s practice of law. In addition to holding the focus groups described above, it would be useful to include employers and career development professionals in our own curriculum discussions. If we spend a little time listening and talking–rather than dismissing anyone’s ideas as impractical or naive–we might develop some innovative approaches. Even if a curriculum change employs just 10 more students, those could be the 10 additional students joining your class this fall.

5. Teach Students How to Deliver Their Professional Services

In medicine, scholars talk about the “bench to bedside” gap. Laboratory advances (the “bench”) don’t help patients unless doctors learn how to deliver those advances at the “bedside.” Closing this gap requires two different steps: Doctors have to understand how the research will benefit their patients, and they have to create systems to deliver those benefits. Consider chemotherapy as an example. Laboratory scientists identified the ability of some chemical agents to kill cancer cells. Applied researchers and doctors then developed protocols for administering those agents as safely as possible to patients. Finally, medical organizations created infusion centers to support efficient, comfortable delivery of chemotherapy. Aspiring doctors learn about all components of this pathway: they study theory and they participate in practice.

In legal education, we often overlook the second and third components of delivering legal services. We teach students a lot about the law, but we offer relatively few opportunities for supervised practice of that law–and we give students almost no information about how to attract clients to that practice. The latter failure is a disservice, not only to our students, but to society. How will we ever offer justice to all if we can’t teach our graduates affordable ways to deliver their services to clients?

If your school is increasing its class size, create at least one new course or seminar devoted to the delivery of legal services. The course could focus on delivering services in a particular field (employment law, bankruptcy); through a specific medium (online apps); and/or to a designated population (small business owners, immigrants, low-income parents). Whatever the course’s specifics, help students learn about–and improve–systems for delivering their legal expertise to grateful clients. There’s no better way to enhance entry-level employment than to expand the use of legal services.

Conclusion

Three years pass quickly. If your law school has admitted more students this year than last (or even if you contemplate an increase for next year), this is the time to start enhancing employment opportunities for those soon-to-be graduates. When it comes to employment, law schools aren’t as helpless as we sometimes think. There are ways both to enhance our graduates’ prospects and to grow the delivery of legal services. If we want to maintain student interest in law school, we need to improve our graduates’ prospects after law school.

 

  • Tom Sharbaugh

    These are all good suggestions, particularly asking employers what they expect and soliciting their input regarding curriculum. The days of having clients subsidize the training of junior lawyers is largely over as the clients impose fee caps and guidelines that bar charging for first-year associates. The adoption of technology to increase efficiency will require even more employer input. This would cause a “we’re not a trade school” response but the easy counter reply is “we’re just like med school.”

    Also, the focus on full-time employment percentages, whether JD required or JD advantaged, fails to show the relatively low comp levels at which most new graduates are hired. There have been various studies of the bi-modal distribution of starting comp for law graduates. The lower mode, in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, is a shock to those graduates who fall in this range and have student loans to repay. If more students understood the challenges of repaying their loans, even with the income-based repayment options which often result in negative amortization, there would be many more students electing the public-service option (the balance is forgiven on the 10th anniversary without tax on the amount forgiven). Even for those who are fortunate not to borrow, it is disappointing for many to get jobs that pay amounts commensurate with what they could have been paid upon graduation from college.

    Tom Sharbaugh

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