Law Schools Should Help Students Plan Their Careers, Not Place Them in Jobs

Law Schools Should Help Students Plan Their Careers, Not Place Them in Jobs

For the last 25 years, I have written and spoken about the defects of traditional law schools although my primary effort since 1994 has been advising those negatively affected by the failures of traditional legal education - law students and dissatisfied lawyers. My goal is to teach them how to search for and locate positions consistent with their goals and values.
 
Typical articles on this subject include, on my website, Overcoming Law School’s Defects (or “Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places: Choosing the Best Law School”) and on my blog Request for Appointment of a Law School Industry Czar.
 
This article will focus on the failure of law schools to provide career planning and the reliance on an on-campus interviewing program (“OCI”).
 
The failure to provide career planning arises from two sources. The first is the indifference on the part of faculty to the careers of students and its delegation of this role to staff. The second is the budgets of the law schools which allocate an inordinate percentage to enticing large law firms to interview at the schools and little to genuine career planning (what do you want to do with your law degree, etc.)
 
As you know, the OCI system is open only to law firms which can project their needs 9 months to a year and a half in advance; i.e., large law firms. That excludes probably 90% of the law firms in the country (medium to small firms and most non-profits) and gives large law firms exclusive access to law students who then believe OCI firms are the only employers and the only option.
 
The budget for “employment” at most law schools goes to the OCI program run by staff (not faculty). This system is called “placement”.  It is a passive process.  Students are placed. The staff participate in an organization called NALP in partnership with recruiters and partners from large law firms who gather together often during the year
 
A few years ago, I was invited to be on a panel at a national NALP conference and proposed that OCI be eliminated. The moderator challenged my statement and asked those in the audience (about 80 placement staff from around the country) their opinion. At least two-thirds agreed with me. When asked why they do it, the head of one “highly selective” law school replied, “Because my dean strongly supports it and it is important for the annual US News and World Report rankings.” Here are some articles which justify the elimination of OCI.
 
OCI is harmful to not only law students but to the public. At many selective law schools as many as 95% of their graduates in the past took positions in large law firms representing what some refer to as the 1% wealthiest entities in the country. My experience leads me to believe that probably no more than 25% of them would have chosen to work for such firms. Here’s a quote from a recent WSJ blog post about the dissatisfaction of associates at large firms
 
 “Larger firms, they report, are losing 30, 40 and 50 percent of associates after three to four years — with half to two-thirds of the defections due to associate, not firm, choice. … So what’s causing this trend? The authors cite “a steady diet of drudge work” early on; no individual responsibility; lack of communication regarding firm and partnership prospects; busy partners failing to concern themselves with the professional development of associates; and corporate clients who are unwilling to take risks on young associates or pay their rates, leading to a lack of interesting opportunities.”
 
At the same time, the personal plight legal needs of the public are virtually ignored by the legal profession. (One survey found that there are no lawyers for 80% of the legal needs of those with low income.)
 
The present economic downturn resulting in fewer law firms recruiting and participating in OCI has made it more evident that there should be an immediate transition from OCI to career planning.
 
What should replace OCI is a process which will begin with the establishment by the law schools of a comprehensive career planning program through which faculty would advise and mentor students. Guidance will begin soon after registration as students explore a law settings and practice areas through courses and employment (term-time and in the summer). With that experience (and hopefully with the skills that some law schools are recognizing they need to teach), students will: choose a “major” and the path that complements it; make contacts; learn how to promote and market themselves to either find a position (recognizing that very few openings are advertised and that in nearly all of the for profit and non-profit world, employers hire only when there is an immediate need) or to go into practice on their own or with others.
 
With such background and experience, students will graduate, pass the bar and begin to enjoy the benefits of being a professional – having autonomy, earning a reasonable income, being skilled in a trade and feeling the satisfaction that comes from helping folks who really need their help.
 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
 
Ronald W. Fox is the principal of Career Planning for Lawyers .
 
Since 1990, he has: provided individual guidance to law students and lawyers in transition helping them search for and locate positions consistent with their personal values and their professional goals; posted on his  Lawyer Satisfaction Blog ; consulted to over 25 law schools, including Cornell, Boston College, Notre Dame and Northwestern; presented workshops for the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York; created and facilitated the ABA Public Service Division's "Town Meeting" for the six Washington D.C. law schools; authored Lawful Pursuit: Careers in Public Interest Law published by the ABA Law Student Division; and is the career resource for Solo Practice University
 
Ron graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963 and practiced law in a variety of settings for 20 years including two law firms he founded. In 1974 he was one of the first providers of divorce mediation and was active in developing that field until 1990.  Working with bar associations, he designed and created numerous lawyer referral and other programs aimed at the delivery of legal services to low and middle income individuals.  From 1983-1989 Ron worked at Harvard Law School providing career planning services to law students pursuing careers serving the legal needs of the public and also co-founded the Public Interest Committee of NALP.