legal employment

The Bright Legal Market of 2015

Andy had been keeping up with the poor state of the U.S. legal market a few years ago, and it seems like a good idea to continue his efforts. The recent positive U.S. job report for January 2016 had some minor bad news for the legal profession: a loss of 1,400 lawyers, or 0.12% from December.

But the sour news was completely offset by the 95 percent of law students who spent last summer clerking at a law firm and received an offer to work full-time at the firm after graduation. Read about it here, but the takeaway is that the effect of the ’08 recession was over last year, partially because the law school bubble has finished it’s big pop:

The 95 percent offer rate was up from 93 percent in 2014, and a marked increase from the low of 69 percent in 2009.

Leipold noted that with first-year law school enrollment having fallen by more than 15,000 nationwide over the past five years, law firms are seeing more competition for the top candidates simply because schools are producing fewer graduates.

So long as the January’s (… and February’s) stock market, oil plunge, emerging market trifecta doesn’t spin the United States into another recession in 2016 … it might be time to again start thinking of an American J.D. as a safe investment in the future. But don’t tell your friends.

cropped-tokyo_university_entrance_exam_results_6.jpg

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Freeter Professionals in Japan? Part 1

Japan Industry News (JIN) published an interesting breakdown of the legal categories of workers in Japan, leading in with statistics indicating that the incoming Japanese workforce is still mostly interested in lifetime employment within one company.

According to MHLW statistics from 2013, over half of youngsters desire to work for only one company throughout their career. Merely 28 percent would like to work for multiple companies. … Japan’s Cabinet Office shows that the percentage of young people who think that “one should change jobs if not satisfied with current employment” and “one should change jobs to utilize one’s talent” stands at only 28 percent in Japan as compared to 72 percent in England.

Setting aside fully entrepreneurial options, there are effectively two castes of employee in Japan: Lifetime and temporary.

Lifetime work

Collectively, permanent full staff (“Seishain”) and certain quasi-permanent fixed-term (1—3 year) contracts (“Keiyakushain”) are both safely on the life-time track. For both these categories, JIN reports that: “terminating employees against their will is difficult and … costly.”

For gaijin, who generally see nothing wrong with flexible employment, it’s hard to understand the uncritical and necessary loyalty at the core of permanent Japanese work. Especially when the rigors and stressesunproductive environments, and sexism (and sexism, and sexism) of Japanese companies are open secrets. Fear and Trembling (the film) illuminates our preconceptions and experiences.

Anecdotally, among my first experiences in Japan was an afternoon in the company of a man who’d been let go from his position at a Japanese firm. A gaijin, he had embraced the work life and company loyalty of his co-workers, only to discover that it was never expected of him in the first place; and it wasn’t going to be reciprocated. A few weeks after his solitary downsizing, none of his former co-workers would return his calls.

Temporary work

The temporary category includes explicitly temporary Seishain, and dispatched workers (“Hakenshain” or “Temp Staff”) with contracts that must not be renewed for more than 3 years. If you are a Hakenshain coming up on the 3-year anniversary of your first hiring, you have reason to be anxious about your next contract period.

Disenfranchised freeters (フリーター or “furita“) who string together seasonal and part time, low-skill work fall into the temporary category. Post Bubble Culture blog describes freeters in a way the rhymes with Uber driver:

The freeter lifestyle allows for more flexibility and increased mobility in youth, so it is typically seen to be made up of those individuals who have rejected their expected social role as full time salary workers in favor of the freedom to pursue other personal interests.

The other side of freeters, like uber drivers, is the often precariousness and poor work conditions, with little chance of a stable future or social insurance in the event of misfortune. But, like in many countries, freeter-like employment patterns may have migrated upstream into entrepreneurial roles.

Attitudes toward flexible employment in Japan are changing in line with economic stresses, and greater desire for and reality of women in the workforce. From JIN:

Statistics of the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) show that while the share of limited-term employees was only 15 percent in 1984, it increased to 37 percent by 2014 …

New slang terms are the bellwethers of social attitudes in Japan, and I particularly like kensetsu komachi, for young women breaking down the door to Japan’s seasonal construction sector. The sharing, Uber-economy is quietly knocking at Tokyo’s door, despite byzantine and determined regulatory resistance. But, honestly, social change is glacial: facts such as “women made up 16 per cent of new entrepreneurs last year’ are still compatible with exaltations of “a renaissance in Japan for women.”

