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The Brave New World of Entry-Level Recruiting

Greetings from San Francisco, home of the world champion Giants, surprisingly noisy trolley cars, and the faint smell of cannabis pretty much everywhere. We’re in town to attend Ark Group‘s conference on “The Brave New World of Entry-Level Recruiting,” which examines how the world of law student recruiting by firms has changed (and will continue to evolve) since the onset of the Great Recession. Moderated by Bruce MacEwen, who kicked off the proceedings by framing the day as an opportunity for “frank conversation” between schools and firms, the conference featured an absolute Murderers’ Row of industry thought leaders, including Orrick‘s Ralph Baxter, legal academia’s apostate Paul Campos, NALP’s Jim Leipold, Indiana/Maurer‘s Bill Henderson, three Biglaw hiring partners, and deans from Berkeley, Stanford, and Hastings.

Read on for some highlights and takeaways from yesterday’s conference.

Jim Leipold kicked things off with a presentation on the entry-level legal job market. Short version: it’s awful. The good news? It’s most likely bottomed out and when we have the data in February for the class of 2012, some degree of overall improvement is expected. (Elie previously outlined this scenario here.) One of Leipold’s principal themes was that the state of the job market was not some pure function of the recession. Rather, the recession served to bring into sharp relief trends that were occurring as a result of technological advances, commoditization of certain types of legal services, and the growth of LPOs.

Next up was Bill Henderson, who used his time to propose a revamping of the legal talent supply chain. Currently there’s a supply chain disconnect: law firm leaders anticipate a strong lateral market and a severely contracted entry-level market. Where are these laterals supposed to come from? Henderson suggests the way forward can be found in the example of the Cravath System. Paul Cravath set up his system in response to a supply chain problem: too many cleints with sophisticated business law issues and too few specialists. Today, that problem is inverted. Henderson calls for a special new program for 3Ls by a coalition of willing law schools. The selected 3Ls (based on writing prowess and behavioral interviews) would embark on a skills-based, teamwork-heavy course of study in partnership with law firms who agree to employ the students, albeit at a reduced rate. These jobs would also include secondments with the firm’s clients. Central to Henderson’s proposal is that, in three years or so after launch, direct comparisons could be made with the current model, much in the manner of controlled pharmaceutical trials.

Let’s just let Paul Campos speak for himself. A mere sample of quotes from his presentation yesterday:

“I don’t know anything about being a lawyer but my awareness of this lack of knowledge is one of the principal differences between me and my [law professor] colleagues.”

“You cannot have law school tuition keep going up and the net present value of the J.D. continue to decrease.”

“Stanford and Thomas Jefferson are both law schools in the same sense that France and Sierra Leone are independent sovereign republics.”

“There is entirely too much focus within the industry on OCI/large law firms/pretending every school can be like Stanford.”

“Legal academia doesn’t respond to this crisis because their continuing employment depends on their not understanding it.”

“Power corrupts; PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” (Quoting Edward Tufte apparently.)

There was quite bit of laughter in the room during Campos’s remarks, but not everyone joined in. (By the way, Professor Campos just published an e-book, Don’t Go to Law School (Unless) (affiliate link) — which, for $4.99, might end up saving some would-be law students $150,000 in debt.)

The conference featured two separate panels on essentially the same topic: the strange persistence of an OCI system in which every party is unhappy with the process. One session, entitled “The Employer’s Perspective,” featured hiring partners from Wilson Sonsini, Allen & Overy, and Paul Hastings. The partners bemoaned the OCI “arms race” where the process is compressed. This perceived need for speed is a disservice to both the students and the firms, depriving them of the appropriate amount of time to make such mutually momentous decision. There was agreement among the partners that the whole OCI process was going in the wrong direction and that attempts to fix the problem have only exacerbated it. Another session, entitled “The School’s Perspective,” consisted of career services deans from Hastings, Berkeley, and Stanford, who proceeded to conclude the exact same thing.

So whose fault is it? Careful not to point fingers at each other, the specter of the antitrust litigation that such corrective collective action (e.g., moving OCI to January) would inevitably lead to was invoked. Dean Terry Galligan of Berkeley noted that this general dissatisfaction with OCI is a consequence of a system where being “first” — whether by a school, student, or firm — confers an advantage.

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