The Law Launch Project: Graduation Edition

The members of The Law Launch Project have graduated and are cramming for the bar in July. Many of them have jobs, but many are still looking for work.

Common wisdom holds that the last year of law school is easier than the second and certainly less grueling than the first. That may or may not be true, but if there is any lack of academic difficulty in the final year, it is more than made up for with pressure the 3Ls feel as the bar exam looms large (coming up July 29-30), and that one other little thing that is always on their minds … getting a job.

Since last August the Tennessee Bar Journal’s Law Launch Project[1] has been following 15 of the state’s more than 700 graduating law students to better understand what that final year of law school is like. Each of them has been writing regular blog posts about their experiences in school, their brushes with the uncertain job market and what law school has done for (or to) their lives. They blogged through the year, seeking to find meaning in their school experiences and considering what was on the horizon for them. School was different for each of them, of course — the group represents each of Tennessee’s six law schools — but some things were universal, like how hard it was to balance life, that the crushing workload was even harder than they thought it would be, and that there just isn’t enough time to do everything. Some of them were also raising families and holding down jobs as they waded through these years.

As the students look back, many seem a little bit in shock. They are proud that they were able to weather the unsteadiness, the unending reading and somehow were able to juggle all that while still (in varying degrees) living their lives.

Their comments may sound familiar to you lawyers — that last year of law school is probably still seared into your brain — but some things are likely a little different in 2014 than when you came through.

Getting That First Job Is Still Going to Be Difficult

It’s too early to make any judgments on the 2014 graduates’ ability to secure employment, but within the microcosm that is the Law Launch Project, eight out of 15 already have jobs lined up at graduation. The types of employment include law firm associate, assistant district attorney, federal court clerk and in-house counsel. Of the 15, two plan to start their own firms (we counted those as not having a job, but they do have a plan).

If the trend, albeit small, in job opportunities for law grads from 2012 to 2013 continues, overall this class of 2014 will have a slightly better time of finding employment. A recent study by the American Bar Association[2] suggests that the class of 2013 had somewhat of an improved job outlook over the class it followed. The ABA’s 2013 stats, which showed that 57 percent of the 46,776 graduates had found full-time, long-term jobs that required bar passage within nine months of graduation — compared with 56.2 percent the previous year.[3]

Since the ABA study’s numbers are calculated nine months after graduation and this year’s grads are just getting out, UT’s Dr. Karen Britton points out that “the only legal employers who habitually hire before graduation are large law firms and federal judges. Many public service and government employers hire between graduation and bar passage, or after bar passage.” Britton is the director of admissions and financial aid and director of the Bettye B. Lewis Career Center at the University of Tennessee College of Law.

So there is plenty of time for jobs to materialize for these new grads – this class’s rate of employment will not be turned into a statistic until February 2015.

The ABA data, which listed 65.3 percent of UT’s last graduating class as having found long-term, full-time positions that require bar passage, gives hope to AnCharlene Davis, 26, who doesn’t have a job yet. “Sure, the uncertainty of employment is present, but I just cannot allow myself to let that fear control me,” she says. “[The high percentage of last year’s grads with jobs] allow me to remain hopeful over the next few months that I will be granted an opportunity, as well. As the bar exam quickly approaches, I cannot allow myself to be anything other than optimistic.”

The survey, which covered ABA-accredited schools only, listed Vanderbilt with 86 percent employed and the University of Memphis with 61 percent. Belmont (which has since received accreditation), Duncan School of Law and Nashville School of Law were not included in the study.

“The class of 2013 was the largest graduating law school class ever, with about 400 more newly minted lawyers than the previous year,” according to Scott Norberg, deputy consultant to the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. “The legal employment market has remained almost the same as last year, with a very modest uptick in outcomes.”[4]

Some of Tennessee’s law schools say it’s too early for them to know if this coming fall’s class will be smaller. Vanderbilt expects about the same at about 176, according to Elizabeth M. Workman, the school’s assistant dean for career services. UT is downsizing the class of 2017 a bit from this year’s 143 graduates, says Britton, making “significantly fewer offers so far and expecting a smaller class in the range of 100 to 120 students.”

Name of the Game: Networking

The graduates who have jobs lined up say that networking played the most important role in finding employment. To do this, they volunteered in law-related events like mock trial competitions, listened to mentors and did internships. They kept in contact with friends and others they met through school and volunteer work. They worked to make the best impressions on the professors whose strong recommendations could make a difference.

