Law School Career Services Fail, But There Are Fixes

Fail Stamp

Law school career services offices at many schools are currently failing to serve their students.

After my post “Applying to Law School? Please Reconsider!,” Lawyerist Contributor Randall Ryder made the comment:

“. . . If you want to go to law school, and really want to practice law, an opportunity will present itself––or you can make an opportunity for yourself. It’s tougher in this economy, but it is still doable, you just need to work hard at it. If you are not willing to work hard, you are in [the] wrong profession.”

Randall is right. Not only can the law be a rewarding profession, the current economy actually creates opportunities for savvy lawyers to have more fulfilling and lucrative careers, with the right kind of planning. The problem is that a large number of law school career services offices spend little time focusing on creating career-savvy legal professionals.


In my view, law school career services offices fundamentally fail because most focus not on building student skills in long-term career development and professionalism, but rather in short-term job application skills.

To be sure, law students have to take responsibility for themselves as adults and professionals—whining is pointless and hustle is still an important skill—but career services offices must change if they are to serve their students.

Law School career services offices focus on filling posted job openings

For many years now, law school career services offices have focused their efforts on three primary activities: (1) assisting top students as they navigate the OCI/large-firm recruiting process, (2) assisting the same top students as they also navigate the federal and appellate clerkship recruiting process, and (3) assisting everyone else as they apply to job openings in small and medium firms and corporate, non-profit, and government law offices.

[A side note of advice: career services offices could add a lot of value by also putting some effort into adding the following job types to their postings: non-law government administration jobs, non-law corporate jobs (especially strategy and management-training), non-profit management and fundraising jobs, and political campaign jobs].

To assist students in landing any of these jobs, career services offices traditionally focus on resume-building advice, job interview training, and “networking” to find off-posting job openings. These are all valuable skills, but they are focused entirely on students competing for the same, limited number of jobs that are publicly posted at the law school (or, in the case of job networking, are soon-to-be-posted).

These basic job application skills (while important) do nothing to create lawyers who are skilled professionals, community leaders, business managers and owners, or even to help students understand their own long-term career development path.

Lawyers need skills to create their own jobs (and businesses)

In the current economy, there are too few posted job openings to go around. I have heard of any number of entry-level lawyer postings receiving hundreds of applications. This competition between law students makes the traditional application-advising work of law school career services staff essentially a zero-sum game. [It's actually worse than a zero-sum game, since there is not one winner and one loser, but usually hundreds of losers for each winner].

In contrast, while many large legal employers are cutting back on staff and salaries, there remain tremendous opportunities for law/business innovators—whether in solo law practice, legal outsourcing, virtual law offices, innovative medium and small firms, or non-law jobs in startup companies and nonprofits.

What law students really need from their career services office is coaching and skill-building related to long-term career and professional development. This means students still should have adequate resume-writing and job-interviewing skills, but in this new economy, far more important are the following career skills:

  • Marketing and branding
  • Business development
  • Community and industry leadership
  • Public speaking and teaching
  • Client service
  • Pricing and professional services delivery
  • Business-model innovation
  • Small business / solo practice start-up tools

A convenient aspect of this refocus for career services offices and law schools is that, rather than spending their time competing in the zero-sum game of limited job-openings, they could instead be focusing on general skills of long-term financial value that also conveniently lead to much more short-term financial success for law students than the current model of non-employment.

This will, of course, require a change in the way law schools do business. Strategic change within higher education bureaucracy is rarely easy, but given the current economic climate (and the possible impending law school admissions bubble), there has never been a better time for a thoughtful realignment of career services priorities.

(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/phobia/2308371224/)

  • Heather S. Karns

    Hi Aaron! I was intrigued with the title so chose to read further and am very glad I did. Toledo Law is doing much of what you say Career Services Offices are missing and I believe it will pay dividends for our students in the long run. Our alumni are actively involved in talking with students about business development and the appropriateness of being a good person, outside of just working toward interviews. We have built much of what we offer around the idea that hard and soft skills are essential and just responding to a posting is not where long term satisfaction, professional growth or financial gain can be found. We hosted a panel of distinguished alums in late October to talk about the expectations of new hires when working in business, industry, law firm and the courts. Student responses confirmed a new awareness of professionalism and respect necessary for success in the profession. Toledo Law is also hosting a speaker on January 19th to talk about business development with the students. I know a number of our local community members will be joining us as well. Thank you for your article and for confirming what we think is the right direction to head in.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

      @Heather
      I’m glad to hear that Toledo appears to be one of the law schools that “get it.”

