Biglaw, Job Searches, Law Professors, Law Schools, NALP, National Association for Law Placement (NALP)

Entry-Level Employment Falls Again, And It’s Possible That Law Schools Have No Clue What To Do About It

Why don’t your CSO officers look like this?

The official NALP numbers are out for the class of 2012, and they stink. We’ve known for a while that they were going to stink, but the final numbers stink slightly more than we thought they were going to stink.

While we had been hoping that entry-level hiring would be slightly up for the class of 2012 over the class of 2011, it’s actually slightly down. The overall employment rate for new law school graduates fell to 84.7%. It’s the fifth consecutive year that figure has fallen. The last time the numbers were this low was in the aftermath of the 1990-1991 recession. Things stink.

You don’t have to tell the class of 2012 that their hiring stinks; they’ve been living in it for over a year now. And you don’t have to tell the class of 2013 that their prospects aren’t much better; they’re out of school now, they know. Rising 3Ls in the class of 2014 might be deluding themselves that everything is going to be sunshine and roses for their class, but if they aren’t busy securing jobs this summer, they’ll learn what bitterness and failure taste like soon enough.

In fact, the only people who seem to need to be told that hiring is REALLY, REALLY BAD are American law schools, who continue to make statements and push programs as if getting a job in this market happens in a classroom instead of on a telephone or at a networking event…

Check out the full NALP findings. There’s not a lot of news there if you have been paying a modicum of attention to associate hiring. The only real note of encouragement is that Biglaw hiring (private sector jobs in firms with more than 500 lawyers) was up slightly. That’s good, because despite what you said 1L year, these jobs soak up a lot of graduates.

That slight uptick in Biglaw hiring was offset by a reduction in law school-funded positions. From NALP executive director Jim Leipold:

Adding to the complexity of the jobs picture this year the data show that law schools funded fewer jobs for this class than they did for the previous class, and that certainly contributed to the overall employment rate falling further. That an adjustment was made there is not unexpected. Some schools were funding jobs at a level that was economically unsustainable over the long haul.

Obviously the goal of law schools shouldn’t be to employ their own graduates, it should be to get their graduates jobs.

Apropos to that, there’s a really fascinating article up on Law School Cafe from Ohio State Law Professor Deborah J. Merritt on the underwhelming results from Washington & Lee’s experiential learning 3L curriculum. While legal employers claim they want “practice ready” law school graduates and Washington & Lee’s program has been critically acclaimed, the school’s graduates actually underperformed similarly ranked schools when it came time to actually get a job. Merritt offered four possible reasons for this surprising outcome:

  • “First and most important, the connection between practical training and jobs is much smaller than practitioners and bar associations assert.”
  • “Second, even when allocating existing jobs, employers may care less about practical training than they claim.”
  • “Third, employers may care about experience, but want to see that experience in the area for which they’re hiring.”
  • “A fourth possible explanation for Washington & Lee’s disappointing employment outcomes is that the students themselves may have developed higher or more specialized career ambitions than their peers at other schools.”

The only point I find particularly compelling is the third one, in part because I don’t find Washington & Lee’s results all that surprising.

Only a law professor will tell you that the third year of law school is useful, so only a law professor proceeds from the faulty premise that there is anything that can be done in that third year that would have a real impact on “practice readiness” in the first place. To put that another way: the way to become practice ready is to practice. It’s not to take stylized “experiential” courses and clinics where a law professor (who hasn’t practiced in God knows how long) walks you through test cases where there’s no real skin in the game. Experiential third-year learning is a lot like practicing swimming in a bathtub, and employers know this.

We can blame employers for not telling law schools what they want, but what they want is people who finish at the top of top schools. Why? Because those people have proven that they can be educated. That’s the relevance of that third point. Employers know they are going to have to teach their new hires how to do their jobs, and doing well at good schools is a way to filter out — an imperfect, but efficient way to filter out — those who can learn quickly and well. A law school’s clinic to help asbestos victims has zero relevance to a large firm specializing in financial services. Neither does that law school’s first-year contracts course.

And by the way, the asbestos clinic probably doesn’t have a lot of relevance to a small firm specializing in family law.

All the firm is looking for is an indication that the student learned and excelled at the highest level. The nuts and bolts of actually being useful to the firm is something the firm knows it’s going to have to do itself. If the student could come to the firm with a modicum of business sense, the ability to string two sentences together, and the respect for a deadline, that’s great.

If law schools really want to help students get jobs, they need to invest in the people who help students get jobs. And those people are not law professors. They are not running clinics. They are not deans of experiential learning. The people who help get students jobs are bad-ass career service networkers.

As usual, I’m not talking about some clerical secretary whose job it is to update Symplicity. I’m saying that law schools should approach career services the way IMG approaches getting athletes endorsements. Law school CSO officers should be walking around with Bluetooth devices, constantly on the phone with employers, and doing that annoying “shooter” thing every time they get another student an interview. Career service needs to be an active, damn near invasive experience, where employers want to hire law students the way you want to adopt a dog after watching a Sarah McLachlan commercial.

Look at the NALP numbers. This is the future, folks. And it’s not law professors sitting around at a symposium sharing theories about clinics. Law professors aren’t getting people jobs in this market — at least not with their syllabuses. The only thing law students should be looking to experience during their (useless, forced) third year on campus is somebody’s Rolodex/contacts folder/LinkedIn profile.

Law School Class of 2012 Finds More Jobs, Starting Salaries Rise — But Large Class Size Hurts Overall Employment Rate [NALP]
An Employment Puzzle [Law School Cafe]

Earlier: NALP13: Entry Level Associates Need Not Apply

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