"Your Job Search is YOUR Job Search": How Personalized Career Counseling Paid Off

Author: 
Becky Beaupre Gillespie

Every lawyer was once a law student looking for a job. And every Law School alumnus remembers the squall of the search: the frenzied bustle of On-Campus Interviewing, the harried tangle of fellowship applications and government hiring deadlines, the frantic dash to snag a last-minute flight for a clerkship interview.

That much hasn’t changed. Law School students in 2016 face a familiar array of pressures and puzzles—and yet the options they have and the support they receive have expanded in myriad ways, an evolution that has kept pace with a changing—and sometimes tumultuous—legal market.

Today, the Law School’s Office of Career Services keeps a constant finger on the proverbial pulse, responding to the needs of its students as well as national patterns in legal hiring. When entry-level judicial clerkships dipped, Career Services staff and a faculty committee led by Senior Lecturer Dennis Hutchinson expanded the efforts to help students navigate the highly individualized clerkship process. When market failures made it harder than ever for students to afford public interest careers, the Law School bridged the gap with scholarships and fellowships. And when BigLaw hiring slowed, Career Services seized an opportunity to work one-on-one with students to suss out what they really wanted in a career—an approach that had actually begun several years earlier when Associate Dean for Career Services Abbie Willard joined the Law School.

“It’s what the millennials want, but it also happened to be exactly the right solution when the market shifted—it put us ahead of the curve in a lot of ways,” said Lois Casaleggi, the Law School’s Senior Director in the Office of Career Services. “Abbie really emphasized individual work with the students, telling them, ‘Your job search is your job search.’ And when the downturn came, it’s not that we weren’t affected—we were—but I think we were far better positioned than many, many schools because we’d already been encouraging students to think critically about their paths. Many said to us, ‘You told me I needed to think about what I really want,’ and then they actually took that time to figure it out.”

As a result—and because Law School alumni have always done well—overall employment rates right out of the Law School have averaged 98 percent since 2009. It’s a success Willard chalks up to three factors.

“First, it’s self-selection—we attract the best and brightest, and we let them know what they’re getting into: this is a law school unlike any other law school,” Willard said. “Second, we put them through an extremely rigorous legal education—and judges and employers know that, and they know that the students who come here work hard and are exposed to the best legal minds in the country. And third, the Law School’s small size makes a huge difference because that’s what allows us to personalize. Our motto is ‘One size does not fit all.’ We work with students one-on-one to not only find a job, but a job that’s going to be satisfying in terms of their career development.”

And at the Law School, that has meant taking a tailored approach in each area of employment.

Landing a Judicial Clerkship

Several years ago, entry-level clerkship numbers fell when federal judges, frustrated with a Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan that had gradually eroded, began hiring alumni who weren’t regulated by the plan. The drop was noticeable: in 2004, nearly one-quarter of Law School students entered judicial clerkships after graduation, but by 2007, that number had fallen by more than half.

In some ways, it wasn’t surprising. The Hiring Plan, a nonbinding set of guidelines issued by the Administrative Office of the US Courts, had been deteriorating for years. The goal had been to standardize the hiring process, but that meant that judges couldn’t conduct interviews or make offers until a student’s third year. Judges began opting out, hiring students “off-plan”—interviewing on their own timetable and snapping up top candidates ahead of the Hiring Plan schedule. The process was rife with chaos: there were stories of panic, pressure, and missed opportunities.

Alumni offered an attractive alternative: there was no pressure to adhere to the schedule since the plan applied only to students, and the more experienced candidates had the skills and perspective that come with being out in the workforce. When the economic downturn came, the number of graduates applying for clerkships rose—and judges, having learned that they liked hiring alumni clerks, extended fewer offers to students.

This was great news for Law School’s alumni—whom Career Services also supports—but frustrating for the students who were actively pursuing clerkships and needed help navigating the plan. So Career Services and the faculty clerkship committee formalized the system for helping students navigate the application process and devoted more resources to ensuring that aspiring clerks had the individualized support they needed.

“We’ve infused staff into making this work, and making it work quickly and efficiently so that when a faculty member needs to write a letter of recommendation or a judge calls, we can turn on a dime,” Willard said. “Clerkships are very much a personalized job search and personalized mentoring. For law firm and government jobs, there are large numbers of applicants, and it’s about working with databases and online applications. But with clerkships, it’s very personality-driven. The judge wants certain things in a clerk, the students want certain things in a judge—and faculty members know the judges and know which students would be best in those chambers.”