  • Rachel Littman

    As a law school career services professional, I think your negative assessment of what law school career services offices do is overbroad and unfair. As a Tier 4 school, we only place about 5% of our students a year into big firms or clerkships. We do, in fact, spend a great deal of time helping students not only with the basics, such as resume crafting and cover letter writing, but in helping them develop professionalism and focus on the areas of law in which they might want to practice. We also do programs on alternative legal careers, setting up a solo practice, and networking, which is a part of personal marketing.

    If you are going to make sweeping generalizations about what the career services offices do in the 185 or so accredited law school around the country, then you should at least cite some sources.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

      @Rachel

      If Pace is one of the law schools doing things right, then I don’t think you need to take offense at my post.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/aaronstreet/ Aaron Street

      @Rachel

      To follow up: We engage with tens of thousands of legal professional every month here on Lawyerist.

      To be clear, though, this isn’t a work of scholarship; it’s a blog. These are my opinions and analysis of the industry.

      The post also isn’t meant to be a criticism of the hard-working people in career services, but rather a criticism of mis-aligned strategic culture in (many/most) law schools nationwide.

  • RE Ramcharan

    When I graduated from law school back in the late Triassic (ca. 1992), it became apparent after the first semester grades were posted that the placement office was going to be of no help. My grade point average was high enough that the school let me come back the next semester, but too low to be bothered with as far as the local employers were concerned. Over the next three years, I realized that the placement office had no interest in providing any help for anyone who was not in the top 20% of the class. (The faculty were pretty useless, too. My contracts professor told me that I should get a job as a bankruptcy trustee. He didn’t actually know of anyplace that needed a bankruptcy trustee, especially one right out of the middle of the graduating class, but it was a considerate gesture.)
    This turns out to be one of the few places where law school actually mirrors the real world: You might get the skids greased with family or political connections, or you might even find yourself, like the needy in the Psalms (Number 113, if you’re interested), lifted off the dunghill, but you shouldn’t count on it. Getting a job after graduation is hard. Life, for most of us, is hard. Sure, it might have been easier if I’d been an engineer or as I’ve said elsewhere, a registered nurse. It would have been, except that I don’t understand fractions and mucus is icky.
    We seem to have lost sight of the fact that those $gazillion first year associate salaries, if they exist at all outside of a large cities, have nothing to do with people who go into law because they have a talent for it and want to make an honest living. As one of Shakespeare’s characters observes in King John, “Who dares not stir by day must walk by night, And have is have, however men do catch. “

  • Robert

    I am a success or failure?
    Graduated BLS in 1996 middle of the class! Passed bar first time. Not one of these pass the bar the 6th time contract attorney types.
    Career services=USELESS. I got an UNPAID internship for 6 mos. Then doc review for 2.5 years. Made a lot as a doc reviewer for late 90s – avg 75k a year though i worked 70 hr weeks regularly. 2000 get a PARALEGAL job in a specialty area of law for next 8 yrs. Averaged 80k a yr. there with wonderful benefits though again I averaged 50-55 hr weeks. 6 mos ago I got a manager type job in same specialty area of law (non-practice) base 92k and with OT 120k.
    One last thing, had no debt upon graduation grad or undergrad courtesy of loving parents. BUT I NEVER NETWORKED, ASKED OR BEGGED A FAMILY MEMBER, FRIEND OR CLASSMATE FOR ANY HELP OR LEG UP.
    Comments? According to career services am I a success?

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/stevemarchese/ Steve Marchese

    Aaron makes some helpful points, although they probably aren’t news to many law school career services/development professionals. One of the main changes in the law school career development field over the past 5 or so years has been increased emphasis on the kind of long-term student professional development Aaron suggests. However, there are conflicting tensions in what is expected of a law school career office — from students, alumni, administrators, faculty and employers. As a former law school career development director, I know the more immediate pressures of making sure graduates obtain employment, as well as the importance of keeping the focus on the big picture skill development demanded for long-term professional success. However, providing a robust professional development program takes resources, as well as time, and the responsibility for that should rest with the entire law school, not just the career office. Students, alumni and employers should demand that law schools more closely align their curricula and, more importantly, their limited resources with what is needed to develop successful graduates.