“My strategy was a heavy combination of networking and interning,” says Brett Knight, 41, who reported several job offers by graduation. He graduated from Belmont University Law School in its first class to graduate since it opened in August 2011.

Kimberlee McTorry, 26, who also graduated from Belmont, will begin work at the Harris County District Attorney's Office in Houston. She credits connections and relationships she built at the school for finding the job. “Before I even went to the interview, thanks to several of my mentors here, I was able to meet and speak with four attorneys from that office and a judge.”

The job is exactly what she wanted to do, but she has been surprised by the reaction to it. “I entered law school desiring to practice criminal law,” she explains, “but that briefly changed when everyone began glamorizing firm life. Despite the wide salary gap that often exists, I have a heart and passion to help victims of crime. So, I’d appreciate it if people stop patting me on the back and saying in a sympathetic tone, ‘Oh well, that's a good start.’ I didn't apply for my job as an ADA because I couldn't get a job at firm, I applied there because it’s what I want to do!”

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

Two participants, Aisha DeBerry and Marlen Santana Perez, are making plans to hang their own shingles. DeBerry, 33, wants to practice solo a few years before working toward running for political office on the state level. She has some entrepreneurial experience, she says, which “has created some ease in the thought of going out on my own.” Her areas of interest are juvenile, elder and civil rights law.

Perez, 44, has also been preparing for this move with a very calculated plan, including taking a law office management class, writing a business plan (including market analysis, mission statement, competitive advantages, financial projections), building a referral network and connection with a mentor in her area, which is immigration law. She says she hopes to partner with another relatively new attorney doing criminal defense. After the bar exam, she says, she will build a bilingual website and renew her bar association membership.

“Right now I don’t see any other option for me other than opening my own practice,” Perez says.

Jayniece Rosa Higgins, a graduate of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, plans to look for a job and stay in Memphis.

“In the event that I do not find a job as quickly as I would like, I plan to try taking court appointments and finding clients through other connections that I have,” Higgins, 23, says. “I believe that having a law license gives you your meal ticket; you just have to go out and hustle to find the clients.”

If You Could Turn Back Time: Expectations v. Reality

They admit they were warned, but still the graduating law students say some things about law school stunned them. The reading, for one. Oh. The. Reading.

“I knew that there would be a lot of reading, but it still surprises me at how much there actually was,” Jerry Bridenbaugh, 53, says. “I haven’t read anything for pleasure in four years and am really looking forward to picking up a book in August that I can read without highlighting and preparing for the exam afterwards.” Bridenbaugh is a graduate of the Nashville School of Law, a four-year program that he completed while working full time and doing part-time music ministry in his church.

DeBerry agrees: “I thought law school would be a place much like a graduate program where you attend classes, read, write a few papers and complete exams. I did not know that you read A LOT, write A LOT of papers and complete A LOT of exams. In addition, you have to figure out how to prepare for internships, be a part of professional groups and somehow ‘squeeze’ in eating, showering and talking to your close family and friends.”

Mike Sandler had a master’s degree before he went to law school, but he says that did not prepare him for law school. “From the method of teaching to the law itself, nothing is concrete, which was unexpected,” he says. “So, unlike other disciplines, it’s not just the base of knowledge to be mastered, but a process of thinking as well. I think that is unique to law school.” Sandler, 53 and a graduate of Nashville School of Law, has accepted a position as director of compliance with a Brentwood insurance company.

“I don't mean to sound like I had this idea it was going to be easy,” Heather Shubert says, “but this was crazy hard. Three- and four-hour tests, and a six-hour final, are brutal.”  Shubert, 44, graduated from the Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law, a four-year program that she completed while working as a nurse and paralegal. “Working all day and going to school at night has taken a toll on me and everyone around me,” says Shubert, who now has a job as in-house counsel with a medical group.

“Law school was the most trying period of my life,” says Caroline Sapp, “especially the first year. My second and third years were much easier, but law school consumed my life for three years. During my graduate program (prior to law school) I still had time to participate in other activities. Law school did not allow extra time to pursue other extracurricular activities.” Sapp, 26, graduated from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

This is a common thread for others who also had already completed another advanced degree. Consensus: Law school is just harder than the other subjects, it takes more out of you and there is no time for anything else.

Not ‘As Seen on TV’

Besides the reading, another aspect of law school surprised some of these graduates.

“When I was applying for law school, I did so while feeling intimidated by future classmates and professors,” AnCharlene Davis says. “Legal movies and television shows give you the impression that law school is overly competitive, dramatic and cutthroat. I had heard a few horror stories about students sabotaging each other’s work. When I first started at UT, that misconception was quickly corrected. Maybe I was just blessed to be in a section of wonderful and helpful people, but we all worked together. It seemed like an unspoken pact – we all wanted to make it out of school together.”

