Career Services Professionals Do Their Best

In “Where Law School Career Services Fail (and Some Fixes),” Aaron mixes excellent suggestions with some incorrect assumptions. I wish that his transformative goals for law schools could be readily achieved, that his assumptions were correct and workable, and that the powers he ascribes to career offices were real.

Career services occupies an odd space among employers and alumni who are savvy about what students will need to become smart professionals, law students and their parents who want jobs right now, and deans who want employed alumni.

Because the admissions office does not screen for the entrepreneurial spirit, students are admitted with vastly different skills, interests, and intent, including those who have not yet decided to become lawyers. Unlike lawyers who get to select their clients, astonishingly understaffed (300:1) career service offices serve all comers after November of the first year of law school.

Career services ought to teach

In my 17 years at Minnesota, the career office sponsored more than 1,100 programs featuring alumni speakers. Most were sorry to have given short shrift to legal writing, and equally sorry to have ignored alumni who urged them to acquire business skills. They nearly always pointed out that students would be in charge of their own careers.

Had it been available, most would have endorsed the “Lawyerist List of Key Career Skills” (marketing, branding, business development, client service, pricing and professional services delivery, business-model innovation, and small business/solo start-up tools). But, hindsight is always 20/20, and they were delivering a message that was hard to hear.

To be effective, branding and entrepreneurship must be part of a law school’s DNA and be mandatory. Career services has limited power and influence. Law faculty are notoriously unpractical, and only the most motivated deans are likely to be eager to change the fundamental characters of their schools.

Smart career development is hard. It is easy to submit a resume for an electronic job listing. The real work of career planning is personal and time consuming. It earns no grade. It competes with course credits, journals, moot courts, mock trials, clinics, paid and unpaid employment, and with students’ need to sleep and eat. Aaron’s estimable recommendations for coaching and vectoring toward innovative business opportunities may not be timely for 2Ls who have missed the “legal market has changed” message or who have no interest in any aspect of business.

Knocking career offices for spending “zero time focusing on creating career-savvy legal professionals” has its limits. Leaving aside just how closely the programs and services of nearly 200 ABA accredited law schools were studied, this position is disrespectful to the choices that students are free to make that don’t fall within the “Lawyerist List of Key Career Skills”. Not every student is ready to embrace the entrepreneurial life, and for many, despite looming loans, law school is a place to hide. I know that career offices have been inserting practical skills concepts into their schedules for more than a decade. Leading horses to water has never been a reliable way to make them drink.

The complication of alternative career paths

The earnest recommendation that career offices generate alternative career opportunities misses the point that most alternative career searches are complicated and unique. Recruiters evaluate “yield.” Managers would question their judgment if they spent time and money at law schools to find one qualified applicant in five years, when they could see dozens at a school that trains for their occupation, and where they could connect immediately with a large qualified alumni applicant pool.

Similarly, a dean would question the use of scarce resources if the office attempted to gin up scores of non-legal positions for which few law students would be qualified, and even fewer would have interest. An alternative career search is hard. What is an alternative career for a lawyer is someone else’s traditional career, so there is no law school OCI, and the jobs are posted where the other professionals look for work.

I agree that in today’s economy, more students may be interested in the “Lawyerist List of Key Career Skills” then in the recent past. I hope so. But converting “interest” into a real entrepreneurial spirit, active networking, and skill development requires students’ time, energy, and commitment. While they serve as teachers and cheerleaders for students and alumni, career services professionals do not have the power to make people engage in these activities.

What do prospective students want from career services?

However, in this economy, law school applications are increasing exponentially, and I would be very curious to know what prospective students expect from law school. Are they coming to avoid the worst of the economy, or do they have practical plans for becoming lawyers in the new economy—whatever that is?

(photo: toffehoff)

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  • Greta Tackebury

    Bravo, Susan. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I have come to the realization that there will always be students who will blame career services for their lack of a job or their lack of a job they actually want. Yet those same students will be the ones to look at you, doe-eyed, never having taken any personal initiative to make career opportunities on their own, content instead to merely search the internet for job postings. As the director at a law school with 700+ students, countless alumni (many more of whom are seeking us out because of the current economy), and only two career couselors, I can’t begin to explain how much dedication and effort the CSO puts into helping every student who crosses our door to achieve the career they desire. But ultimately those students must take personal responsibility for implementing the advice and proactively seeking out and creating opportunities for themselves.