  • Unemployed Attorney

    I don’t understand why all these career services directors are getting so defensive. In order to alleviate recent graduate complaints, career services needs to realign expectations and results. I know that career services is not a placement office; however, career services needs to take responsibility of the employment statistics it publishes for its school. It’s irresponsible to publish median and average stats of over 6-figures and fail to emphasize the fact that several graduates are working at Starbucks or other nonlegal/non-professional jobs.

    Transparency is key: law schools need to publish accruate, clear, and honest numbers about its graduates. The bottom 75% of law jobs out there are paying the same salaries as they did 10+ years ago, while the cost of tuition and COL have grown exponentially. Yes times are tough now, but the disparaty between the haves and have nots is only getting wider when it comes to recent law grads.

  • Law Student

    As a law student at M**, I would rather see my school fire career services and reduce my tuition. Absolutely worthless. In fact, they do so little that I’m certain they would be unable to find employment elsewhere as they have no marketable skills.

    P.S.

    Unemployed Attorney: when have law schools been honest about anything? I find it ironic that the person who constantly preaches professional at my law school is, without a doubt, the most unprofessional person I have ever met (another waste of student’s money)

  • Robert

    3 points:
    All the networking in the world will not create a job that doesn’t exist;
    Getting a job through a friend, family or friend of family is not a credit to career services;
    It is a zero sum game; when I get a job through nepotism, it just means someoen else DOESN’T get that same job through other channels

  • Disgruntled UA Grad

    University of Arizona, a top 50 school, has a CSO website that lists AZ, CA, Rocky Mountain, Other.

    Um, Chicago, NY, DC, TX, FL all have larger markets the Rocky Mountain.

    Worthless. Absolutely worthless.

  • http://ethicsmaven.com/ Eric Cooperstein

    A good career services department would be successful if they were able to convince @Robert (and other disgruntled posters to this thread and the “Applying to Law School? Please Reconsider” thread) that his points 1 and 3 are not true, and thereby would disprove point 2 as well. First of all, most job openings, particularly in law, are not advertised. Don’t assume the jobs don’t exist just because you haven’t found them. And there are ALWAYS jobs out there. Always. Someone is always retiring, becoming disabled, moving in-house, having a baby, etc. Networking gets you lunch with the decision-maker when that job comes up.

    But more importantly, successful people make jobs for themselves. A zero sum game?! I’d like to see the look on Steve Jobs’ face if someone told him that. Does anyone NEED an ipod? (ok, except for my teenage daughter) How about a flat panel TV? Cable TV? Most people who have life insurance got it because some aggressive agent grabbed them by the pants leg and wouldn’t let go. There’s a guy in my town who has a bird store — that’s all he sells is birds and their accoutrement. But everyone goes to him for their stuff. He didn’t get that job through a career services office.

    Your friend or relative may not think they have a job for you, but maybe they have some office space they’ll let you use. When they suddenly get busy, there you are to help with the overflow work. Maybe your non-lawyer friends will let you come into their small businesses and talk about good hiring practices and avoiding discrimination. Your day care provider has a terrible contract – you do one for her for free to build your referral network.

    Almost 50% of all private practice lawyers are in solo practice – a statistic that has held constant for at least the past couple of decades (browse http://www.abanet.org for more stats). Of all law firms with more than 1 lawyer, 75% of those firms have 2 to 5 lawyers. There has never been a better time to start a law practice. The barriers to entry have never been lower — you don’t need an office, furniture, staff, nothing. Just the laptop you graduated law school with, malpractice insurance, and some cheap or free software. Oh, wait – there’s one more thing you need. A good attitude. Without that, the best career services office in the world couldn’t get you a job.

  • JB

    I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in the late ’90′s. I found career services to be a complete waste. Essentially, the three or four people working there could have been replaced with a bookcase of legal directories and a computer terminal, and I doubt that anyone would have noticed the difference.

    They touted placing some people at the top of the class in large big-name firms but that’s like touting your ability to find a Heisman Trophy winner a place on a football team. Placing the people that are easy to place is not much of an accomplishment, placing the other 90% of the student body into a decent job would be an actual accomplishment. We found it especially amusing when they proclaimed the triumph of landing one graduate in a particular big law firm … but forgot to mention that his father was a partner there. I’m sure that was a tough one.

    I agree with Eric Cooperstein in that “successful people make jobs for themselves.” I did just through networking. However, if career services is pulling in a budget and has a fulltime staff, they have to do something to earn their keep.

