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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Assessing Part-Time Status: Is There a Stigma?

G.M. Filisko

Assessing Part-Time Status: Is There a Stigma?

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Many part-time students have opted for a reduced schedule because they have career, financial, or family obligations they cannot or do not want to put on hold while getting a law degree. Will attending law school part-time keep them from getting their dream job?

Brett Cooper is your typical part-time law student. He is keeping his job as a website analyst at SE Jones in Rockville, Maryland, while attending his first year at The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C.

Why did Cooper choose to go part-time? “It was a combination of things,” says the 24-year-old musician who hopes to use his law degree to protect musicians’ intellectual property rights. “The scholarship I was given at Catholic would have applied to full- or part-time studies, but if it is part-time, it significantly reduces my cost. I am also loving my job. I got this job opportunity after I decided to go to law school, and it is something I have always been interested in. I found I liked the work and did not want to give it up.”

Cooper also chose to go part-time because he believes it will give him an edge over other students, including full-timers. “Should anybody look at my résumé down the road, they will see someone able to balance these very demanding aspects of my life successfully,” Cooper says. “It is a résumé builder, and it says a lot about the type of person I am and my skill set—that I would want to engage in these two things at once and that I could be successful at both.”

The good news is that most career advisers and hiring lawyers say any perceived stigma that once attached to part-time students has nearly vanished. “I have been doing recruiting in one form or another since 1991, and I have never seen any distinction between day and part-time or night-time students,” says Kevyn Orr, Jones Day’s chair of firmwide recruiting in Washington, D.C. “If we are interviewing at Georgetown, for example, we look at candidates as Georgetown students. We do not in any way care that some student who is working will take four years to get through Georgetown instead of three.”

However, sticky wickets remain for part-time students. You need to offer an understandable explanation for your status. You also have to weigh the benefits and burdens of pursuing extracurricular activities—like law review or moot court competitions—in a way that full-time students do not have to consider. Finally, you have to show that your part-time status should not be perceived as a lack of commitment to the law. Sound daunting? Not at all. Here is a roadmap.

Is There a Stigma?

Gretchen Duhaime, a 2010 graduate of Suffolk University Law School in Boston, believes there is a stigma against part-time students. Duhaime did not interview for legal jobs herself, but her classmates bemoaned their interviewing experiences to her. “There was definitely a stigma if you tried looking for a job through the regular channels,” says the founder of Practicing on Purpose, an Amherst, Massachusetts, firm that focuses on lawyers’ personal well-being. “My friends who were on law review—even those highly prized students—totally struck out at on-campus interviewing. They did not fit the mold of someone who has gone to law school right from college, and I believe hiring attorneys are almost afraid of lawyers who have their own thoughts.”

Many hiring partners would balk at Duhaime’s conclusion. “I personally do not have that stigma against part-time or evening students,” says William Moore, hiring co-chair at Munsch Hardt Kopf & Harr, P.C., in Dallas. “I worked my way through college and somewhat through law school. So when I go through résumés and see a part-time student is working or has a family, I will include that individual among those we will interview. It is a plus. People who have worked in the past excel at the practice of law. They have a balanced life and work. Also, going to law school typically was not a natural progression in their education. They made that commitment, and they often sacrificed to make that commitment. When they get to law school, they often hit the ground running.”

Jeffrey Simes, hiring partner in the New York City office of Goodwin Procter LLC, also favors part-time students. “As a general matter, I strongly prefer to hire students who did not go straight from college to law school, and some part-timers fit that bill,” he says. “If I could hire only people who worked after college before going to law school, I would. Part-time programs give people that opportunity, and it is really valuable.”

However, Simes believes there may still be a minority of hiring partners who do not view part-timers positively, though students may never see evidence of that because the decision to shun part-time students would come in the decision not to interview part-time students, not during an interview.

“My perception is that some people may have a problem with part-time students, and there is a perceived correlation with the quality of the schools that offer part-time programs,” explains Simes. “Those schools might not be the kinds those firms traditionally hire from because they tend to be local, not national, Ivy League–type programs. So there are no part-time programs at the schools the firms are looking at. Even if they are going to schools with part-time programs, they might ask, ‘What does their part-time status tell me about those students, and is it a risk factor I want to look at?’”