If an employee can’t leave permanent employment for long before becoming forever temporary, starting out as a freeter may seem like a reasonable option, if higher-skilled options are open. For foreigners, who face unpredictable circumstances in attempting to forge loyalty in a Japanese firm anyway, can there be such a thing as a highly-skilled professional freeter? Puro-furita

Immigration considerations for non-traditional employment are obviously primary for many foreigners in Japan, but that’s a topic for another post.

I’m delighted to explore the flexible legal employment space in Japan. And so, this post is just a beginning. Send your thoughts on the question, and I’ll be back in time with more reports from the ground.

 

Alternatives to Legal Careers Guide (Univ. of Ariz.)

 

The truth is, many of these jobs need a J.D. about as much as Springfield needed a monorail.

I have to admit, I always found the whole “You can do anything with a law degree!” argument coming out of law school Admissions and Career Services offices among the most dubious tricks in their bag.

To deny that the constant pleadings that “You can do anything with a law degree” are part sales pitch, part vain attempt to incentivize students to stay the course and help keep that tuition money flowing is ludicrous. It’s definitely part of the scheme. Hell, my law school had a whole week dedicated to speakers on “alternative careers.” I believe they called it something like “Thinking Outside the Box,” and had folks from various industries who had J.D.s but weren’t actually practicing law come in and speak.

Of course, for lesser ranked schools, the “You can do anything with a law degree” tack is a touch inaccurate. It should more likely be said that “You’re not going to be able to practice law anyway, so start thinking of something else now.”

So, yes, whenever an administrator (or student lemming) starts in with the flexibility of the J.D. thing, I can’t help but feel a little sad for their plight. The administrator simply doesn’t know what to do anymore (legal jobs were tough enough to get pre-financial crisis, and most CSO’s today have either gotten creative or simply thrown their hands up), and the student has been had: hook, line, and sinker.

But, that’s not to say that alternative careers aren’t out there. They should simply be treated along the same lines as they are titled: they are an “alternative” to practicing law. If you’re going to law school for an alternative career, I think you’re making the wrong decision. If you’re going to law school hoping to practice law and discover that either (1) practicing law isn’t your thing and you’re too far in to get out; or (2) given your ranking in the law school strata you’re likely going to be unable to practice law immediately, then an alternative career can be a saving grace.

living-in-a-box-11

Perhaps more appropriate would have been: “Living Inside A Box: You’re Probably Screwed.”

The truth is that I can’t rail against alternative careers too much, as my law school outcome has been in the “alternative” bracket, at least for now. I certainly didn’t spend another 3 years and ton of money with an alternative career in mind, though. And neither should you.

That said, what alternative careers are out there for legal eagles? The University of Arizona has compiled a brief 22-page guide on possible alternative careers, possible salaries, and pointers and seeking out jobs that are not necessarily part of the legal sphere.

Another way to prepare for alternative career job hunting is to tap into (or create, if you’re behind the ball) your network. An in-house position interview is different from a law firm interview, which will be different from an interview with an accounting firm or investment bank. Having experienced individuals you can contact to help advise or prepare you for job searches in fields outside of legal can be invaluable.

The University of Arizona Guide can be found here.

ABA commentary can be found here.

ATL commentary can be found here.

What’s up with the legal market?

For JET alums trying to make out what exactly is up with legal education and the legal market: the Economist just had a great article that lays it all out. For frequent readers, this should be nothing you haven’t heard before: the financial crisis killed a lot of jobs, and the delay in a legal market recovery is hampered by outsourcing and clients clinging a little closer to their pocketbooks and not wanting to pay young associates.

20110507_bbp002The article, in full, is here.

[UPDATED: Things are looking better for 2016]

 

Getting to 外弁, or “So you want to be a lawyer in Japan.”

This post is aimed at clearing up what it really means to “practice law in Japan,” if you’re not Japanese. Being a foreigner turned Japanese lawyer, without a doubt, conjures up the image of being a truly accomplished bad-ass. There’s a reason for that: being a Japanese lawyer even as a Japanese citizen is insanely difficult. For a foreigner, even more so. Saying “I want to be a Japanese lawyer,” is something akin to that ugly kid in your 3rd grade classroom saying, “I want to be President of the United States”: in theory, it’s possible. But only in theory. In today’s world, ugly people just don’t get to be President.

A man with Chester A. Arthur’s looks would be a prime candidate for those who think their rent is too damn high.

