The Law Launch Project

This fall, about 740 students in Tennessee begin their last year of law school, headed toward graduation and the daunting task of finding a job to pay for it. Also facing this year's graduating class is a profession that some say is in the middle of a dramatic change. Technological advances and fallout from the recent recession have altered the legal landscape, leaving these law students with the challenge of maneuvering their careers in a climate of uncertainty. Have the last few years just been an aberration or have they been a sea change?

The job market itself remains uncertain at best. In data released earlier this year, the American Bar Association found that while 82 percent of 2012 law school graduates were employed, only 56 percent were in full-time, permanent jobs that required bar passage.[1] With the average debt owed at $108,000,[2] law students are bound to be calculating if their investment will pay off — and wondering if they will be able to pay back their loans.

One factor for these grads is the apparent decline of large, high-billing firms and that a high-paying job after school is no longer a given. But while many decry the demise of “Big Law,” others see opportunity in less traditional legal careers.

“Most of the entry-level jobs that have been lost nationwide are in the big law firms in larger legal markets, and those at the highest salary levels,” Dr. Karen Britton at the University of Tennessee College of Law says. “That doesn’t directly relate to the personal career aspirations of all law students. But it tends to make big news, and it is certainly important to students who assume significant debt in anticipation that a handsome salary would result.”[3]

Britton, who is the director of admissions and financial aid and director of the Bettye B. Lewis Career Center at UT, estimates that 15 percent of third-year students come back to school with an offer and another 25 percent receive and accept offers during fall semester. “In this day and time, if 50 percent of the 3Ls have a job offer by graduation, that’s the ‘new normal.’ Most employers are making fewer offers and many will wait until later to make them so they can better gauge their actual hiring needs,” she adds. “Many public sector employers traditionally hire after graduation and/or bar passage.”

This should make the Class of 2014 feel a little better, at least for now. We’ll see what happens with 15 of them, representing each of Tennessee’s six varied law schools. Each school and student have unique situations and we’ll take a look at them each month in print. You will also be able to get up-to-the-minute details online.

These students will blog about their experiences this year, which you can follow through The Law Launch Project at http://tbalawlaunch.wordpress.com. The site is open for comment, so please take a look and throw your two cents in. Whether you are a law student or already a lawyer, readers will want to know your opinions.

Meet Our Bloggers

Jerry Bridenbaugh, 53
Nashville School of Law
Interests: Property law, wills and estates, contract law

Jerry Bridenbaugh says the first year at Nashville School of Law was “like taking a drink from a fire hydrant. Everything was new and there was so much information to read.” He says he “had to learn to study all over again and it was not until my second year that I really got a handle on what it was going to take to be a successful student and attorney.” In his last year of the four-year program he now says his confidence has grown so that he no longer feels overwhelmed with all the reading and research.

AnCharlene Davis, 26
University of Tennessee College of Law
Interests: Family and juvenile law

When AnCharlene Davis was a teenager, she wanted to be a lawyer “so she could help people.” Her undergrad degree helped her know the type of law she wanted to practice. “I see many instances when social work and the law have complemented each other. My courses in social work were never detours; they have enriched my dream to be an advocate.” She is a graduate assistant in the Dean of Students’ Office.

Aisha Deberry, 33
Duncan School of Law
Interests: Civil rights law

After working six years in college admissions and recruiting, Aisha DeBerry thought she had mastered having a stressful schedule, but she found that law school was a different level of stress. “I thought ‘law school can’t be that bad.’ Well, I was wrong. I mean so wrong,” she says now as she begins her third year. “It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure. I have made great friends and had some excellent professors. However, law school has pushed me as far out of a comfort zone as humanly possible.” She points out that it has also given her a platform to take leadership roles, like being the president of the Black Law Student Association.

Jake Farrar, 26
Vanderbilt Law School
Interests: Intellectual property, corporate law

Jake Farrar worked at an internet startup company after college but before law school, which has given him a different take on life after law. “I’m approaching the job market with an open mind,” he says. “I am not necessarily looking for traditional legal jobs. While I would like to get experience in a law firm, I’m not 100-percent committed to practicing long-term. My startup background has given me the knowledge of what else is out there and the confidence to know I can handle running a business.”

Jayniece Rosa Higgins, 23
University of Memphis
Interests: Criminal defense, juvenile law, elder law

Jayniece Higgins echoes many of her peers when she says that college was a breeze for her and she figured law school would be the same. “I came in believing that I would go into corporate law, graduate with good grades, and have a six-figure job lined up upon graduation — until I took Contracts I. … The job market was also horrible and I was told I'd be happy to even have something that paid at all. I debated withdrawing from law school and trying something different but decided that I came here for a reason and that I should explore what that reason was.”

Brett Knight, 41
Belmont University College of Law
Interests: General practice, criminal law

Brett Knight began law school after a career as a manager in the information technology field. A participant in the Tennessee Bar Association Young Lawyers Division’s Diversity Leadership Institute, he has an interest in exploring ways that technology such as social media and blogs can help law students transition into their legal careers.