Judicial Clerkship Employment Immediately after Graduation

The faculty committee, which is chaired by Hutchinson and already included Lior Strahilevitz, the Sidley Austin Professor of Law, and Jonathan Masur, the John P. Wilson Professor of Law, expanded to include three new assistant professors: Daniel Hemel, Genevieve Lakier, and John Rappaport.

“The work of the committee now begins almost before the ink dries on first-year grades and continues for as long as students are pursuing clerkships—even several years after graduation,” Hutchinson said. “Fortunately, several new faculty members are both deeply knowledgeable and eager to help our applicants.”

In January 2014, the Administrative Office of the US Courts announced that it was discontinuing the Hiring Plan in favor of a more flexible system, a decision preceded a year before by the DC Circuit’s declaration that it would no longer follow the plan, which it said was “no longer fair and equitable to either students or judges.” However, by then, the Law School’s entry-level clerkship numbers had already begun to rebound. They rose from the recent low of 9.3 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2014. In 2015, 17.7 percent of graduates went directly to clerkships.

Now, under the new system, judges are able to set their own guidelines and schedules, though students can’t access the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR) until the July after their first year. Alumni hiring has remained strong, and Willard expects that will continue. But she and others were glad to see the entry-level numbers on the upswing.

Clerkships, after all, can prepare lawyers for a variety of careers—in academia, public service, law firms, corporations, and of course, as judges themselves. For instance, in the Law School class of 1985, 34 students entered clerkships. Among the 27 who have reported their current jobs to the University of Chicago, 13 work at law firms, 6 work in business, 5 work in academia, 2 work for the federal government, and 1 is a state appellate judge.

“I know that my clerkships enriched my understanding of the law and of human institutions and not incidentally richly enhanced my career,” said Hutchinson, who in the 1970s clerked for the Hon. Elbert P. Tuttle on the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, as well as Supreme Court Justices Byron R. White and William O. Douglas. “Helping others realize the same benefits is deeply satisfying.”

Choosing the Right Law Firm

Although law firms have experienced significant changes in recent years through mergers, acquisitions, closings, spinoffs, and layoffs, they still represent the most popular path for Law School graduates. But it is less common than it used to be.

In 2011, the percentage of students who went to law firms after graduation fell to 58.8 percent—a drop from the roughly 81 percent who went to law firms in 2007 and 2008. But that drop was offset by students who chose other legal careers; the class of 2011 saw increases in the percentage of students who took jobs in public interest, government, business, and academia.

The next year, law firm placement was back up at 68.1 percent, and has risen only slightly since then—a result, perhaps, of the Law School’s increased focus on self-awareness and finding the “right fit.” In the past decade, Career Services has focused on law student and lawyer satisfaction—looking for trends that might offer insight in predicting which areas of legal practice are best suited to each student.

“What we found is that you can find satisfaction in any type of law, but you have to know yourself,” Casaleggi said. “There isn’t a test you can take that will say, ‘You should be a securities litigator’ or ‘You should be an M&A attorney.’ We’d thought we’d see real patterns, such as certain types of people that tend to gravitate to certain areas of law. But it’s all about self-awareness—which fits with our mission of individualized career counseling—and finding the work that suits them.”

For many students law firm work was the right fit—but for others it was public service, a clerkship, corporate work, or academia.

And for those who sought law firm work, there were additional variables to weigh, even beyond practice-area preferences. For some, large firms are the best choice—and the trend toward consolidation is a tremendous plus. “It has given students opportunities at firms with even bigger platforms and a broader range of clients,” Casaleggi said.

Law Firm Employment Immediately after Graduation

Another law firm trend that has benefited Law School graduates: the rise of elite boutiques. More students are looking at specialty firms and, although some only hire laterals, others are starting to recruit students, either at the entry level or once they have a completed a clerkship or two.

The Law School now has about a half dozen boutiques who participate in On-Campus Interviewing, and it has a strong relationships with elite boutiques, such as Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott (see story), that more often hire lawyers who have a couple of years of experience.

Boutiques can be a great opportunity for students who know they are interested in a particular practice area—for instance, telecommunications law or high-stakes litigation, Casaleggi said.

“At a lot of these boutiques, you’re getting thrown in the fire right away, and you’re getting to do some really cool stuff very early,” she said. “If you’re the right personality, and those things don’t make you nervous, it’s a great place to start a career.”

