With campus visits from large law firms waning and a lack of willingness on the part of many employers to post job openings, law school placement offices are creating new opportunities to connect students with lawyers in their communities and beyond.
Placement officials are recommending that students approach job searches broadly in terms of geography and areas of practice. In many parts of the country, government agencies, especially the military, continue to hire law graduates.
"Students are investigating more opportunities at smaller and mid-size firms," says Janet D. Hutchinson, assistant dean for career services at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. She adds that Emory is encouraging students to cast a wider net and think about the geographic areas where they have connections.
While large law firms may be shying away from campus visits, Emory and other law schools are seeing an increase in on-site recruiting by government agencies such as the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Bankruptcy and areas involving law and science or innovation are still thriving in many parts of the country. Law practice areas related to sustainable business and energy are booming as well.
Flexibility, Self-Promotion Are Key
"You have to be flexible and you have to know how to promote the skills that you have in a number of different directions," says Ilona DeRemer, assistant dean for career services and professional development at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe.
Job seekers must capitalize on their skills and experiences that may add value to law firms, Hutchinson says.
Graduates planning to work for large law firms have been hard hit in this economic climate. Many second-year summer associates finished their summers without full-time job offers. "It had absolutely nothing to do with performance issues, but with the fact that the firms did not want to be oversubscribed with offers," DeRemer says.
Third-year students at schools such as ASU depend on offers following summer clerkships. And few firms come to law schools to interview third-year students for positions. "Most of our third-year hiring is not done through formalized on-campus interviews." DeRemer says. "It is done through aggressive outreach."
Job seekers need to carefully consider their career goals. "Instead of automatically choosing to work at large law firms, students should take the time to determine their true professional passion and follow a career path that most directly leads them to that goal," says Judith Romero, associate director of media relations, media liaison for Stanford Law School in California. In some instances, large firms asked students to defer employment or rescinded offers, Romero says.
When faced with a deferred offer, students need to question whether they have the financial and mental endurance to wait out the deferral period, placement experts say. In some cases, law firms provided students with a stipend to help ease the financial burden.
Acquire Experience and Network
Graduates who cannot find work or who have been deferred should consider volunteer opportunities or contract work in the legal arena, placement officials say. If these individuals cannot find opportunities in the legal field, they should volunteer or work in other areas.
"We have encouraged students to go out and build their résumé, even as a volunteer," Hutchinson says. "If you could do something that is related to the practice you are going into, that would be fantastic. The key is keeping your skills fresh and trying to learn something."
In addition, volunteer and contract work can change a job hunter's emotional outlook. "I see the tide change when grads do some volunteer or contract work," says Libby Davis, associate dean for career services and alumni relations at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon. These productive activities often offer a sense of fulfillment. "That is psychologically incredibly important," Davis adds.
Job seekers should find opportunities where they will meet other people. "Don't sit at home behind your computer and think you will find an opportunity," Davis says. Instead, she recommends graduates volunteer at a courthouse, write articles, and push out of their comfort zone.
Not only do graduates get actual experience, but the networking is invaluable, according to Beth Hansen, director of career services at J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah. "Once you are in the legal community, it is much, much easier to find a job," she explains. "Out in the area, your name gets known. You are gaining experience, the self-confidence boost, and networking."
Individuals who volunteer and do contract work also have something positive to talk about when they interview, Davis says. Contract work can be a boon in these bad economic times because it can lead to a permanent position. The added bonus of earning an income from contract work while searching for a job eases mounting pressure that results when bills are due, she adds.
Judicial clerkships still appear to be good options for top students. Many schools such as Emory are reporting a record number of applications for post-graduate clerkships, according to Hutchinson. To encourage students to interview for out-of-state federal clerkships, ASU has paid for interviewers' airfares, DeRemer says.
Preparation of a stellar, error-free résumé and thorough networking are key job search strategies law school placement offices recommend in these difficult economic times. "You must have absolutely flawless application tools," Hutchinson says. "There isn't room for any errors in this economy."
"So many employers are not posting jobs at all," DeRemer points out. To combat that, students must network.
New Tools for Job Seekers
Because the job market is especially challenging for entry-level lawyers who often lack practical skills and contacts, Davis says many schools now offer more programs to assist graduates in networking and skill building.
Lewis & Clark developed a nocost, six-week graduate fellow program that met four nights a week for four hours. Top-flight speakers presented information about practical lawyering skills, professionalism, and networking. As part of the program, participants attended a large-scale networking event. "While it did not replicate being in practice, it was building some of the skills lawyers develop in the first year of practice," Davis explains.
ASU's law school recently created and funded an eight- to 12-week post-graduate government/public interest fellowship program to help graduates who have not secured employment after more than six months following graduation. Alumni can identify a fellowship opportunity in any state. However, the school will suggest 10 possible placements with Arizona agencies. Graduates are expected to work 20 hours a week in the fellowship position and use the remaining workday hours to seek employment.
"It gives the person an opportunity to get some experience," DeRemer says. Several fellowships resulted in a job or a good networking connection, she adds.
Two other ASU programs are designed to help students network. A shadow program pairs a student with a Phoenix-area lawyer for a day during winter break. Students learn about practice areas and network. The second program provides a weekly opportunity for four or five third-year students to have lunch with a local lawyer. This program's popularity has led ASU to select student participants by lottery.
Speed networking, an older ASU program, also has experienced a resurgence in popularity. Lawyers from all size law firms come to ASU to talk with students one-on-one for seven minutes. A bell rings, students move to the next lawyer, and a new round begins. In total, students meet six lawyers.
Each fall, ASU hosts a small firm week filled with events to couple students and small and mid-size law firm employers. Last year, the program's popularity caused ASU to expand it into the spring. Thirdyear students have the opportunity to meet with 45 lawyers in one day. During a second day, first- and second- year students will network with these lawyers. The program includes a small lunch meet-and-greet that has grown in demand this year.
Law school placement offices also are trying to step up their efforts to connect one-on-one with both students and alumni.
Stanford and BYU career professionals, like many others, meet with each student individually, including those in the first- and second-year classes. BYU instituted an online sign-up system to facilitate appointments, and BYU support staff members are contacting every student to set up appointments.
Some schools are participating in regional job fairs, but often students don't travel to these fairs.
Many placement offices are bolstering student connections with alumni either informally or formally. Some provide formal mentor opportunities. Others, such as Emory, offer a list of alumni who are willing to be contacted to provide general career advice and networking information.
In addition to providing mentoring opportunities, Stanford launched a social networking site similar to Facebook called SLSConnect to connect students with alumni. Participants can post profiles, chat with friends, upload pictures, search for colleagues, and share information about legal issues, careers, and alumni events.
Lewis & Clark assigns a career advisor to contact all new graduates regularly until they find a permanent position. "We are really trying to get them in contact with people who may be beneficial and who might be able to offer the graduate contract work while he or she is looking for a job," Davis says.