Ultimately, the most important factor in determining whether students may experience a negative reaction to their status is likely to be why students chose to attend part-time. “There may be very good reasons why students are going part-time or in the evenings,” explains Tom Leatherbury, chair of the talent management committee at Vinson & Elkins in Dallas. “They may be working full-time and transitioning to a law career. In a lot of cases, it shows great ability to manage your time, and those folks can be excellent lawyers.”

However, that perception might not hold up if you do not have a credible reason for attending part-time. During a recent interview, Moore asked a part-time student if he thought there was a stigma against part-time students. “The student said he has never experienced it but has talked to other students who say it does exist,” explains Moore. “Then what he said is spot on. He said attending part-time by itself does not cause a stigma if you look at the student’s résumé and find he is working his way through school. But if the student is not working his way through school or does not have a reason for going part-time, it does cause a stigma. I think that is true.”

Accentuate the Positive

There may not be a widespread stigma, but part-time students do have unique concerns. “What I think they face more are the questions of how they will demonstrate that they are developing the necessary skill set, that they are dedicated to their legal career, and that they are able to make that career change,” says Lakshmi Paranthaman, assistant dean of career development and employer outreach at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California. “So they do face some additional challenges that full-time students do not face.”

Here are tips for meeting these challenges.

  1. Be clear on your résumé. You do not have to telegraph your part-time status. “You are getting the same degree as full-time students,” says Paranthaman. “You are taking the same courses taught by highly qualified professors. It is just as rigorous as full-time coursework.”

    However, do not mislead potential employers. “If you give your class rank and you are ranked against part-time students, make that clear by giving the number of students in the denominator, like 5/100,” says Paranthaman. “If you say you are in the top 5 percent of your class, clarify that by adding (4/80) to indicate your rank and class size.”
  2. In a cover letter or interview, highlight smart reasons you chose to attend part-time.“Over many years, a couple of students have said in an interview that they went part-time because could not get into a full-time program,” says Simes. “I prize honesty, but if there is a negative connotation to your answer, you have to think through it. Do not present your choice as ‘I had no other options.’”

    Why is that such a bad answer? It projects the idea that you were not a quality applicant, says Simes. It also telegraphs that you did not prepare well for a likely interview question. “Instead, you might say, ‘I really wanted to be in this geographic area, and I liked the school and the professors. I thought about trying to get into a full-time program somewhere else. But going part-time gave me the opportunity to work to support myself,’” explains Simes. “Make your explanation make sense to me.”
  3. Try to participate in an extracurricular activity. The jury is out on whether you must participate in extracurricular activities. But it certainly helps. “If students are attending part-time and working, it is understandable if they are not doing extracurricular activities,” says Jason Wolf, a partner at Koch Parafinczuk & Wolf in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “However, it would put them above and beyond if they were able to manage one or two activities, especially those important to the workplace, like litigation competition or law review.”

    If you simply do not have time, recognize that you may not be as competitive as students who do. “If the reason is that they are working and have a family, we understand,” says Orr. “However, if there is another candidate of that tier who is working and doing a journal, remember you are competing against that person.”

    Before you abandon the idea of participating, search for an alternative way to get the same skills. “Things like law review and moot court are proxies employers use to determine students’ qualities,” says Paranthaman. “Law review shows you have developed research and writing skills. If you do not have the flexibility to be on law journal, you could still demonstrate that skill set by writing and getting published in another journal. Look behind what that activity represents and ask yourself if there is another way that is equally as powerful that you can convey that information to the employer.”

    One more point: Do not sign up for an extracurricular activity just to have it on your résumé if you do not intend to participate. “The worst thing is to be a joiner and not be able to explain the impact that activity had on you and what you did with it,” says Leatherbury. “I had one interview where a student said he was vice president of some group. I asked about the organization, and he could not begin to tell me what it did. He was not called back because I did not have any confidence he was as he represented himself.”
  4. Always project confidence. “Do not be apologetic or feel there is some reason you should discount yourself because you are a part-time or night-time student,” advises Orr. “There are 1.2 million attorneys in the United States, and you have already run the gauntlet of getting into law school. Just by doing that, you are in a very small tranche of people. Do not lose sight of that.”

    Cooper concurs. “I was told to go to a school where you can graduate in the top 10 percent of your class, and if you are working full time, it will not matter if you go part- or full-time,” he says. “Employers would rather see someone who is capable of many different things than just another law student. They are looking for something that makes you unique.”