This is indeed a tough time to be a 2L. One has to keep reminding one’s self that this down economy, like all others, will pass. Despite all of the uncertainty, today’s law students can be certain that in the long run, they can have long and happy legal careers.
In the meanwhile, this on-campus interview (OCI) season has been far different than any other in recent memory. The current OCI season now seems like the culmination of a process that began with layoffs in late 2008 and early 2009, deferrals for the Class of 2009 until sometime in 2010, and greater competition among summer associates this summer for permanent offers.
The students in the Class of 2011 were able to have a relatively relaxed and educational, if not particularly remunerative, summer, gaining legal experience with judges, professors, public interest agencies and small firms. Meanwhile, we in career offices watched with increasing unease as several firms cancelled their OCI visits, their visits for 3L students, and, in some cases, their 2010 summer programs altogether. Other firms decided to postpone hiring decisions for next summer until later in the fall or the spring.
While we at Northwestern are firm believers in the free market, we also reached out to each firm that cancelled to try to persuade them to attend or to at least do a request for resumes. We hope that an upturn in the economy by the end of the year will encourage some firms to explore Spring hiring for second-years.
Still, this initial phase of the hiring season brings a hopefulness, not unlike the first semester of law school before grades come out. But as word of callbacks spreads, student unease is likely to grow — as will the uncertainty. While we all know that summer associate classes for 2010 will be much smaller, by and large, than this past summer, we do not know how small nor do we know when firms will start limiting the process — with the number of callback offers or with the number of summer offers.
Our message to students about how to handle offers has been straightforward — accept your offer quickly. The key is to get a job for next summer. Smart students will not rely on NALP’s 45-day guideline but rather accept their offers as soon as humanly possible. From the school side, we have dealt with all sorts of reactions by firms to the economy and are urging our students to be risk-averse. Any sense of entitlement will be fatal this fall.
As we have all year, we are encouraging students to look broadly (employers in so-called secondary markets are experiencing a boom in student interest) and to be flexible and to try to interview only in places where they have connections. They should not miss federal government application deadlines and should attend the Equal Justice Works conference.
Fortunately at Northwestern, due partly to our U.S. News & World Report ranking and, in larger part, to our innovative approach to admissions, we still have a robust OCI program despite the defection of several firms. We have worked hard to manage our students’ expectations. Not knowing how the lottery would turn out in terms of the average number of interviews received by the students, we estimated on the low side and then were pleasantly surprised. The average number, given all that has gone on in the past year, was not bad at all. Generally, the students seemed to be pleased with the interviews they received.
We in the school career offices, too, have been pleased to interact more with students in counseling sessions and to see more of them take our advice to heart. It indeed was much easier in the past to counsel students about which offer to accept. Now the challenge is to call upon our full resources — our creativity in dealing with challenges, the increased number of students who do not succeed in OCI, and increased demands on our capacity for empathy.
Naturally, students are nervous. Before OCI, we saw a dramatic increase from last year in student appointments and e-mail questions. Few have cancelled interviews and no-shows for interviews have been extremely rare. Students have become obsessive about researching not only employers but also interviewers. At the same time, the laughter and positive energy coming out of the student area during the interviews is undeniable. The students seem better prepared and more focused and have lots of good questions for the employers.
We will keep reminding our students to take the long view. We try to convince them that they will be fine. As always, we career counselors are here to listen and to help them build their job search plans. Despite what OCI emphasizes, high GPA and success in practicing law are not correlated. In many ways, the current law firm model has proved unequal to the challenges posed by the economy. Perhaps out of the general uncertainty there will grow a better and stronger legal community where its members will be happier.
William A. Chamberlain is assistant dean, law career strategy and advancement, Northwestern University School of Law.