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Employability begins long before graduation day

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Even before she applied to law school, Janice Pascuzzi knew the type of law she wanted to practice and the firm where she wanted to work.

She specifically chose Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law because of its concentration in health care law and its connection with the law firm Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman P.C. And when she graduated in May, the job she landed practicing health law at Hall Render was not a dream come true – it was exactly what she had worked for.

Pascuzzi is an example of the dedication needed to find employment in what remains a very competitive legal job market. As the members of the class of 2014 graduate, preparation and networking are extremely essential to landing a job as a lawyer.

jobs-15col.jpg Lea Lockhart, left, and Janice Pascuzzi work at Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman P.C. (IL Photo/ Marilyn Odendahl)

Still, the fresh crop of lawyers is stepping into a recovering economy. Although the legal job market is very tight, a little daylight is appearing, according to the National Association for Law Placement’s survey “Perspectives on Fall 2013 Law Student Recruiting.”

The report found firms have been increasing entry-level hiring since the Great Recession hit in 2008, albeit very slightly. Also, the offer rate for associate positions made to Class of 2014 members who worked as summer associates in 2013 hit 92 percent, which is markedly improved from the 69 percent measured in 2009 and just under the historic 93 percent recorded pre-recession in 2006 and 2007.

At Notre Dame Law School, Assistant Dean for Academic and Student Affairs Kevin O’Rear is hopeful the steady growth in hiring he has noticed for the past three years will continue for all 2014 graduates. It has not been a dramatic upswing but, O’Rear said, the number of graduates getting long-term jobs that require bar passage has been improving.

The American Bar Association’s employment data documents the upward trend that O’Rear has seen, but the numbers underscore how painfully slow the climb has been. Nine months after graduation, 55 percent of the 2011 law school graduates nationally were employed in long-term, full-time jobs that required bar passage. That rate rose to 56.2 percent for the class of 2012 and inched up to 57 percent for the class of 2013.

Moreover, 11 percent of 2013 graduates were unemployed and seeking work nine months after they graduated.

Pascuzzi said a lot of her classmates were still looking for jobs and while she is confident they will find work, she acknowledged it would be “really, really stressful” to wake up the next morning and not know what you are going to do.

“I think if people go to law school for the right reasons and go into what they truly love, it will work out,” she said.

A process

The 2014 graduates of Valparaiso University Law School are likewise displaying a range of emotions. Victoria Ryan, senior director of career planning at the law school, said some people are very discouraged and others are very positive and upbeat.

She tells graduates that finding a job as a lawyer is a process that they should move through one step at a time.

“If they start dwelling on how much debt they have or how much competition there is in the job market, it can drag them down,” Ryan said. “(I tell them to) focus on the process because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

That marathon actually begins the first semester of law school. Both Ryan and O’Rear noted the conversation with students begins early in their studies about what they want to do when they leave. Students think about what area of law interests them and what they plan to do during the summer after their first year. Then the planning progresses from there.

Students, O’Rear said, also have to consider where geographically they want to work. In this market, he continued, employers interpret the “Gee, I’ll work anywhere” attitude as demonstrating a lack of focus and forethought.
 

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Aminta Moses’ career plans changed significantly during her legal studies. The Ohio native and 2014 graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law enrolled in law school fully intending to become a practicing lawyer; however, in the middle of her second year she decided a career in academia better fit her interests.

After she takes the bar exam in July, she plans return to IU Bloomington to begin her graduate studies in sociology. Moses said her switch had nothing to do with the job market and, in fact, she had offers for law jobs when she graduated.

The number of Indiana law school graduates who pursue a master’s or doctorate degree full time after they complete a J.D. has been very small. Since 2011, ABA data shows only a handful have continued their education with the most coming from the Valparaiso class of 2013 when 10 graduates enrolled in graduate school.

Soft skills required

Although she will not be using her law degree in the traditional manner, Moses credits her legal education with directing her to academia and sees her J.D. as being very beneficial to her career.

Her comments echoed many law school deans who say the skills students learn in law school, such as analytical thinking, are useful in many different jobs outside the legal field.

Certainly to get a job as a lawyer, applicants need those legal skills, but employers today are also looking for new hires who have the so-called “soft skills.”

A high grade point average and great credentials on paper can not overcome a brash personality, inability to work with others or immaturity, O’Rear said. Fewer and fewer employers are willing to take someone solely because of a good academic record. They want someone whom they would be comfortable taking to meet a client.

He suspects the driver behind this trend may be supply outstripping demand. Firms can be more selective since the pool of qualified graduates looking for work is bigger.

Pascuzzi and her colleague at Hall Render, attorney Lea Lockhart, both emphasized the importance of being personable and fitting in with the other attorneys at the firm.

The lawyers in the office can teach the new associate about the law, Pascuzzi said, but they cannot teach the new hire how to be nice, good to work with or how to make a good impression on clients.

South Bend solo practitioner Tony Rose concurred likeability is important. Citing research that found clients tend to stick with attorneys they like, Rose said he develops a friendly business relationship with his clients by always taking time to ask them about their hobbies and family.

Rose, who is also chair of the Indiana State Bar Association Young Lawyers Section, reiterated the oft-repeated advice that new attorneys, especially those looking for a job, must develop relationships with other attorneys. With many firms opting to not widely publicize openings, recent graduates can get an advantage in the hiring process, he said, by attending chamber of commerce and bar association functions and meeting other professionals who might know of available jobs.

O’Rear has more than a professional interest in the legal job market. He has a son in law school which gives the administrator a personal interest in the employment outlook.

During a “very frank discussion” before the young man enrolled in law school, the father advised law school is no longer a place to hide out while trying to determine what career path to follow.

“You need to go to law school only if you want to be a lawyer,” O’Rear told his son. “If you really want to be a lawyer, there’s never a bad time to go to law school.”•

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