« A Tale of Two Clarity Doctrines | Main | Playing on Yom Kippur »

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Surprising, Disturbing and Encouraging Things We Learned Researching Law Jobs

The following is by Andrew McClurg (Memphis and my former FIU colleague), Christine Nero Coughlin (Wake Forest), and Nancy Levit (UMKC) and is sponsored by West Academic.

As seasoned law professors, we thought we had a good handle on legal careers and the legal job market. We were wrong. In researching and interviewing more than 150 lawyers for our new book Law Jobs: The Complete Guide (West Academic Publishing 2019), we discovered we didn’t know nearly as much as we thought. For this post, we asked ourselves a three-part question: “What was the most surprising, disturbing, and encouraging thing you learned from this book project?”

McClurg: My biggest “surprise” was something I already knew, but had never taken time to really think about, which is how few law students do any serious career-planning at all. Too many students simply resign themselves to taking whatever job comes along. Whose fault is that? Partly the job market. It’s not as easy to find quality entry-level jobs as it was in the good old days. Partly legal education. Not many schools incorporate career-planning into their curriculums. But ultimately it’s up to students to know themselves—their skillsets, personality types, and true aspirations for long-term happiness. Only with that understanding will they be in a position to find the best job fit.

We learned quite a few disturbing things, but one that flies under the radar is the rapid increase in “alternative staffing” arrangements, a benign-sounding term for cutting permanent associate positions in favor of contract lawyers, half-priced staff attorneys, and paraprofessionals. An Altman Weil survey asked 386 large firms to rate twenty new-era performance strategies in terms of their effectiveness for improving profitability. Four of the top five choices involved alternative staffing models. Half of the firms said that the increased use of contract lawyers was their top alternative staffing strategy and also the most effective one.

An encouraging sign is that employment rates continue to rise, to nearly 90% for the graduating Class of 2018 (ten months after graduation), but that’s somewhat misleading because NALP has attributed the increases largely to smaller graduating class sizes over the past several years. For the fifth year in a row, the number of actual jobs went down or stayed flat in every sector except Biglaw. This is worrisome because many schools are increasing enrollment, in part for economic reasons after the lean, down years. Will the job market support these larger classes when they graduate?

Coughlin: What surprised me is how important the majority of lawyers consider their role as “counselors at law.” I was humbled by the stories we heard about the lengths attorneys go—not only to ensure their legal advice is tailored in a manner best for that client—but in ways that consider the client as a whole person. A factor that continues to disturb me is the lack of diversity within the profession. We attempted to give diversity data for each career, where available, but also to explore some of the barriers to diversity in the profession.

While there is room for improvement, law school classrooms are more diverse than ever in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. This is a positive step. Studies reflect that increasing diversity makes the classroom more dynamic and positively adds to the learning experience. Unfortunately, the data also reflects that these increases in diversity do not always carry over to the legal profession. Indeed, in a few areas, such as the appointment of federal judges, we may be moving backwards. Real efforts are being made to enhance diversity in the profession, but there are still too many barriers that seem to clog the pipeline between legal education and the practice of law. One area that needs more study is sexual orientation. While society has become far more accepting of sexual orientation, the limited data available shows a wide disparity between the percentage of LGBTQ individuals in the population and the profession.

The most encouraging factor to me was how important today’s lawyers consider the development of “soft skills,” such as communication, time management, problem-solving, empathy, creativity, etc., to having a successful career. I believe there is a correlation between honing these skills and feeling fulfilled in your legal career.

Levit: What surprised me most was the extraordinary array of jobs that people can do with a law degree, ranging from art law and animal law to cybersecurity and gaming law. Hearing the stories of how people developed their niche specialties was fascinating, including jobs people developed by merging their law degrees with a prior passion or expertise, such as in technology. People think about technology as usurping jobs, which is happening to some degree, but specialties are also developing that capitalize on technology.
For each career we cover, we asked attorneys in the field what law students can do to position themselves for a job, what opportunities for advancement exist, and what a typical day is like for each of them. We hope their personal stories and advice will give readers a much richer picture of what different jobs in law entail—and how to get them.

What was disturbing were the number of people who, early in their careers, sought high-paying positions, for reasons of prestige or to pay off loans, and sacrificed a significant amount of time and life satisfaction until they moved toward areas that interested them. The attorneys we surveyed were very candid about the pros and cons of different jobs. Their collective advice was quite clear: don’t take a job for either marquee value or for money.

It was encouraging to see how many (really, almost all) of the lawyers we interviewed expressed a real interest in mentoring newly minted lawyers. There is such a supportive community of practicing attorneys ready to welcome new graduates.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 10, 2019 at 09:31 AM in Sponsored Announcements | Permalink


The comments to this entry are closed.