A Growth in Support for Public Service

When Anthony-Ray Sepulveda, ’15, was choosing a law school, he already knew he wanted to pursue public service. And he chose the Law School because he knew that it provided the kind of support that would make that possible.

“For me, Chicago was my dream school . . . but I knew I wanted to do public interest and, with that, there comes: what can I afford? I was looking at which schools provide access to jobs over the summer, particularly at places that don’t have the resources to pay their interns,” Sepulveda said.

It has always been financially taxing to launch a career in public service, but the economic downturn created an additional pinch: these days, nonprofits often cannot afford to hire—and train—new lawyers right out of school or pay summer interns. Add the burden of student loan debt, and many graduates found it nearly impossible to gain the experience needed to land a job in the public sector.

To counteract this market-driven difficulty, the Law School has significantly expanded its support for public service—which can include both government and nonprofit work—and the numbers of students pursuing those jobs has risen correspondingly. Between 2007 and 2010, an average of 5.25 percent of graduates pursued public service work right after graduation. But between 2012 and 2015, that number had jumped to 10.8 percent. Some of the increase can be traced to the slowdown in law firm hiring during the recession; a 2011 spike in graduates taking public interest jobs coincided with the dip in students accepting law firm jobs. But the rest is likely due to programs that made it possible for students to launch public service careers right out of law school. (In the past, more students might have chosen to work in the private sector for a few years before switching to public service.)

As part of this expansion, the Law School in 2012 launched the Postgraduate Public Interest Fellowship program, which now offers seven competitive fellowships to high-achieving students with a demonstrated interest in public service. Through the program, each fellow receives $50,000 in support to work at an eligible host agency for a year.

A few years before that, in 2006–2007, the Heerey Foundation made a gift that allowed the Law School to offer $5,000 in summer funding to first- or second-year students pursuing a public service internship for at least eight weeks (see story). That, combined with the support of other donors, has enabled the Law School to guarantee summer public service funding for all first- and second-year students.

Public Service Employment Immediately after Graduation

For Sepulveda, a Heerey Fellowship after his first year made it possible for him to afford a summer internship at the US Attorney’s Office in Arizona.

“It really helped get my foot in the door—especially for me because I didn’t come from a family, or really have any friends, in the legal field,” said Sepulveda, who is now an assistant inspector general for the Office of Executive Inspector General for the Agencies of the Illinois Governor.  “That first summer was crucial in terms of getting access to the legal field and then working my way up from there.”

The Law School also offers the full-tuition Hormel Scholarship, which is granted to highly qualified students planning public interest careers; Public Service Initiative Fellowships, which provide one year of financial support to a limited number of graduating students who engage in full-time legal work at qualifying public service organizations; and loan repayment assistance. In addition, Career Services offers career counseling, networking, pro bono opportunities, and support for students pursuing entry-level federal government “Honors Program” hiring or for students developing outside fellowship applications, such as the Skadden, Equal Justice Works, and the Polikoff-Gautreaux. And once a year, the Law School sends about two dozen second- and third-year students to the Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair, where students interview with public interest employers and attend workshops on public interest careers.

“The best way to help students pursue public service is to remove the financial obstacles,” said Susan Curry, the Law School’s Director of Public Interest Law and Policy. “We know that the interest is there. On the very first day of orientation, I ask how many are interested in government service, nonprofit service, international human rights—and we have this sea of hands in the air. We asked ourselves: how can we make sure that at least some in that sea of hands are actually able to do it? And we looked at all the ways we have contact with students—when they’re considering law schools, when they’re here as students, and then when they graduate—and we went about addressing the issues they face at each of those levels through scholarships, summer funding, loan repayment assistance, and postgraduate fellowships.”

Exact numbers were not yet available when the Record went to press, but Curry said that the percentage of 2016 graduates pursuing public service work was set to hold steady or rise slightly.

“Students are choosing the University of Chicago Law School knowing that they will get the support they need to choose public service careers,” she said. “And we’re making sure they know where the opportunities are, and we’re preparing them for those opportunities.”

Grooming Aspiring Academics

Graduates pursuing academia face their own hurdles, and the Law School has also increased support for students and alumni who choose that path, including faculty mentoring, workshops, and a law teaching conference at which aspiring academics present their scholarship in practice job talks.

The Law School has been among the most successful producers of law teachers over the past couple of decades. According to a database kept by Career Services on behalf of a faculty committee on law teaching, there were nearly 500 alumni teaching at or emeritus at law schools.

