Why You Shouldn't Go Straight To Law School

Samantha Wells hold off law schoolEach year newly minted college graduates head straight to law school hoping that another degree will help land them a job. This is increasingly looking like a bad idea.

In hiring entry-level lawyers, law firms and companies are favoring candidates who have actually worked. It's a significant change in the legal world--which once favored intellectual bona fides over hours logged at the office. And it's another example of how the recession has impacted even the country's most privileged: Young college graduates from top universities who thought they were doing everything right, getting into law schools with great reputations and positioning themselves for high-paying jobs in the legal world.

"What am I supposed to put in a cover letter? That I have been in school?" asks Samantha Walls in a phone interview with AOL Jobs. Walls went directly from college at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to law school at Georgetown. She finished this past spring and is still hunting for work.

"Of everyone I know from Georgetown who has one of the [law] firm jobs you need to pay off law school loans, all but two had work experience between undergrad and law school," says Walls, who finished in the middle of her class. "You are competing with all the laid off lawyers and graduates from the last few school classes who can't find work. I can't compare to someone who has worked at a bank and knows about financial transactions and can start making a firm money right away."

While no one is tracking employment rates for lawyers with professional experience, interviews with more than 30 law professors, admissions officers, law students, recent graduates and hiring partners at law firms confirm that professional experience has grown more important in the weak economy. In many cases, work experience functions as a tiebreaker in a toss-up between two otherwise equally qualified candidates. Many young lawyers who went straight to law school are now regretting the decision.

With unemployment rates at record highs for lawyers -- 68.4 percent of graduates from the national law school class of 2010 are employed in jobs that require a doctorate degree in law, a drop of 8 percentage points from the class of 2007 -- college graduates without professional experience need to think carefully about heading straight to school.

"There's no doubt that this is a buyer's market for hiring," says Kevyn Orr, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of top-tier law firm Jones Day in a phone interview with AOL Jobs. "And so in a more competitive market, we will look at the experience more now than in the past. For a candidate on the margin, yes, it can make a difference. But it's currently hard to quantify."

What counts as professional experience? Orr says that a broad range of jobs can impress: From paralegal to Peace Corps. He recalled one candidate who managed a wind-surfing shop on a California beach. "If he was just a surf bum, I wouldn't have cared," he says. "But here was a businessman, concerned about supply chain and issues like that. And that's why it enhanced his candidacy."

Certainly, top students at top schools still get work -- job experience or not, a top student at Harvard or Yale is going to land a job. And the most prestigious (read: highest paying) law firms still are heavily biased toward certain name-brand law schools. They also largely base their selection on a candidate's grades in addition to placement on a law school journal. "A girl who has never had a job and graduates at the top of her class, there's a still a job for her," explains Orr, of Jones Day.

Lauren O'Garro-Moore, University of Pennsylvania Law School Class of 2012, says that her five years of post-college work experience helped land her a much-coveted associate position in the New York office of the prestigious firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. (Jones Day and Morgan Lewis both sit on The American Lawyer's ranking of the biggest law firms.) The salary for a first year associate at Morgan Lewis varies by city, but for those on a partner track in New York, it's $160,000 per year.

O'Garro-Moore, who spent three years as an admissions officer for the undergraduate school at Penn, was nowhere near the top, or the bottom, of her law school class.

"Interviewers are human, and they need something to talk about," she says in an interview with AOL Jobs. "They would come out and simply tell me they liked people who had professional experience, who knew how to handle themselves. The phrase I repeatedly heard was that they wanted people who had professional experience so they could hit the ground running."

In an email, Morgan Lewis' firmwide hiring manager Rahul Kapoor wouldn't comment specifically on O'Garro-Moore, but did say that the firm takes professional experience into account in making hiring decisions.

University of Pennsylvania is a top law school, and many in the middle end up at law firms, as was the case for roughly two-thirds of Penn's Class of 2010, or 182 graduates out of a class of 276. Penn has maintained a rate of roughly two-thirds of its class ending up at law firms throughout the financial crisis. Still O'Garro-Moore feels certain that her job experience helped.

Other changes in the American legal market have also led to a new premium being placed on a lawyer's outside professional experience. Many of the basic legal services that were once the province of young lawyers are now outsourced abroad or parsed out to contract attorneys in the U.S. As a result, young lawyers are spending less time in general apprenticeship. Instead, the faster they can become a specialist, the greater their employment prospects are.

"In these hard economic times, firms are looking more at who can bring in business," says Joan Bullock, a law professor at Florida A & M University College of Law, in an interview with AOL Jobs. "You can be the smartest lawyer in the room. But now you all need to be able to sell yourself to clients. And what's new is that's true for everyone in the field. Those who have the work experience, who can attract clients, will be appealing to law firms. Or they should be."

Bullock, who sits in on admissions decisions at Florida A&M, as she did during teaching stints at the law schools of the University of Toledo and University of Georgia, says the experience factor has long been known as an asset in the field of intellectual property. But the importance of professional expertise has spread to other legal fields. A lawyer entering family law with a social work background will make a better candidate, she says. The same is true for those entering medical malpractice law with a background in nursing.

"Historically, there's been a notion that law is a profession not a business. That it's a calling," says Bullock. "But firms and everyone else are acknowledging more that we need to start looking more strategically -- looking at who is going to bring in business. Having lawyers with professional experience is important."

As a response to a changing market, the role of a law school education has changed. The school best known for being at the forefront of such a change in mission is the Northwestern School of Law, based in downtown Chicago -- near its business district -- and away from the university's main campus in suburban Evanston. As a top law school, Northwestern puts "strong emphasis" on full-time work experience in making admissions decisions. And 95 percent of entering students have had one or more years of full-time work experience before starting their education.

Northwestern's policy of emphasizing professional experience was implemented by David Van Zandt, who served as the school's dean from 1995 until 2010, before moving on to the presidency of the progressive New School in New York.

"His idea was to bring business school ideas to us," says William Chamberlain, his successor at Northwestern, in an interview with AOL Jobs. "Employers who come to campus uniformly tell us that they want lawyers who are more prepared and more mature. And that means work experience."

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