The institution of the law school has faced a difficult year. Law school applications have decreased, American law schools are being sued, and the number of job offerings in the field of law has decreased due to the current economic downturn.
According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, nationwide applications to law school have dropped by 11 percent after two straight years of growth. Also, 17 American law schools are being sued for using misleading job placement statistics to encourage students to matriculate.
In addition to these problems, a Northwestern Law School study cited by the New York Times stated that between 2008 and January of 2011, large firms have shed about 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs.
But according to Susan Robinson, Stanford Law School associate dean for career services, these major nationwide trends have had a minimal effect on both Stanford Law School students and on undergraduates interested in entering the field of law.
According to Robinson, despite the weak job market, Stanford law students have still had success finding jobs after graduating from law school. She attributed this success to the hard work of the students and to the strong reputation of a Stanford law degree. She believes a Stanford degree catches the interest of law firms even in difficult economic circumstances.
However, Robinson did acknowledge that as a result of the economic downturn, the law school’s Office of Career Services (OCS) has changed its approach to advising law students.
She explained that in a job market where opportunities are scarce, most students must approach their job search more strategically. In order to facilitate this more strategic approach, the Office of Career Services has shifted its program to emphasize one-on-one counseling over general advice.
She also noted that there is less margin for error when students apply for jobs in this type of market. Individual counseling prevents students from being given general advice that does not apply to their specific situations.
Law Schools have also had to react to the recent controversy over job placement statistics. With many schools under fire for misrepresenting their statistics, the controversy has actually prompted Stanford Law School to think about how it can provide more detailed information to prospective students. But any information given must conform to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which greatly restricts educational institutions’ ability to release information students tell those institutions privately.
But Robinson explained that because so many Stanford students are employed in judicial clerkships and large law firms, both of which publish their starting salaries to the public, Stanford is able to easily acquire reliable data concerning its graduates’ entry-level salaries. The fact that so many Stanford Law School graduates are employed within nine months of graduation also makes it easy for Stanford to publish accurate but also impressive job placement statistics.
Kathy Wright, associate director of undergraduate advising and research, said that these national post-law school employment trends have had little to no effect on the way she advises students and alumni interested in law school. She and her colleagues in pre-law advising still believe that students should not take the decision to enroll in law school lightly.
Wright encourages students to think carefully and to learn as much as possible about law school and the field of law before making the decision to apply.
To this end, she encourages her advisees to visit law schools, attend law conferences at which law school deans are speaking, and contact alumni involved in law. She does not attempt to convince students and alumni to apply to law school. In fact, among the articles she has sent out to her advisees is a New York Times investigative story that highlights many of the disadvantages of entering the field of law.
“I don’t think the media really conveys how technical the law is,” she said. “My job isn’t to recruit people, it’s to make sure they make really well informed decisions about their future.”
This careful approach to law school applications was adopted 10 to 15 years ago when a group of people, including Wright’s predecessor, noted how many Stanford alumni were not happy with their experiences in law school and in law practice. At that time, approximately 50 percent of the Stanford graduates who applied to law school each year were seniors who had recently graduated.
For the 2009-2010 school year, however, the Law School Admissions Council reported this number as hovering around 15 percent. Law School Admission Council reports also show that the total number of Stanford graduates, both graduating seniors and alumni, who applied to law school in 2009-2010 had dipped significantly since the 2005-2006 school year. Wright believes these trends might be a result of the Office of Undergraduate Advising and Research’s careful advising policy.
“Before you invest that amount of time and energy and money you should be really thoughtful about understanding what you’re getting yourself into,” Wright said. “I think law schools really value work or volunteer [experience], taking a gap year to get some experience…it’s probably a good thing for most people, not everyone, to take some time to do something else.”
She added that alumni highly recommend that students take time off before going to law school. They claim that time away from school makes law school more enjoyable and helps students get a clearer picture of why they want to study law.
According to second year law student Chris Skelton, the law school Office of Career Services provides law students with many resources in their searches for post-graduate jobs. He believes that this year’s decrease in law school applications may ultimately reduce competition for jobs in future years.
“You need to take [job searching] seriously, you need to go about it carefully and thoroughly and think through options.,” Skelton said.
“Being from Stanford of course is a really big benefit that most schools and most law students don’t really have,” he continued. “We’re really fortunate that we have that reputation behind us and all those great connections that leave us much better off than the average law student, who might have a harder time than we do.”