While in theory, a foreigner can reach the level of proficiency and academic aptitude to become a Japanese lawyer practicing Japanese law, the education and licensing requirements represent a practically insurmountable barrier to entry. Currently, there are 30,479 Japanese lawyers (弁護士) registered with a Japanese Bar Association. For purposes of contrast, there are 30,000 lawyers in the U.S. state of Missouri alone. There is a special term for foreigners who actually reach the equivalent status of Japanese lawyer, called Junkaiin (準会員). While you might think this sort of special designation sounds promising, the ability to reach this status was abolished in 1955, so unless you have a flux capacitor and a healthy stash of plutonium, your odds at qualifying as Junkaiin are not great. Currently there is still one Junkaiin in practice.

That 30,000 Bengoshi population figure represents Japanese who have received a Japanese law degree and have successfully passed the Japanese Bar Exam. And we haven’t even talked about the Bar Exam yet. The good news is that the passage rate for the Japanese Bar Exam has increased dramatically since 2006. The bad news is that the odds are still stacked significantly against the test-taker. Even if you’re from a prime Japanese law school, you have no better than 2:1 odds of passing. While this is still better than the 1-4% that passed the test pre-2006, it’s a long way to go, and a long time spent, to only *maybe* become a real J-lawyer.

NOTE: Those who fail the Bar can still become a judicial scrivener, which is similar to Bengoshi, involves the same amount of office work, but significantly reduced courtroom work, and certainly less prestige.

Going for 外弁

What the vast number of foreign lawyers in Japan do, rather than attempt the impossible hurdles of becoming a Japanese lawyer is to procure (1) a Gaiben license (外国法事務弁護士) ; or (2) affiliate with a licensed multinational firm (弁護士法人).

The Gaiben License

Becoming an official Gaiben is a rather long road to hoe, but it’s the closest you’ll get to being an independent attorney in Japan – if that’s your goal.

The main difficulty in getting your Gaiben license is the requirement of prior practice – the Japanese government prefers you work several (I believe four) years in your home jurisdiction before you can be eligible. A few quotes from attorneys and recruiters I’ve talked to flesh this out further.

From a recruiter I spoke with last year:

Another point to keep in mind is the strict enforcement of making sure foreign lawyers in Japan have the gaikokuho jimu bengoshi license (gaiben). In order to qualify for this license a lawyer must have spent a couple of years working in their home jurisdiction. Law firms over here are reluctant to hire junior lawyers who are not eligible for their gaiben qualification. If you would like to work as a lawyer in Japan I would suggest you spend a few years working first in your home jurisdiction and then explore your options after that. I believe this approach will present you with the most options.

From an attorney who practiced in-house in Tokyo before attempting to make the jump to Gaiben:

You may be familiar with the 外国法事務弁護士 license (the “gaiben”). At least today, if you have not practiced a certain number of years in your home jurisdiction, then you cannot qualify to be a gaiben. Essentially, that means that you cannot form a partnership with a Japan licensed lawyer, and you cannot hold yourself out in Japan as a legal professional.

When I graduated from law school, I was happy to be getting a job, and didn’t really think that I would want to ever be a gaiben. I went directly in house.  I don’t regret my decision, but I often caution people like you to think very carefully about the decision.  Worst case scenario, … you might realize that the bureacracy of the company isn’t for you, that you have hit a glass ceiling and are doing too much translation for your own tastes, that you want to broaden your skills, that you want to go back to the US and see your aged parents, it *might* be difficult to do this if your experience is solely in-house … in Japan. One reason why I have stayed in the US as long as I have this time around is to get enough time here to be certain to qualify as a gaiben when I go back.

If you’re looking solely to practice in-house, you may not need the Gaiben license, but practicing in-house can ultimately hinder your progress towards Gaiben if you choose to go that way:

On the other hand, if you want a career in Japanese legal departments, say, or in business generally, you probably won’t need to become a gaiben. (I haven’t checked, but logically you shouldn’t, since most corporate law dept. folks aren’t bengoshi.) Also, I know things are tough for law grads now, so any job opportunity that you get that excites you is a welcome thing.

And BTW, MoJ prefers law firm practice — they wanted me to exclude my in-house practice from my application. Though maybe that was due less to MoJ’s own preference than to their fears about what the Nichibenren might say.

And, of course, even if you qualify for Gaiben, there is still bureaucratic lead time and the significant expenses of maintaining a US state bar license and Gaiben license to consider — another obstacle to any young lawyer graduating with law school debt.

