We’ve been examining the phenomenon of law school-funded “bridge” positions—short-term jobs for recent graduates funded by the school, which apparently have become strikingly more common since the legal job market began its collapse in late 2008. Are they a good idea?
In my view, whether bridge positions are a good idea depends on who’s getting them, and what they are. For the most part, it seems safe to say that most of the people getting these positions are people who have not found a job by graduation. (This may not be universally true: In response to an earlier post in this series, a commenter who claimed to be a recent Yale Law graduate asserted that Yale’s “fellowship” program exists primarily not to help place students not otherwise employed, but rather to assist graduates who have existing employment options find the scarcer government and public interest jobs that they would prefer to the private-sector offers they already have. The marked increase in school-funded bridge positions since the collapse of the legal job markets strongly suggests that, assuming the comment is accurate, the motivations and needs of Yale Law and its graduates are not typical.)
Why are these individuals not yet employed? If we overgeneralize a bit, we can find some plausible reasons. One group still unemployed at graduation is as employable—whatever that entails—as their classmates who already have positions, but seek (or are capable of promptly getting and will accept) jobs such as those in government, nonprofits and very small firms that often require bar passage before an offer, and sometimes even as a condition of an interview. These students are doing fine, but are on a “glide path” that, because of the nature of the job they seek and will eventually obtain, is naturally somewhat longer than that for the recipients of some other positions.
Now let’s focus on the students who are unemployed at graduation because they are less employable than their classmates. Most likely they have one or a combination of three principal features: (1) Suboptimal class standing; (2) Deficient interview or other interpersonal skills; and/or (3) Lack of motivation or work ethic. My guess is that poor personal skills are largely independent of poor grades and poor motivation; that is, they accompany one of the other two more or less as often as they don’t. Substandard grades and substandard motivation are probably somewhat correlated: while some people with poor grades have worked hard but lacked some combination of the educational or cultural preparation and raw ability to do well, others have found that they dislike the material or dislike hard work (or both), and have not performed in school up to what some educators would call their “potential.” To be clear, I appreciate that these are gross oversimplifications and omit all kinds of other plausible causes (e.g. substantial competing commitments such as single parenting; personal crises during school; etc.). But because of the importance that most employers attribute to law school grades, poor class standing is a significant stumbling block more or less regardless of its cause.
For which of these students is a bridge position a good idea? Simply put, it will be for those who will become materially more employable because of the experience, references or other qualifications the short-term position will provide them. In part that will depend on the kind of bridge position they occupy. Positions directly with the subsidizing law school will be largely unhelpful in this regard—most employers will not be impressed with students who have spent time since graduation shelving books in the law library, and will be only marginally more impressed with most work as an academic, administrative or research assistant. Nor do many positions like these much help candidates slower to develop interpersonal and workplace survival skills learn how to fit in and get along. Real legal work with a public interest or nonprofit organization, on the other hand, can provide actual hands-on workplace and practice experience that is easily generalizable to private or government practice, and a reference from an experienced practitioner who can speak to the candidate’s performance as a practicing lawyer. And while hard quantities are scarce, it does appear that most of the bridge positions schools currently fund involve a monetary “fellowship” or “stipend” for recent graduates while they provide otherwise unpaid short-term assistance to public interest, nonprofit or government legal agencies. In short, the limited and anecdotal evidence available suggests that quite a lot of these school-funded positions are the right kind to increase the graduates’ employability.
What’s more, in the current oversubscribed job markets, there appears to be a fair complement of less employable recent graduates for whom this experience makes a difference. This is illustrated (if not measured) in the real world by the limited information we have about what happens to recipients of school-funded positions, which suggests that a fair number actually do find full-time paying law jobs. How many of these students would have found jobs without the bridge position is anybody’s guess, of course, but it would not be unreasonable to guess that it’s fewer.
So, at least at present, we can hazard that the right kinds of positions for the right kinds of candidates can be helpful in easing transition into the legal job market for some of those less obviously or immediately attractive to legal employers.
How can, or should, such positions be paid for? I’ll address that in the next post.