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April 27, 2012


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Chris Engel

Berine, deficient interview or other interpersonal skills? Lack of motivation or work ethic? You have to be kidding me.

I just don't understand why the legal academy keeps avoiding a very simple statistic: there are nearly twice as many law school students graduating this year as there are entry-level positions for them to find.

It pretty clear to everyone involved that these bridge position are law schools groping around to eke out a competitive advantage for their students in rapidly shrinking market.

But the market's shrinking! It's insulting that--after taking their tuition money--you're implying these kids aren't getting jobs because they lack social skills or are not trying hard enough.

Chris Engel

One additional point: what is a comparative advantage in today's legal market for young graduates is actual experience as a practitioner.

Outside the shrinking Biglaw and elite public service employment opportunities, the signaling and sorting value of legal education is greatly diminished. For the remaining positions that most students vie for at small firms and government, legal skills training and a track record of competence in a professional setting are what employers seeks. To the extent these bridge positions provide these experiences, they will improve a recent graduate's chances for employment.

This change is why so many students are seeking multiple internships, externship, and fellowship during and after law school. The accoutrements of the legal education of yore--research assistant, journal, moot court--do much less for students in the new paradigm than training from professional work in a professional office.

Bernie Burk

I was expecting a comeback like this. Let's cool down a bit and take a calm look both at what I said and what I said it about. By the way, we should all acknowledge that this is controversial material, and that there is ample room for reasoned debate. So let's discuss it:

Just about everyone agrees that the legal job markets have shrunk since late 2008. I used the word "collapse." Twice. While there's some room for discussion about just how oversupplied the legal job markets are these days, it is clear that they are seriously oversupplied.

That means there are more recent law-school graduates seeking employment than there are entry-level legal jobs. And that means that some recent graduates are getting entry-level legal jobs, and some are not.

And that, in turn, leads to the question which graduates are getting the limited number of jobs that are available, and what the graduates not immediately getting jobs can do to improve their chances.

Speaking descriptively only, it seems clear that the two most important factors in obtaining an entry-level legal job are the prestige of the school that awarded the candidate's law degree, and the candidate's performance at that school, with a predominant focus on class grades. There is also a personal interview, in which a candidate can rarely demontrate superior interpersonal skills, but can more easily demonstrate significant shortcomings. I know all this qualitatively from 25 years in private practice in which I interviewed and discussed countless entry-level candidates (both within my own firm and with many lawyers at many other firms), and quantitatively from the empirical work on legal hiring done by scholars such as Bill Henderson. I don't endorse this state of affairs, nor do I suggest that it is necessarily fair, or an effective way of selecting the entry-level hires most likely to succeed, but it is an accurate description of the current operation of the entry-level job markets.

So, assuming school prestige and grades are important to placement, and school prestige was determined long before the candidate sent out his or her resume, what kinds of factors affect law-school performance? Uncomfortable truth: It's not just random bad luck. While (as my post acknowledges) there are lots of things that influence performance in school, at least three are probably meaningfully influential: educational or cultural preparation, raw ability, and motivation or work ethic.

I do not believe that any of these factors are necessarily definable or measurable with any high degree of precision, but that doesn't mean that they don't exist in more or less broad outline. Nor do I suggest that these factors are not endogenous, but that doesn't mean they're not significant. Nor do I suggest that it's fair that (for example) people with less directly applicable cultural or educational preparation probably come disproportionately from less socio-economically advantaged backgrounds, and thus (for reasons not obviously related to their abilities or their work ethic) have a steeper hill to climb to achieve the same results as more advantaged students. That sucks, and it's unfortunate that we as educators and we more broadly as a society haven't done a whole lot more about it before now. But it's all descriptively accurate.

Does that mean school prestige and grades are the only things that matter? Of course not. And actual work experience, particularly coupled with an independent reference who can provide a meaningful recommendation based on that actual work experience, can also be influential. Which is why I suggested that the right kind of school-funded bridge positions should make their recipients more employable on the margin. And that's why I think that, properly structured and administered, they can be a pretty good complement to a legal education for those entering the job markets.


Larry Catá Backer

Nice exchange, thanks. My perspective is a little different. Stripping away assumptions about the "normal"--that law students completing their studies in due course are expected to progress to jobs of a certain kind--makes the question of post degree employment more interesting and less rigidly tied to notions of "what is expected." Beyond the surface dynamics--law schools need to protect their reputations and hence their abilities to draw students of a certain caliber to their tuition producing institutions, it might suggest, for example, a recognition that the traditional narrowness of employment market insertion of graduates is skewed by developing realities and that the "bridge employment" provides a means of "re-tooling" for other work. That might be an interesting avenue to explore further. There are likely others. I look forward to further exploration.

alta charo

For what it's worth, there are many students who are geographically limited in their employment options, due to two-career households and family ties (with or without family care or child care complications). It's possible this situation affects women somewhat more often than men, e.g. where one needs to be near family if one expects to have children while employed. If you couple that with attendance at a school in a mid-sized or small employment market, you get a situation in which class standing, work ethic and interview skills are no longer the most important variables.

Bernie Burk

Prof. Charo makes a valuable observation here about the kinds of factors that can draw a particular candidate to a particular law school and geographic job market. And in fact there's some good empirical work by Paul Oyer at the Stanford Business School and David Freeman at Temple showing that the vast majority of law schools, including those that consider themselves "national" schools, place graduates disproportionately within the state where they are located. (In fact, the exceptions appear to be "national" schools located in states with a relatively small bar, such as Yale in Connecticut.)

I'm finding it a little harder to relate the factors Prof. Charo identifies with the phenomena I'm discussing. Constraints that tie a particular prospective law student or prospective lawyer to a particular geographic area will affect the SUPPLY of lawyers in that geographic area. Once the job market in that region is oversupplied (which appears to be the case just about everywhere right now), then the question is going to be which candidates out of the excess supply will get the inadequate number of jobs available in that market. And that would appear to turn on the criteria applied on the demand side of the market by the employers (who get to pick and choose). Since employers pretty much everywhere seem disproportionately focused on school prestige and class standing, the candidate's reasons for seeking a job in the particular region where the employer is located would not appear to have a significant effect on employer choice, or to shed much light on which candidates get the available jobs in any given market.

I would welcome further explication of what I'm missing.


alta charo

Bernie -

I'm not sure any of us are missing anything, and I am not looking to go on forever in this comment string. But in my own experience, there are almost always at least two, if not five or ten, qualified people for every job. In the end, the employer decision is often guided more by personal knowledge than paper credentials or interviews. That is to say, when an employer hears from a friend or colleague that "so-and-so is the cat's meow" this will be decisive. Again, it's only my own experience, but as among very roughly comparable candidates, employers take the safe choice, that is, the person whom they have heard is likely to fit in and do the work properly, even if grades/rank/school are less prestigious. And because bridge jobs expose recent graduates to a number of fellow lawyers, it forms the beginning of the kind of network that leads to permanent jobs. Especially if one is limited in one's choices about where to apply for jobs, it is important to have an edge over the many other applicants for the few positions, and networking provides that edge.


Bernie Burk

Alta, These are valuable comments that add depth and perspective to the discussion. Thanks for taking the time and energy to provide them.


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