Affiliate with BigLaw

This is the other option: but it is conditional on you (1) doing well enough in law school to be an attractive candidate; (2) demonstrating a commitment to Japan. The first is a matter only you can affect, and given law school grading curves and a tight market, there is a significant “luck” factor at work here. The second you can affect by simply being there, either at your own expense, or at a Law School Study Abroad program in Japan.

Indeed, one of the successful candidates who took this route I know combined his JD with a masters degree in Japanese (with focus on Japanese law). The additional masters degree was a solidly smart move: it gave him an “extra” 2L summer — in other words a second shot at the big firm summer associate recruiters, and enough time to take a semester in Tokyo, which helped him land a summer associate position IN Tokyo. This transformed into an actual job opportunity. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Epilogue

Of course, Japan is in a state of legal reform, and this situation may change at some point. But anyone who has worked with Japan knows that change can come slow, and for now, if you want to independently practice law in Japan, you’ll need to get to Gaiben first.

Disco’s Career Forum, for JETs with J.D.s

Disco Stu likes DISCO jobs

Every year, Boston welcomes the largest Japanese-English bilingual job fair known to man. The job fair is run by DISCO International, and is otherwise known as the Boston Career Forum. Career forums are also held in Tokyo, London, and Los Angeles throughout the year– but Boston is easily conceded as the largest of these.

This forum is something I wish I had known about earlier as a law student, because a large number of Japanese and multinational employers show up (this year, 132 of them did), and some of them are actually looking to fill vacancies in their legal department, or for whatever other reason are willing to look at J.D. candidates and J.D. holders. The distinct advantage about this career fair, moreover, is that for perhaps the only time in your law school career, you’re not competing with a horde of fellow students en masse, but only those students who have the requisite language skill (not so many), and only those who have been willing to make the journey (even fewer).

While I was skeptical as to whether this large job forum would help me at all (as it seemed largely aimed at undergrads, MBA’s, and engineers) I was able to walk away from Boston having had a number of interviews and a couple positive leads on the job search. Below, I will briefly relay my experience, suggestions, and advice for any JET pursuing a J.D. who might be considering a trip to Boston next fall.

Preliminary Matters

(1) If you want to work for a law firm and a law firm only – the remainder of this post is largely useless to you. Your time would be better spent looking at these vintage (and hilarious) Tokyo subway posters.

(2) If you are below Conversational level Japanese (generally, JLPT 3級 = Conversational), DISCO won’t let you in. So you’ll either have to lie or improve your Japanese ability. I advise the latter.

Preparation

I heard of DISCO and the Boston Career Forum from another JET alum who went to law school and found his first post-graduation job in-house, with a Japanese company, through DISCO. When I first heard about DISCO from this alum (in July), I immediately went to their site and found that information about the Boston Career Forum, and prospective employers, was already posted and some employers were already accepting application submissions. Currently, DISCO does not have information up about its 2011 Career Forums, but it is only a matter of time.

Regardless, I would advise setting up a profile on DISCO’s site sooner rather than later. In setting up a profile, you are given the option of setting up an English and a Japanese resume. I suggest you do both– as some employers will accept the Japanese one only, and others the English one only. Depending on your Japanese ability, this can take next to no time at all, or can be quite time consuming, and you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to proofread both before you start applying for positions.

Applying to Interviews Before the Career Forum

All your applications for the Career Forum will require one of the resumes you set up through DISCO. That’s usually the easy part of applying to an employer. In addition to the resume, employers can also ask supplemental questions – to be filled out in only English, only Japanese, or either. These questions also tend to impose character limitations. Again, you’ll want time to plan ahead and draft well-written, grammatically correct answers to these questions – which is why I advise you start preparation early.

These supplemental questions also allow employers to vet applicants according to their language ability. DISCO requires you to rank your language ability along traditional JLPT categorizations (Elementary, Conversational, Business, Native), but if your answers to the supplemental make you look like you’re struggling at 4級, and you’re posturing yourself as a Native-speaker, don’t expect too much.

Some employers throw additional hurdles into the application process. This is particularly true of the accounting firms and investment banks. Accounting firms will generally require you fill out an application off of their home site in addition to the one you do for the Career Forum. Investment Banks usually request likewise, and may throw a timed mathematical reasoning test into the mix.

As the Career Forum gets closer, more employers will join in. Even up to the last few days before the Career Forum, new employers were appearing on the list, and accepting applications for interviews. So again, if you plan on going, you should check early and often.

