Conferences / Symposia, Job Searches, Law Schools, NALP, National Association for Law Placement (NALP), Small Law Firms

NALP 2012: Does Your School Even Know How to Get You a Small Firm Job?

Well, I’m back in New York. It’s cold, it’s rainy, there’s no barbecue, and I’ve been sober for hours. Austin, I miss you already.

But I wasn’t in Austin to have tremendous fun, good food, and become introduced to this new concept of “closing” that doesn’t really exist in NYC. There was a conference to attend, and I’m here to report on how to get a job at a small law firm.

Because chances are, the career counselors at your law school aren’t really going to be able to help you.

At NALP 2012, I attended a panel called: “Raising Your School’s Profile in the Land of Opportunity: The Smaller Firm Market.” I figured the room would be overflowing, considering smaller firms are the only firms where hiring is on the rise. But the panel was just regularly attended, not “holy God, missing this would be a dereliction of my duty” attended (only panels with the words “social media” in the name needed overflow seating). The presenters were knowledgeable, and the attendees were eager to learn, but it seems that way too many schools are still stuck in a Biglaw or bust model that isn’t responding to the new hiring realities for most students….

The panel was hosted by Linda Hanson, Director of Professionalism at the Florida Bar, and Samantha Williams, Director of Employer Relations at Arizona State Law. The two did a good job of outlining a problem that many law schools have: institutional resistance from law school faculty and deans about the small law firm market.

The presenters argued that many law schools are so used to the Biglaw model, on-campus interviews, and huge summer classes, that they haven’t reacted to the clear market trends. “Small firms don’t pay for buildings or events,” said Hanson. As a result, many law school deans are resistant to doing the things necessary to bring in small firm employers. They’re still hoping to bring in employers that will hire 30 or 40 students at a time. And we already know that the days of big summer classes are over.

When I asked the room if their deans were seriously resistant to small firm jobs, the audience snickered at me as if I were a child who who wandered into the middle of a movie and wanted to know what’d been going on. Obviously, the career services officers in the room felt like they didn’t have a lot of institutional support for their small law firm employment initiatives. And that might explain why the panel wasn’t busting at the seams with other conference goers eager to learn new tricks that might help students actually get a job.

When you take a step back, it makes perfect sense that law school deans don’t know or don’t care about the only sector of the legal job market that is hiring more people now than they did five years ago. It makes sense that schools are sticking with the easy model of OCI until the bitter end. I spent some time at the JD Match booth during the conference (disclosure: JD Match has been an Above the Law advertiser), and it makes sense that their services are still relatively unknown even by career services professionals who should be taking an “all of the above” approach to getting students jobs.

It makes sense because the law school academics who make decisions don’t really understand what’s going on in the hiring market for their graduates. If you ask a law school dean whether Constitutional Law should be taught as a first year course, you’ll get a freaking dissertation. If you ask him or her what a 1L small law firm orientation should look like, they’ll stare at you like you just asked them about something that happened on Tumblr.

If administrators at your law school don’t have a concrete plan to help students get jobs at small law firms, they’re just stealing your money.

In any event, the one key takeaway from the presenters was that the people in the best position to get a small law firm job after graduation are the people who start early. If you are a 3L and plan to walk into your career services office after finals with a “get me a job” plea, not only will you not have a job, but career services officers will run up to me in the middle of a hotel ballroom to make fun of you.

This panel was the only one I went to at NALP this year where I heard the term “rainmaking,” and the presenters discussed what law schools can do to help students learn this skill. Can you imagine taking a class on “rainmaking” instead of comparative prostitutional law as a 3L? Williams said that schools need to “recognize that law students are not business majors,” and therefore career services has to help students get the entrepreneurial skills they need to work in a small law firm environment.

There’s no reason that can’t start 1L year. The panelists suggested that schools bring in actual small-firm or solo lawyers to speak to students during their 1L year. Along with all the usual networking advice, they talked about how meeting these lawyers in person is valuable in their development.

It makes sense, because big firms are always putting their associates and partners right in everybody’s faces when hiring seasons come around. Why wouldn’t schools make it so small firm lawyers can do the same?

Oh, because that’s not how law schools have always done things? When it comes to getting small law firm jobs for graduates, it seems like one huge factor is whether or not your law school even cares about the effort. Does your school have a plan? Maybe you should ask them before you strike out during OCI.

Earlier: NALP 2012: Good News, We’ve Probably Hit the Bottom

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