  • Brad Perri

    Susan:

    What should a career services office look like? What should it do? How can it manage unrealistic or even incorrect expectations? When a student goes to the career services office, what should they be able to reasonably expect from the career services office personnel?

    I think a real difficulty here lies in the possibility that each “career services office” has a different mission depending on the character of its student body, so it’s impossible to say what each one should do specifically. But are there any general observations that could be made?

  • anonymous

    What about the skewed career stats that many law school career service offices put out?

  • I’ve recently heard many similar arguments about Career Services department at my B-School. The argument about being entrepreneurial isn’t as easy for MBAs, who have the concepts of building businesses and bottom lines in every course we take. A lot of the problem is definitely the current job market which has created more disappointment and blame. However, my ideal career services would be a blend of a unique network and personal career development. While my career services provided excellent feedback on my resume, built my interview skills, etc. I felt it was strongly lacking in providing unique introductions to major corporations, recruiters and potential positions. I feel as though my school should provide some added connections over other job seekers who don’t have this resource, especially considering the market conditions. I think the Career Services department should be actively courting local companies and finding ways to integrate them into courses (some professors do this, providing real-world projects) and other unique methods other than just providing a generic job board.

  • Brad Perri

    I think the photograph choice of “tug of war” for this topic is very appropriate. The most frustrating obstacle in discussions regarding the place of CSOs in the profession is the polarization of opinion into (1) it’s the students’ fault, and (2) it’s the CSO’s fault, with a possible third entry (3) it’s the school’s fault. What I hope will happen at some point is that it will be realized that these three positions (I’m sure there are more, but these are the ones I hear raised most often) all have the same basic assumption: something’s wrong with the way the CSO, the students, and the schools are interacting. It will be difficult, though, to diagnose the problem when there are such heavy axes to grind on all sides. Once we get a diagnosis, then I would like to see what kind of solutions are available. I suspect these discussions are had in any CSO professional trade publications, because, unfortunately, I think it will have to be the CSO profession’s burden to educate the rest of us as to their role in any given institution.

  • Robert

    After spending 100k+ on a legal education that qualifies the student to pass the bar the first time, doesn’t the student have the to expect MORE than just a few listings, OCI, a few workshops and a kick in the pants with the advice that networking and entrepreneurial spirit will carry the day?
    If the student is unqualified to work even if passing the bar first time then the school DID NOT TEACH what it needed to fish. In the alternative, if the student is qualified to work then his choices should be more than shitlaw or doc review!

  • 2L

    I know people at a t14 school who entered this year’s OCI with middling grades and little practical experience with the legal economy.

    These people read the legal news about layoffs and salary freezes, but were unsure of its long-term meaning. They knew the shifts in the market couldn’t be good for them. So before my school’s major OCI events they asked the CSOs whether it would be prudent to take a year off, find unpaid positions, gain some experience, make some connections in their fields of interest, and see whether the economy would improve. As far as I understand it, the CSOs dismissed this strategy as “naive” and that they “were going to participate in the OCI events.”

    At this point, my guess is that at least half of this t14 class will graduate sans jobs paying enough to service the debt on their taxpayer-backed loans. Nevertheless, the school has held to its anti-leave-of-absence line, with the added suggestion that some of these students proceed with the expectation of exploiting the government’s new “income-based repayment plan,” which of course will mean that the taxpayers will never get repaid.

    This post suggests that CSOs aren’t to blame because, even with hundreds of students paying $40,000+ tuition, law school career services offices lack the “resources” to develop individualized alternate strategies for a changing market. I don’t work in the budget office of a law school, so I’ll assume that argument to be valid. But it misses the point. As far as I understand it, what people at this t14 are upset about has nothing to do with “resources.” It has to do with an issue of core competency: to know enough about the marketplace in general so that, when presented with a particular problem, one can respond to that problem in an accurate and meaningful manner. Law school can be a very unforgiving place for people who are unable to perform this basic task.

    Maybe no one is to blame – after all, it seems like CSOs at law schools across the country seem to have simultaneously made the same fundamental miscalculation, the same way law firms did before them. The one constant in all of this, though, is that the advice that is given to students seems to end in students who continue to pay tuition.

  • Francis Barragan

    @Robert.

    With those tuition fees, I can certainly understand the frustration of some students, that’s for sure.