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Dean’s Column: How to Avoid the Next 2008

This fall, law school deans face two data points that—when combined—indicate trouble ahead. The most recent NALP placement statistics show a slight increase in the overall employment rate for the Class of 2017, which seems like good news. But the increase is due to a drop in the number of graduates entering the market, not an increase in jobs. The number of available traditional legal positions nationwide has actually declined. There are many reasons for the drop, and I won’t get into them all here. But many of us believe that—due to evolving technology and a global shift in how those jobs are staffed—at least some of these traditional positions are never coming back.

On a more positive note, the applicant and entering class numbers for this year are on the rise. Some schools have over-enrolled their classes by 20-30 percent or more. The return of interest in law school among bright young people is good news for the future of the legal profession, but with a flat employment market and significant increases in enrollment, how do we prevent a repeat of the disappointment and disillusionment that followed 2008?

One important first step is to look for emerging opportunities in the market. New technology creates different kinds of legal needs, and global economic shifts produce different kinds of legal jobs. Global professional services firms are growing, and increasingly acting more like law firms in hiring entry-level talent. For in-house positions, traditionally staffed by more experienced big law veterans, corporations are now more frequently hiring candidates just out of law school. Employment growth is also more robust in regional and small to mid-sized law firms.

How does a law school position its students to seize these emerging opportunities? The evolving legal employment market values a lawyer who has a flexible skill set, is comfortable with technology, and possesses a high “emotional IQ.” Law schools can’t improve students’ GPAs, but they can enhance their attractiveness to employers by broadening their exposure to technology and real legal experience, assisting them with interview preparation, and preparing them to network more effectively.

This leads to a second step: ensuring that law school career services offices are well positioned to respond to these changes. At BC Law, we reworked our organizational chart and budget several years ago and built a career services team with experience in employer engagement and recruitment, the ability to optimize technology and data analysis and reporting, and with diverse advising and program development skills. We wanted our team to be client-centered and data driven—able to understand not just today’s changes, but also able to anticipate what might be coming next.

Part of the challenge was to improve our reputation among the student body and to make students, faculty, and staff our partners in a comprehensive effort to reimagine job placement and career preparation. For example, we installed better technology platforms that track and analyze data more effectively and allow us to see our level of engagement with students. If a student had not been in for an advising appointment for a while and was still seeking a job, we called their cell, sent them texts, scheduled their advising appointment for them—whatever it took to get their attention. In fact, we marketed to students constantly, from email to white boards, social media to funny posters—so many times that the old excuse “I didn’t know about this” no longer applied.

Students wanted workshops and career panels that would save them time, not waste it, and that meant we needed to become more aware of which programs worked—and which did not. We began to survey students more regularly, partnered with student organizations on programming, and tried to make the process more enjoyable. We launched initiatives designed to appeal to specific years and interests, such as “1L Boot Camp” and “2L Path to Practice.” We brought all sorts of practitioners and alumni into contact with students, on campus and off campus, in various types of settings. These kinds of events both boosted students’ networking and presentation skills and led directly to job offers.

We also created a specific staff position for employer outreach, and we worked hard to be responsive to employers’ reasonable needs and requests. Rather than sticking with just the traditional OCI schedule, we developed on-campus recruiting programs throughout the year. Having regular activity broadened the types of employers who were recruiting on campus, and helped students stay connected across a range of opportunities. We analyzed our data to determine what kind of programs might be most effective, then launched new initiatives such as our BIDz (Business Interview Days) and Small & Mid-Sized Firm On-Campus Interviewing Program, among others.

As a result of all of this, our Career Services Office has become one of the most respected operations on campus. Our employment rates over the past several years (particularly in the JD required/advantaged category) are the strongest they have been since before the Great Recession. Students are actively engaged in the job search process, and are better prepared with the necessary soft skills to succeed, both in terms of landing a job and succeeding in it once they get to work.

It is probably safe to assume the legal employment market that existed before 2008 is unlikely to return. We cannot predict with absolute certainty the future legal market, nor can we ensure jobs for every graduate. But we can get better at predicting trends and at preparing our graduates with the tools they need to succeed in a time of uncertainty and rapid change.

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