Just before the Great Recession legal hiring at the top law school in the country was like the proverbial “shooting fish in a barrel.” Since then, things certainly haven’t been as good. Here’s my take on law school and the job market.
Employment Statistics Could Be Better
New law students have their hearts set on one of four job options: big law, federal clerkship, public interest, or non-legal. While we have great employment statistics in the aggregate — that is, you can find out what percentage of a law school’s grads work in each of these fields — we don’t have the stats that really matter. What I’d like to see is, for example, out of all the people who wanted to land a clerkship, how many actually got one. Out of all the people who wanted to get a big law job, how many actually got one. And so on.
When you see that a school has an XX% employment rate for full-time, JD-required jobs you don’t really know how many people were forced to take jobs they didn’t want because some job is better than no job.
One stat the schools know for sure is what the offer rate was for all the folks participating in on-campus interviews. If you’re participating in OCI and you don’t get a job, it becomes extremely difficult to get a firm job afterwards. Not to mention, you have to potentially go through two more years of law school not knowing if you’ll have worthwhile work to go with about $250,000 of debt.
While you could argue that one big law job is as good as any other, the range of public interest options is extremely broad, and it is here where more precise stats would be welcome.
Kudos to Michigan Law, which, as far as I know, is one of the most transparent when it comes to employment outcomes. You can see all the employers that have hired Michigan Law grads from 2013 to 2015.
A Significant Number of Law Students Strike Out at OCI
I don’t know the official numbers for any school, but I personally know people who struck out at OCI in my year and previous years at some of our best law schools. They struggled mightily afterwards and some ended up taking jobs in sectors they have no interest in. At many of the top schools, a lot of people like to say, “Everyone gets a job. Everything will be okay.” While everything may very well be okay in some grander sense, not everyone gets a job. Even at one of the best law schools, taking out loans is a very risky thing.
Grades Matter a Lot
The best thing you can do for yourself to improve your job prospects is get good grades. The problem is you don’t really know how well you’ll do until you actually start. Some people figure out law school exams very early, some never do. You’re also likely to end up at a law school where everyone is pretty much as smart as you are coming in—at least as far as LSAT scores and undergrad GPAs indicate.
But Other Things Matter Too
Grades aren’t everything. As far as I can tell, all law firms care a lot about diversity, many care about technical backgrounds (think patent related work), and many care about relevant work experience (former paralegals at big firms do well, so do former finance people). But these are pretty narrow categories. Don’t count on some other mysterious X factor — save for great connections — to get you into a job you otherwise may not have the grades for.
For a very narrow slice of public interest jobs, grades don’t seem to matter much at all. For these jobs, what matters more is a commitment to the job and your ability to communicate that in interviews. Some public interest jobs, however, can be as grade selective as the best firms in the country.
Talk to Recent Graduates
To get a better sense for what’s actually happening at your prospective law schools, you need to talk to recent graduates or current students. Talk to as many of them as you can, because you won’t get the whole picture from any one person. If you know what kind of job you want, talk to someone who managed to snag that kind of job.
Be Conservative in Your Projections
Not being able to tell how you’ll do on law school exams, your best bet is to imagine you’ll end up in the middle of the pack at your school and then check if the types of employment outcomes look acceptable to you from there. Again, resist the idea that you’re somehow special and will outperform everyone.