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Career Opportunities

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If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard somebody inside a law school complain about the school’s career services office I could buy a brand new case book (that’s a whole other topic). Apparently over the last few years just about every CSO out there was staffed by incompetent do-nothings. That, at any rate, has become a popular explanation within law schools for why it’s gotten so hard for our graduates to get actual law jobs.

Now it’s quite possible that lots of CSOs have been staffed by incompetent do-nothings, but the cold truth of the matter is that a CSO staffed by cardboard cutouts will do just fine when employers are hiring, while when they’re not it hardly matters if a CSO is stacked to the rafters with ever-so competent and hardworking people, because career service people can’t help students and graduates get jobs that don’t exist.

It’s also true that a good career services office can occasionally dig up job opportunities here and there for particular students and grads those people might not have been aware of otherwise, but let’s face it: in the information age, the marginal value that CSOs add must be declining — which of course hasn’t stopped law schools from pouring ever-more resources into these offices, partially because schools have to spend all that tuition money on something, and partially because all of us are prone to magical thinking (if we just find the right person to run the CSO it can be 1987 or at least 2006 again).

The problem, as cannot be repeated enough, is that there are at least twice as many law grads as there are law jobs. I just went through all the job listings that CU’s CSO is currently categorizing as “entry level” positions, potentially available to graduates from the school’s last two classes. For anybody working at a law school who happens to be reading this, I highly recommend undertaking a similar exercise. Imagine that you graduated ten or twenty-two months ago, and you don’t have a law job at all, or you’re in a temp position that’s about to end. At all but about four law schools, anywhere from a large minority to a large majority of recent grads are in this position. Your graduates need legal jobs: where can they find them?

The listings I reviewed included a total of 73 positions. The first problem that should be obvious to any prospective job hunter is that three-quarters of these jobs are outside not just the state, but the entire Rocky Mountain region. One of the biggest problems in the legal employment market is that you can’t just go anywhere to work as a lawyer — you have to be licensed to practice in a jurisdiction. Most CU graduates are licensed in Colorado, which makes sense: about 40% of our students are from the state, many more came intending to work here, and, most important of all, law school hiring tends to be intensely regional.

At more than 90% of law schools, even in flush times the chances of getting a legal job plummet for graduates who try to practice outside the region in which a school places most of its grads. That’s where the school’s hiring network of alums is located; that’s where graduates have personal and professional connections that can help them get a job; and at the very least that’s where the people making hiring decisions have actually heard of your school. This is why it’s a particularly perverse reaction, especially at a school like CU, for law faculty and administration to complain that our graduates are un- and under-employed because they aren’t willing to leave the area. After all, people came to school here precisely to get a job in the area, and moreover that’s where the vast majority of jobs our graduates can get actually are (If you want a mordant laugh, check out this infamous piece of advice from an Emory professor, who chose the occasion of the school’s 2011 commencement to advise unemployed Emory grads to look for jobs in, say, Nebraska. The problem with this advice — leaving aside the awkward detail that there aren’t any law jobs in Nebraska — is that there are no Emory law alumni in Nebraska, which is one big reason nobody in Nebraska has ever heard of Emory, the others being its 1500 miles away and doesn’t have a football team).

Thus it’s a major practical problem that the 73 jobs uncovered by the CU OCS include 19 in California and 14 in the Washington DC area, but only 18 in Colorado (along with, speaking regionally in the broadest sense, one in Arizona, one in Nebraska, and zero in New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming). In other words, most of our graduates are not eligible to apply for most of these jobs, since they require that applicants be barred in the jurisdictions in which the jobs are located (This doesn’t even consider the further difficulty that, given the overall state of the legal markets in California and DC, the notion that CU law graduates could compete successfully for jobs in these locations would be improbable even if this fundamental barrier to entry didn’t exist).

But beyond this, our recent graduates aren’t minimally qualified for most of the listed Colorado jobs either, since ten of the 18 positions require at least two years of practice experience, i.e., a standard that no one who has graduated after 2009 could possibly meet. And, as every recent law school graduate knows, “at least two years of practice experience” ends up meaning, in practice, “at least five and probably seven or more years of practice experience, since there are plenty of people with that much experience who are now desperate to work for 30% less than what a few years ago they would have considered an entry-level salary.”

This means most of our recent grads will find in this list a grand total of eight jobs that they are, in the most liberal sense of the phrase, actually qualified to apply for. These jobs consist of:

(1) An assistant city attorney position in a medium-sized town that lists experience as a prosecutor as “desirable.” (translation: essential)

(2) A job assisting a sole practitioner with general civil litigation. (probably an eat what you kill arrangement)

(3) A job with an immigration law firm (candidates must be bilingual in English and Spanish).

(4) A job with an insurance defense firm, that requires either a year’s practice experience or a clerkship (this would seem to disqualify 2011 graduates).

(5) A job with a firm specializing in family law that doesn’t require but clearly prefers previous experience practicing family law. (see job #1 supra).

(6) Three jobs for “tax resolution” positions. (None of these jobs actually require a JD, and they look suspiciously seasonal.)

That’s it. In just the last couple of years, CU and the University of Denver have graduated a combined total of several hundred current members of the Colorado bar who at this moment don’t have real law jobs (again, a real law job = full-time long-term employment requiring a law degree). This figure doesn’t even take into account all the recent grads from genuinely national schools that have gotten Lathamed, or just struck out at OCI, and who have wandered into our fair state, looking like updated refugees from the Joad family, assuming the Joads had picked up some Oakley sunglasses on the road west. Nor does it include all the licensed Colorado attorneys with five and ten and twenty years experience who have gotten bounced from their positions in the last few months and are looking for work. Etc.

Add all that up and the number of licensed Colorado attorneys (or aspiring attorneys) currently looking for legal work surely runs well into four figures, while the CSO can’t find 20 lawyer jobs in the whole state.

This is a reminder that at all but a handful of law schools, many if not most of the people in every graduating class leave law school without jobs, and will have to try to enter a market in which there are very few entry points for people in their position. It’s also a reminder of how it’s mostly irrelevant to most law schools and most law graduates whether or not big law hiring bounces back to the level it was at five years ago. If less than ten percent of your graduates get jobs with big firms — which has always been the situation at more than 80% of law schools without regard to the business cycle — then the real question is always going to be what happens to that vast majority of your class that doesn’t get a job through OCI.

And the answer to that question has become: They’ll enter an employment market where they will need a lot of luck to get any kind of real legal job at all, let alone one that will allow them to actually pay back the six figures-plus of educational debt the typical graduate now incurs for the privilege of obtaining a law degree.

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