Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Zealous Advocates? Recent Law School Graduates Face the Tightest Job Market in Years. Are Law Schools Doing Enough to Ensure Minorities Don't Get Left Behind?

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Zealous Advocates? Recent Law School Graduates Face the Tightest Job Market in Years. Are Law Schools Doing Enough to Ensure Minorities Don't Get Left Behind?

Article excerpt

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When lose Ancer starts work at a law firm this fall, he'll join a U.S. industry that, like so many others, sees people of color disproportionately affected during an economic downturn. Ancer's path draws praise among diversity watchdogs because of the historically meager ranks of Mexican-Americans in the legal workforce.

But amid lingering industrywide uncertainties, officials at some law schools are scrambling to ensure that underrepresented minorities get jobs, especially law schools not customarily tapped by the country's largest law firms. In some of the more striking measures, a dean will troop out of town to specifically lobby employers, or schools may piece together meager funds to hire their own graduates for academic work--a steppingstone position designed to bolster graduates' skills in further preparation for a legal career.

These stepped-up efforts are in response to a tighter market in which only 88 percent of 2009 graduates got jobs, according to the latest statistical data available from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). That figure is the lowest rate nationally since the last significant recession, in the mid-1990s.

"The feeding frenzy among employers is gone," says Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law. "The top 10 or 15 percent of the class can't count on getting the best jobs anymore."

In the midst of the recession, many firms dramatically reduced the number of schools they visited for recruiting purposes. Firms across the nation have delayed start dates for newly minted attorneys. Howard University School of Law officials say many graduates accepted deferrals of three months or longer, plus stipends lower than agreed-upon salaries. Some firms required these graduates to work in the interim at a government or public interest agency.

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Other firms have grown pickier about whom they hire, narrowing their recruitment choices to the most elite schools. It's a move that tends to exclude minority students, who often come from lower-tier schools where tuition is more affordable and which are more likely to offer flexible night programs.

"That's accurate," says Jason Murray, a lawyer for the firm Carlton Fields, describing the tough hiring landscape. "Lots of schools get left out. For some graduates, it's like being a walk-on to a team rather than being a high lottery pick."

This apparently holds true among graduates seeking employment outside the profession, too. Robert Lewis has had only three interviews for government affairs work in Washington, D.C., since graduating last year from Catholic University's Columbus School of Law--even though he spent four years as a legislative aide for a U.S. senator and 18 months as a lobbyist prior to enrolling at Catholic. "Reputation is everything, and if you don't come from a top-tier school like Georgetown, George Washington or American, it's tough getting employers to look at you," he says.

Pulling Back

Lewis initially set out to become a prosecutor, but, discouraged by the limited job prospects paying enough to service $200,000 in student loan debt, he changed course to secure government affairs work. He's not alone among disheartened graduates looking to go in a different direction.

Among 2009 law school graduates with permanent jobs, 20 percent, according to NALP, resumed job-hunting that year despite having permanent work--suggesting some of them grabbed whatever job they could get to chip away at student loans. The average debt nowadays hovers around $100,000, according to the Law School Admission Council. By comparison, 16 percent of 2008 graduates kept looking once employed.

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Law firms have been hard hit by the recession, and the downturn appears to have been particularly devastating to minority attorney numbers. …

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