“There were certainly gunners,” Urban says, “but there were no incidents of malicious behavior between law students like all the myths seem to portray.”

Sacrifices and Regrets

For Belmont graduate Molly Shehan, 24, the sacrifices will have been worth it when she starts working at her job at an entertainment and intellectual property law firm in Nashville. “I have always been passionate about advocating for artists and the community that allows art and music to thrive. I am leaving law school with a broader perspective and better understanding of political, social and economical issues that our generation will face.”

In their lists of what they would do differently, graduates cite the need to save more money, the importance of taking a vacation before you start “because you won’t have time once you do,” and time management and study skills.

There are regrets. “I wish I had spent more quality time with my family, even if that meant putting my books down on a Saturday,” McTorry says. “As important as it is to have a great GPA, it's not everything; it's extremely likely that the 2.8 student and the 4.0 student will pass the same bar exam and both become members of the bar. The only difference will be the one with the 4.0 may not have as many people around to celebrate with.”

Jerry Bridenbaugh agrees. “I am glad that I did not give up much family time during my years in law school except for the weekends preparing for exams,” he says. “Although the demand on one’s time is great, it is not worth giving up the family picnics, holiday gatherings, ball games, and school programs to get that extra hour of study. I’ll be a lawyer for the next 25 years but I’m a dad and granddad right now and those days will never come back.”

A Valuable Investment

Todd Skelton, who graduated from UT with a dual law/masters of business administration degree, will go to work in the fall for the firm he clerked for last summer. Although he is one of the few in the group to go through that traditional path, he sees the job struggle all around him.

“It is still a challenging job market. This isn’t confined to law, though, as I saw the same thing with my friends in the MBA program,” Skelton, 27, says. “The legal job market seems to be improving. Opportunities certainly exist, but it takes persistence and hard work.”

J. P. Urban, 25, is a Vanderbilt Law grad with a waiting job at a Nashville entertainment firm, which he says he worked hard to get.

“The changes in the legal profession forced me to seek out every possible opportunity to get my name out there,” he says. “For most people, no longer is law school based around the ‘On-Campus-Interview to 2L Summer to First-year associate’ model. Law students need to be creative.”

Would They Recommend It?

Asked in the last week of their law school careers, the students still for the most part said they would recommend law school to a friend, with caveats.

Kimberlee McTorry would recommend it, but admits “it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. And if you can do it without having a significant others or children that have to experience it with you, it's probably better that way.” McTorry, who will take the Texas bar exam this summer, began law school pregnant and with a toddler.

Jeffrey Sheehan, 34, a graduate of Vanderbilt Law who has an upcoming job clerking for Judge Gilbert Merritt, says he’d “hate to be responsible for sending a friend to law school unless that friend was knowledgeable and still desperate to do something that requires a law degree. I first encourage interested applicants to network, get a non-lawyer job in their area of interest, and look for mentors in that area who can help them discern whether they want to do what those lawyers do.”

“A law degree is a still a valuable investment and can create many opportunities,” Urban says, “but I encourage anyone considering law school to critically evaluate their career goals and weigh the time commitment and cost.”

“I waited 30 years to achieve my dream of graduating from law school and becoming a lawyer, so of course, I would recommend it to others if they had a passion for it,” Mike Sandler says. “But, if they're doing it because they haven't decided what they want to do with their lives, then I would recommend they run as fast and as far away from law school as they can.”

Notes

  1. “The Law Launch Project,” September 2013 Tennessee Bar Journal, p. 18. See also the blog at http://tbalawlaunch.wordpress.com/
  2. “Job outlook for newly minted lawyers still bleak, data shows,” ABA Journal, April 9, 2014, www.abajournal.com/news/article/ job_outlook_for_newly_minted_lawyers_still_bleak_data_shows/?utm_source=maestro&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=daily_email
  3. 2013 Law Graduate Employment Data, American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_a...
  4. “Very Modest Jobs Growth Seen for Law School Graduates,” National Law Journal, April 9, 2014, www.nationallawjournal.com/legaltimes/id=1202650371787/%27Very-Modest%27....
    An additional 10.1 percent landed jobs for which a J.D. is an advantage but not required. That was up from 9.5 percent for that category during the previous year. The percentage of recent graduates who were still looking for work rose from 10.6 percent last year to 11.2 percent for the class of 2013.
     

Suzanne Craig Robertson is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.