Kimberlee McTorry, 26
Belmont University College of Law
Interests: Criminal law, litigation, administrative law

“My 1L year was greeted with morning sickness and sleepless nights as I found out a week before school started that I was pregnant with my second child,” Kimberlee McTorry says. “I entered law school as a newlywed with an 18-month old and another baby on the way.” Seeking the advice of mentors about “work-life balance,” she says she learned “there’s no such thing.” She was told, however, that she controls her own destiny and to work hard. “I took [that] advice and ran with it. I had my daughter on SuperBowl Sunday, Skyped into class on Wednesday, and headed back into the classroom on Monday.” McTorry, the first in her family to attend college, credits the help of “her family, friends and Red Bull” with her success. 

Marlen Santana Perez, 44
Nashville School of Law
Interests: Family and immigration Law

Marlen Perez practiced law in Cuba for seven years before coming to the United States with her young daughter, where she earned a master of social work. She soon realized she could help people more as a lawyer so she enrolled at Nashville School of Law so she could continue doing what she loves.

“For a mother of two, working full-time, with English as a second language, the experience of going through law school for the second time has been life-changing,” she says. “It has been very difficult to improve my reading speed and comprehension; to brief cases as required by most professors, and to spot the issue as quick as possible due to time constrains during exams.”

After graduation, she hopes to open her own law office. “I can imagine the great effort involved in establishing a law office, but at my age I can't afford to depend on what the job market has to offer.”

Mike Sandler, 53
Nashville School of Law
Interests: “Runs the gamut”

Mike Sandler spent 25 years in the automotive industry before returning to school to finish his undergraduate degree. As if law school wasn’t enough, at the same time he earned a masters in information security from Lipscomb University. He is also a Listed Rule 31 Civil and Family Mediator and graduate of the TBA Diversity Leadership Class of 2013.

He was involved with family and consumer law at his internship with the Legal Aid Society in Columbia and Nashville, and he has worked with the Public Defender’s office representing indigent defendants in Judge Casey Moreland’s court.

Caroline Sapp, 26
University of Memphis
Interests: Family law, comparative law, pubic interest work.

Caroline Sapp is especially appreciative of the location of her school and the related opportunities it has given her — it’s a short walking distance from the law school to the Shelby County Courthouse, Public Defender’s office, and multiple law firms in downtown Memphis. She has interned with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and “gained hands-on experience with the federal court system by reading bench memorandums and preparing case summaries for the Hon. Bernice B. Donald.” More recently she has been a law clerk for Kustoff & Strickland PLLC, which is located directly in front of the law school. She’s also the editor-in-chief of the Mental Health Law & Policy Journal , which she says is the first of its kind in the United States, created and established in Memphis.

Jeffrey W. Sheehan, 34
Vanderbilt Law School
Interests: Litigation

Living in Nashville with a wife and two young children, Jeff Sheehan says he has stayed focused on the immediate area for summer job and clerkship searches. He has had internships, although unpaid, with the public defender in Franklin and with Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Koch, who was one of his professors. With the job market always on his mind, he says that much of his efforts “have gone into developing a legal resume and quality faculty references for job and clerkship searches.” He is editor in chief of the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law.

Molly Shehan, 24
Belmont University College of Law
Interests: intellectual property and entertainment law.

Molly Sheehan has seen a big advantage to being part of her school’s inaugural graduating class. “Unlike most law school experiences, I have had the opportunity to start new student organizations and help cultivate the student culture of Belmont College of Law,” she says. In law school she “began to appreciate law school and the ability to deeply analyze legal principals and issues with peers and professors. I also quickly learned how to bore all of my ‘non-law school friends’ in under five minutes.”

Heather Shubert, 44
Duncan School of Law
Interests: Corporate law

Heather Shubert goes to school at night, working full time during the week as a paralegal. Until last December, she worked as a nurse in the ER on the weekends. “School has been a struggle for all of us who work full time and attend 12 hours of classes at night,” she says. “Being 44 and making a career change has been crazy!” 

Todd B. Skelton, 27
University of Tennessee College of Law
Interests: Securities, mergers and acquisitions

Todd Skelton has been busy clerking for firms in Memphis, Nashville and Kingsport, and a corporation in Maryville. With the degree he will earn in the dual JD/MBA program at UT, he hopes to work in a large firm. By contrast, his younger sister Amy, who will also graduate with a law degree from UT at the same time, is interested in consumer bankruptcy and Social Security disability in rural East Tennessee. Both of them already have received full-time offers.

J.P. Urban, 25
Vanderbilt Law School
Interests: Intellectual property, corporations, trial and appellate litigation

J.P. Urban has loved his law school experience – the classes, students, professors, being executive editor of the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law. But he is realistic and concerned about finding a job. “There is an omnipresent specter of the recession, the law school bubble, and the changing legal market,” he says. “The experience has thus been an exercise in curbed enthusiasm: students challenging themselves to become the best attorneys they can be while wading into a market that might not have a place for them.”

Notes

  1. “NALP: Law Grads’ Jobs Rate Falls for Fifth Straight Year,” by Karen Sloan, The National Law Journal, June 20, 2013.
  2. "Law grads get the best and worst return on their investment at these schools,” by Debra Cassens Weis, ABAJournal.com, Aug. 14, 2013.
  3. “The Case of the Shrinking Law Schools,” by Jeannie Naujeck, The Nashville Ledger, July 19, 2013.