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.