But academic hiring has changed in recent years, and these days few aspiring scholars enter the teaching market immediately after graduation. Instead, they gain experience in a clerkship, at a law firm or government agency, or in one of the non-tenure-track teaching positions that have become more common.

“Hiring committees are requiring more publication and more experience that will inform scholarship,” Casaleggi said. “Now, institutions offer these fellowship and visiting assistant professor positions: they’re not promising you a permanent position, but you’re getting experience teaching and time to be in that incubator to work on your scholarship. It gives junior scholars a way to develop as academics without schools needing to take on risk.”

Still, preparation often begins in Law School, and a faculty committee on law teaching—which is chaired by Brian Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence, and includes Lisa Bernstein, the Wilson Dickinson Professor of Law, and Lee Fennell, the Max Pam Professor of Law—is available to offer guidance. Every year, that committee puts on an informational session for students, and a variety of materials written by Leiter are available on the website. Bernstein teaches a workshop that introduces students to legal scholarship; the goal is for each student to have a publishable paper by the end of the year. The Law School also offers a course aimed at aspiring academics, Canonical Ideas in Legal Thought, which was taught last year by Masur and Anup Malani, the Lee and Brena Freeman Professor of Law. The course, described as the equivalent of a research colloquium in a PhD program, focuses on influential legal scholarship.

Employment in Academia Immediately after Graduation

Faculty members also mentor alumni one-on-one and help them prepare to go on the teaching market. And each year, the Law School hosts a law teaching conference for Law School alumni who are going on the market that year. The conference includes an informational panel, mock interviews with faculty members, and a chance to deliver their job talk—important practice in a market that is more competitive than ever.

Building Business Savvy

Finally, the Law School has created opportunities for students who have their eye on corporate or business careers, both through the certificate-granting Doctoroff Business Leadership Program and through several Booth School of Business classes that are taught at the Law School by leading Booth professors. (The Booth classes are a part of the Doctoroff program but are open to all Law School students.)

Prompted by a rising demand for lawyers with corporate and financial savvy, the Doctoroff program, which launched in 2013, offers students the best of the MBA experience: an intensive core business curriculum, as well as a summer internship, enrichment opportunities, and the guidance of a one-on-one business mentor. Students must apply and be accepted into the program, which has served 38 students since it began. Participants say the program has given them a solid foundation of business knowledge, strengthened their ability to think about the law, and broadened their aspirations.

Business/Industry Employment Immediately after Graduation

“It has opened my eyes to the number of possibilities that are out there,” Doctoroff student Emily Samra, ’17, said earlier this year. “The business classes I’ve taken have given me a way of viewing the world that is both different from my law classes and relevant. I was surprised by how well they fit together. This quarter, I’m taking both Antitrust and Bankruptcy, and the Business Strategy course [taught by Booth] that I took last quarter has really helped connect the dots and has given me a nonlegal way of thinking through the issues. It puts the law into context.”

Although the overall numbers are still small, in recent years the Law School has seen an increase in new graduates moving into management consulting, investment banking, and private wealth management firms.

“Some of these employers have realized there is a whole pool of talent they hadn’t been looking at,” Casaleggi said. “They had been looking mostly at MBAs, but law students are trained in ways that really suit the work that they do.”

The Future of the Job Search

One thing has become clear in the years since the downturn: one size really doesn’t fit all, regardless of the market conditions—something that becomes clear when alumni return to the Law School. Their careers are diverse, and so are the routes they travel. Some remain at the same employer long-term—Adam Emmerich, ’85, describes his 30+-year career at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz as “an incredible journey of both continuity and constant challenge and change”—and others switch career focus, moving among law firms, government service, corporate work, or public interest.

Where the Class of 2015 Went Immediately After Graduation

“When alums come back here, they’re coming from all sorts of business entities and start-ups and corporations and law firms, and state, federal, and local government positions,” Willard said. “We have people like James B. Comey [’85], who is the director of the FBI, and we have an alum who has been general counsel at the Department of Education [James Cole Jr., ’95], and an alum who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau [Richard Cordray, ’86]. We have them at the highest levels of government. Our alumni move in and out of private practice, into business, into government, with real ease.”

Which underscores the point Willard has been making for years: it really is all about figuring out where you want to be—and the best time to start thinking that way is in school.

“Abbie’s leadership really put our team on this path, and it has paid off,” Casaleggi said. “Even now that things are starting to bounce back, we haven’t changed our approach, because we believe in this as a career services philosophy.”

Where the Class of 2015 Went After Graduation