(Photo: Shutterstock) (Photo: Shutterstock)

A new competition debuting this week enables minority and women law students a chance to step into associates’ shoes and demonstrate to hiring partners and general counsel their skills at tackling real-world legal problems.

At the Law Student Diversity Case Competition in Cincinnati, teams of students from seven Midwest law schools will handle simulated client assignments while law firm partners, general counsel and bar association leaders from the area evaluate their work. The first-of-its-kind event starting Friday aims to promote the hiring of women and minority law students by employers who get the chance to see them in action.

“Employers will be able to observe students engaged in the very skills that they need to succeed in the workplace,” said Mina Jefferson, associate dean and chief of staff at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, who developed the competition in partnership with midsize Cincinnati firm Keating Muething & Klekamp. “You don’t get that anywhere else. You certainly don’t get it at a job fair.”

Jefferson came up with the idea several years ago, after a regional diversity job fair for law students in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana shut down. Keating Muething approached her about establishing a replacement, but Jefferson said she had no interest in resurrecting what she views as an antiquated hiring model, where firms rely primarily on grades and “fit interviews” to figure out whether prospective hires mesh with the firm’s culture.

Instead, she and the law firm devised a two-day competition in which teams of two or three first-year law students step into the roles of associates working on client matters. The competition stands apart from existing moot courts, transactional competitions and alternative dispute resolutions competitions because it simulates the circumstances that summer associates and new associates will find themselves in during and right after law school.

The first group of participants hail from Cincinnati Law, the University of Kentucky College of Law, Northern Kentucky University Salmon P. Chase College of Law, Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Indiana University Maurer School of Law-Bloomington and Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

The 33 students will arrive at Keating Muething offices Friday and receive a file with information about a simulated client issue. They’ll have an opportunity to meet with a partner and ask clarifying questions before delving into research and developing a solution. (Associates at the firm will serve as coaches to the student teams.) They will present those solutions to the judges on Saturday before entering into a second phase, where they will handle a change in circumstances with the original scenario. The judges will evaluate the students not only on their work process, but on skills such as factual analysis, teamwork and communication.

“The hook is that they’ll see talented students engaged in the skills they know are important to delivering results for clients,” Jefferson said. “It’s more than just an interview about who you are. It’s demonstrating what you can do.”

The winning team will receive a $3,000 prize provided by Keating Muething, with second and third places getting $2,000 and $1,000. But the more important prize is exposure to legal employers.

“Becoming a truly diverse and inclusive law firm is a journey,” said Keating Muething partner Bethany Recht, who chairs the firm’s diversity and inclusion committee. “We hope that this program will not only reflect KMK’s ongoing commitment to the journey, but also support the growth of diversity in the legal profession.”

Jefferson said she expects the program to demonstrate to law firm hiring partners the deep talent pool of diverse law students poised to enter the profession. The resumes of the inaugural competitors are impressive, she said.

She hopes other law schools and firms will establish their own diversity case competitions around the country, and she is making the competitions material available to others. Cincinnati plans to hold the competition annually.

“I think everyone is frustrated with the pace of change,” Jefferson said of the legal profession’s incremental diversity gains.