  • Law Student

    I certaintly do not expect career services to find me a job. It has always been my intention to go solo. In my experience they are just worthless people, far from helpful with simple tasks, and just confrontational. They should spend more time trying to help students do something job related rather than hosting seminars regarding the proper hand to hold silverware in at dinner. I think I learned how to eat dinner somewhere around 2 and was pretty proficient at it by the time I was 3.5. Maybe it’s just me, but I have never met a bunch of such worthless people who seem to have the worst attitudes of any office.

  • Robert

    Great job Cooperstein. You attack my premises and then conclude that successful people make jobs for themselves. You have just TERMINATED the need for career services. That was my point. We are on our own because career services does nothing. If they can’t do anything why should they exist?

  • http://ethicsmaven.com/ Eric Cooperstein

    Law students need career services for the same reason that some lawyers need career coaches: good job hunting and networking skills don’t come naturally to them, and they can benefit from someone who drives home the message. Career services cannot promise everyone a job, just as a career coach can’t promise more clients. As any career coach will tell you, whether a person hears the message and follows through is not necessarily the fault of the message or the messenger.

    That’s not to say that all career services offices have a clear vision of how they are supposed to be helping students. Some do, as the early comments to this thread indicate, and some could surely benefit from Aaron’s suggestions.

  • JB

    Career services near me had seminars about networking and job hunting skills but I found them of little use. They did not give me any information that was not common sense or couldn’t be gleaned from a library book. Personal favorite seminar was how to dress professionally…just in case I thought that torn jeans and flip-flops were interview acceptable. It’s just that if you’re going to have a career services’ office, I’d like more than just reading from “The Complete Dummy’s Guide to Interviewing.”

    And another thing, at my law school some of the career service people were former attorneys (I am unsure whether this is common) and I wondered what their qualifications were to give career advice. While they may have volunarily chosen to work in career services rather than in law, I found their knowledge and skill set suspect. I just kept thinking of that expression “Those that can do, those that can’t teach.”

  • Law Student

    JB:

    I agree with your post. Some of the career services people at my law school graduated from the law school and never practiced law. I’m assuming that they could not find themselves a job, so what makes them think they can help anyone else? Not to mention I have met rattlesnakes with better dispositions than some of the people who work in the career services office at my school.

  • Robert

    Just got the BLS bi-annual updated in the mail. In there , the new head of career services is quoted: We have to keep our heads up during these hard economic times. We should even volunteer where our interests lie to keep our resumes strong.
    That is what you tell a high school dropout not a person who has spent 150k on education maam!

  • Brad Perri

    I think it would be worthwhile to learn a little bit about the history of law school career service offices. Here’s my guess: one was initially instituted at a very powerful law school in order to perform traffic control with respect to the flood of firms falling over themselves to recruit new attorneys. Ultimately, however, this kind of office spread to other law schools which thought that it would be a good idea, but those schools don’t have a flood to perform traffic control upon. The career services office was then expected at those schools to mutate into a mini-job placement office. Not surprisingly, as law schools at all tiers continue to maximize their enrollment, these career service offices are simply understaffed, underpaid, and overwhelmed, thus greatly limiting their ability to actually perform either job placement or career training. While some career service offices are able to maintain their professionalism in face of the huge workload and lack of support, others fall short, but I don’t see that phenomenon as being different from American work culture in general.

    So I go back to my ax-grinding: I think this is another area in which an apprentice-track to licensure would help the profession. While it may cause enrollments to drop, those lower enrollment numbers may allow those schools to provide actual job placement or career training. The others who go directly into an apprentice program would do their job placement and career training on the job, probably mostly learning by observing other attorneys.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/nenastreet/ Nena Street

    Brad: I really like the idea of an apprentice-track approach. Not a panacea, but an idea worth serious consideration.

  • Brad Perri

    Nena: I think that one of the problems with a lot of discussions (not just in law) is that panaceas are sought rather than practical options. Maybe that’s my response to a lot of controversies: I’m not so sure that there are solutions right now (if ever) as much as the need for more options. These options will, of course, have their own benefits and shortcomings, so it goes back to what we talked about in the thread on going to law school: how to foster an intelligent and well-informed decision to become a lawyer, for the good of the profession and ultimately our justice system. I don’t know if we can overstate how central the structure of legal education is to fostering that kind of informed decision-making.

