Law Schools Get Advice on Helping Students Cope With a Tight Job Market

January 07, 2010

Law schools have a responsibility to teach students how to be emotionally resilient and fiscally sensible at a time when high-paying jobs are hard to come by and student-loan debts are mounting, several speakers asserted at the annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, which began here on Thursday.

Students who have spent summers working for law firms only to have job offers from those firms rescinded or delayed often become disillusioned or angry, said Pam Occhipinti, director of career services at Loyola University New Orleans's College of Law.

The way they behave in the 48 hours after such a disappointment can make a difference in their ability to land another job, she said.

"By emotionally preparing our students for failure as well as preparing them for success," she said, "we will give them important life skills they will need to handle adversity in the job market."

When informed that a job offer is being revoked or delayed, job candidates should remain calm, express gratitude for the support the firm has showed in the past, and ask what they can do to help the firm weather the downturn, Ms. Occhipinti said. Students could offer to work as law clerks until the economy picks up, and should project a positive attitude about the firm and the legal profession even when, below the surface, they feel panicky and frustrated.

"These are the candidates they're going to go back and recruit once the economy improves, not the ones who simply complained," she said.

Wary of Too Much Debt

Students should also be wary about taking on too much debt, said Jeff Hanson, director of borrower education services for Access Group, which specializes in graduate-education loans. He said more students today were borrowing money for law school—and in larger amounts.

He said more unemployed law-school graduates were also seeking to postpone repayment of their loans. Many of them end up in forbearance, which means that interest charges continue to pile up even if they aren't making payments.

Law firms still aren't hiring as many summer associates as they did before the recession hit, and law-school graduates will have a tough time getting interviews this spring, Mr. Hanson said. "As long as this persists, people who have debt will only get into more debt as interest on their loans accrue."

A survey published this week found that in 2009, 29 percent of responding law students expected to graduate with more than $120,000 in debt, he noted.

Law schools should make sure students have realistic expectations about their earning potential and the debt burdens they're taking on, he said. Schools should also inform them about repayment options such as income-based repayment and loan-forgiveness programs for students who make a long-term commitment to public-interest law.

Paucity of Diversity

The high cost of legal education may be one reason law schools have had relatively little success diversifying their student bodies — a goal that was also highlighted on Thursday.

From 1993 to 2008, the percentage of African-American and Mexican-American law-school students dropped even though law-school capacity increased nationally, according to the findings of a study released on Tuesday by Columbia Law School's Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic.

The percentage dropped even though both groups improved their undergraduate grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores, according to the study, which was conducted with the Society of American Law Teachers.

Engaging Students in Class

Another session on Thursday gave law professors tips on how they can ensure that students are getting the most out of their legal education.

Students who work in teams and are actively engaged in the course are more likely to succeed both in law school and the job market, they said.

Pavel Wonsowicz, who directs the academic-support program at the University of California at Los Angeles's School of Law, provided a lighthearted description of the frustration he felt after trying a traditional approach toward teaching a 15-page case involving a legal protection that allows the accused to face their accusers. After lecturing about the so-called confrontation clause, he engaged the students in some light Socratic dialogue.

"It's like the hand of God had reached down and molded a chunk of clay into a swan," he said. "What did I hope to see? Eager, even enthralled faces. What did I see? One hundred students on the Internet trying to figure out who Tiger Woods is sleeping with."

Mr. Wonsowicz, who heads the academic-support section for the law-schools association, tried another approach on the audience, playing a 911 tape after dividing the "class" into prosecutors and defense lawyers and asking them to determine when the domestic-violence emergency that is being called in ends. (The caller tells the dispatcher her boyfriend beat her and then ran out the door, but she stays on the line to answer questions about him.)

By limiting his lecture to 20 minutes at the beginning of the class, engaging as many of the students' senses as possible, and making sure they were actively involved in dissecting the complex case, he kept their attention and improved the chances that they would retain the material, he concluded.