By the date of the Career Forum, I had lined up four interviews in advance, with one (1) investment bank, one (1) accounting firm, and two (2) Japanese multinational companies. All of them were interviewing for their Tokyo offices.

EDITED TO ADD (01/24/2011): Acquiring interviews prior to going to Boston provides you two other advantages: (1) Arranging interviews in advance makes you more likely to receive a travel scholarship from CFN; (2) Arranging interviews in advance may allow you to access travel funds from your law school to be used for traveling to interviews.

Applying for Interviews AT the Career Forum

Submitting for interviews while you are at the Career Forum is also a realistic possibility. While I was in Boston, I was able to gain interviews with a few other employers, including another accounting firm.

Resumes

No employer will tell you this, but they are typically open to receiving both English and Japanese resumes. From my experience, I highly advise bringing copies of a Japanese resume with you in tow. Many of my interviewers looked a bit nervous to be interviewing me with the English resume they received from DISCO. When I pulled out the Japanese resume I prepared ahead of time, there was a visible (albeit concealed) sigh of relief and I became a small hero in their eyes – always a good way to start the interview.

Note that Japanese resumes tend to have a different format than Western resumes, and involve a lot less “grandstanding” of your accomplishments. Samples are here. A template is available here.

Interviews

Much like JET, my interview experiences were ESID. One was with a guy who spoke fluent English and ultimately gave an impression of being a bit more high-pressure than most law firm interviews. The remainders were conducted in a mix of Japanese and English. Some were basic resume review, others were more conversational.

For some interviews I had to fill out additional paperwork before going in, for others I did not.

For a good number of my interviews, JET was treated as an overall positive on my resume. Others didn’t mention it. At the very least, I can say it wasn’t greeted with a head tilted to the side and air-sucking through the teeth.

Like any other interview, I highly suggest going in with a game plan to handle the variations the interview process can take. Enlisting the help of a Japanese confidante or teacher would be a good idea as well.

Post-Career Forum Contact

To e-mail thank you notes or not? Assuming your interview was positive, a friend of mine suggests the following:

My short answer is that I would send a thank you e-mail or thank you letter as you would with any other person who would interview you, expressing your great interest in learning more about [the Company]. If you have Japanese writing skills, or thought that the interviewer might have doubts about your ability to function in a written Japanese environment, you might take the opportunity to showcase those skills.

For the good interviews I had, I did likewise. I do not feel they necessarily helped or hindered my application in any sense, but those thank you’s at least indicate you are still open and ready to converse.

Again, like the interviews, the process in discussing employment with companies after Boston was very ESID. For some employers, I heard responses quite quickly. For others, I am still in ongoing conversations with them, and this is three months after the initial interview. For legal departments in Japanese companies, a colleague of mine offers the following amount of lead time before you get a response:

I’d give [them] 4 weeks to get back to you. From my experience with Japanese companies, the guy you talked to would report in writing/orally through his chain in the HR department, then the HR department would report in writing to the other departments. The other department might take a week or so to respond to HR. (I can imagine that the legal department might not have expected to receive an application from someone like you. It might take a little bit of time for the legal department to warm up to you.)

Again, while four weeks might be a good standard to have, ESID. It takes one guy sitting around not-hankoing things to gum up the process.

Post-Career Forum Surprises

Finally, a couple of months after the Boston Career Forum, I received an email from a Company interested in knowing whether they would still like me to talk to their legal and compliance departments, respectively, about the possibility of joining them in Tokyo. So, even for those companies you apply to and never hear from, possibilities exist that they may contact you long after the fact.

A Final Note

DISCO also posts general job postings for bilinguals throughout the year. I have had some luck with these as well, though they are generally not aimed at J.D.s.

In short, if you’re looking to navigate the Apocalyptic War-Zone that is legal employment in a post-financial crisis world – DISCO offers you a welcome platform from which to market your legal and language abilities – in a much less crowded field of competitors.

Japan Law Resources

Finally, a post that’s not about the job market! (though if you’re curious, the December employment numbers were generally good, even if legal is still categorically “meh”).

Came across these early this morning and had to share:

1) A lengthy, though tad unwieldy file from the University of Oregon that has a collection of Japanese laws, along with their names in kanji, romanized pronunciations, and English descriptions can be found here.