  • http://lawyerist.com Randall Ryder

    I think an apprentice approach (or least an option) is a great idea. It is possible (although rarely done) to pursue that option in California.

    Aaron is right, career services can help students prepare for an evolving job-market by helping them develop some non-legal skills (as listed above). I strongly believe that showcasing some of those skills, along with a willingness to take risks, can help students find jobs that are not listed on Symplicity or elsewhere.

  • Sean Weinberg

    The critical issue here, I believe, is that the vast majority of Career Services employees have never hired anyone, never recruited, never worked in HR, don’t have HR related degrees or real world experience. Most career services professionals I’ve met (and as a former recruiter, I’ve met many) fell into it. They knew someone at the school when they were in a job search, or were working in another job and shifted over.

    This is not in any way a slight on the career services personnel at my school (Rutgers-Camden). I’ve had positive experiences with them. They are knowledgeable, friendly, available etc. But there is a limit to their abilities and credibility that you have to recognize going in.

    When was the last time one of them interviewed for a job? Interviewed someone else for a job? Wrote their own resume? Received bunches of resumes from actual candidates? Looked for candidates on a job board or LinkedIn?

    What I would want in a career services professional is real-world experience sourcing, finding, interviewing and hiring legal professionals. That seems to be astonishingly rare.

  • Betsy Munnell

    I agree wholeheartedly with Aaron’s comments, and those of many others, on business development and other practical skills training opportunities in law school. I switched professions in June after 30 years of corporate practice, 24 as a partner in a large firm. Now I’m coaching young lawyers and law students struggling to find their places in a down economy and a profession undergoing seismic change. Newly minted associates begin their first jobs expecting to be trained and sustained by their elders, unaware that the apprenticeship model is long gone and that it has been replaced in some firms by lean, mean silo practices. Many of the people who -fifteen years ago–would have mentored young lawyers and included them in succession planning, are a market swing away from (their next) lateral move.

    To survive and prosper in private practice in this era the typical law firm associate must identify the fastest possible track to productivity, expertise and business generation. No law firm can afford to employ, and –ultimately–no law school can afford to graduate, lawyers untrained in the fundamentals of networking
    and business development. Yet professional development of this kind–so crucial to the longterm financial health of any lawyer or law firm, is sorely lacking in the typical law school curriculum, and is one of the first line items to be stricken in the law firm COO’s search for low hanging fruit.

    Law firms have traditionally had collegial cultures that appealed to people not drawn to the hierarchical corporate model, where attention to straight HR concerns is funded, at least in part, as a hard cost. But as collegiality yields to market exigencies, and the profession strains to dig out of its current crisis, practical skills training (including networking and business development skills) remains grossly underfunded. This will always baffle me–there is truly no logic to it. But the fact is that under current circumstances it is rare for any large firm to engage in longterm strategic planning (with the patience and temporary sacrifices often required), for fear the key revenue producers will move on in the meantime.

    Shouldn’t law schools be addressing the problem–through the career offices, as noted above, or even more aggressively, as part of a renovated third year curriculum? The ones that do may well survive the severe pressures on tuition and enrollment that must surely follow a few years wort of layoffs and hiring freezes.

  • GotAJobWithoutCareerServices

    Career services at my law school was (and is) completely worthless. They offer extremely obvious and generic advice which anyone intelligent enough to attend law school already knows, or with a nanosecond of thought can figure out themselves. I would have greatly appreciated a reduction in my tuition by the total elimination of the career services office. In the three years I spent in law school I attempted to utilize career services on multiple occasions, each time being disappointed with the waste of time those endeavors turned out to be. I landed clerking jobs during law school on my own, and also got a job after I graduated without any aid whatsoever from career services. These people have to ardently defend themselves and justify their existence in law schools from Yale to Flordia Coastal. They seem to be failing everyone, and should be trimmed it not completey cut from the law school bill. Of course the difficult economic times in which we find ourselves can offer them some degree of cover(excuse) for their horrifically poor performance, however I do not beleive their numbers, which everyone knows are completely bull, prior to the recession were much better. So, all those career services folks out there, pack it up and find out how difficult it is to get a real job.

  • http://www.louquelaw.com Robert Louque

    I graduated from law school in 2003. I was in the top 20% of my class. The OCS was pretty much useless to me. I got the impression they could not be bothered by me. All they really did was tell me to change a few things on my resume and to sign up for some online service with job publications.

    So even in 2003, when salaries were still exploding, OCS was useless.