2) A site with the text of Japanese laws in their entirety, alongside the Japanese originals. Seems like a pretty handy site, though you’ll need some Japanese ability to navigate it. The link is here. Aim for [日英対訳条文] to access the resources I am referring to.

3) Another set of Japanese law and legal terms, sorted by kana and containing kanji and English equivalents can be found here.

See also this old JETs with J.D.s post for additional Japanese law translation materials.

Recent Developments: The Difficult Job Market

Bad news is never fun, but there’s always plenty of it out there, even when the market is up and last month saw significant positive job growth of around 150,000. Law jobs are still projected to lag behind, however, and a recent National Jurist article gives a pretty succinct explanation as to why. A brief snippet of that article can be found here, but one of the more salient portions explains:

Here are three relevant observations:

1. The traditional law firm hiring model (pedigree and grades) doesn’t do a very good job of selecting candidates who are likely to succeed as large firm litigators or corporate lawyers.

2 The traditional credential-based model is gradually being dismantled because clients are no longer willing to absorb the cost of bad hiring decisions.

3. The skills and behaviors you need to set yourself apart are not taught in law school—indeed, your typical law professor is completely unqualified to serve as your jungle guide.

The full article contains a fairly lengthy explanation of where the legal market finds itself today, especially in light of young or aspiring lawyers, and is well worth a read for that reason alone. This raises all kinds of questions for the individual considering a legal education, and should raise a lot of concerns as to the risks as well. Change comes slow to law schools, and to firms as well. But, the legal profession as a whole is undergoing serious, hyper-evolutionary changes, and their overall ramifications are still unclear.

For current third-years, who have watched the last two years’ worth of graduates leaving law school jobless and in debt, the likelihood that many of them will suffer the same fate seems a possibility, as noted in U.S. News & World in June:

Though official statistics will not be released until next May, the class of 2010 is likely to have lower raw employment numbers than the class before it, says Jim Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement. The employment for the class of 2011 will likely also be “very compromised,” he says.

“The Class of 2012 will be the first class for which we might see some kind of uptick in employment,” Leipold says. “I’m not making a prediction that it will recover in 2012; I’m saying it probably won’t recover much before then.”

The outlook has not much changed with the uptick in the economy as of recent, and it seems instead that the principle suppliers (the law schools) of the glut of lawyers are going to be under pressure to close as the unemployment woes of recent law school grads reach critical mass.

Slate also had a recent article chronicling the typical cautions and risks inherent in going to law school in the current economic climate that concluded with a similar premise that the market will have to level out.

These are the most recent developments I have seen on the employment front, and with the legal market under change, with lots of entry-level attorney jobs being shipped to India, with the large oversupply of attorneys already out there, law school seems to be daily becoming an ever riskier investment, even on the advent of economic recovery.

[UPDATED: Things are looking better for 2016]

It’s hard to admit it’s getting better: Legal Market Update October 2010

I’ve been holding back on doing this. Dreading it, in fact. The last time I posted about the legal employment market, the stastics out there showed little growth in May, and a dive back into the negatives in June. At the same time, the nation was dealing with a massive oil spill, Greek debt crises abroad, and latent unemployment everywhere driving what was supposed to be a “Summer of Recovery.”

Well, summer is at an end. The markets have been up for a month. Students who were fortunate enough to win the Summer Associate BigLaw lottery are looking at higher retention rates (and job security) and helping clear the field a bit for the 3Ls still looking for work. Legal employment numbers were also up for August and September.

But there’s still a lingering uncertainty in the stormy legal market. More and more entry-level legal jobs (and document review jobs that unemployed attorneys could rely upon) are being shipped to India. And then there’s that backlog of graduates from the last two years who have been unable to find work — those who haven’t given up on their dreams of legal employment may be coming back into the market to fight for jobs, even if their contract attorney work experience doesn’t carry much weight.

Sources near me tell me that even for low-paying legal secretary jobs at their firm, they are seeing hundreds of unemployed J.D.-toting applicants. It’s both an absurd and sad testament to the times.

So – are things on the mend? Probably so.

Are the nervous 3Ls who have watched the two law classes before them sentenced to unemployment purgatory beeming with excitement? Not yet, at least. And it’s fair to say not for awhile.

[UPDATED: Things are looking better for 2016]

Law School Grades versus the Grade of Your Law School, Which is More Important?

As a prospective student, one of the hardest choices you have to make is which law school you will choose for enrollment.  While you naturally want to make sure the school you choose has the faculty and course selections you are looking for, how are you going to choose amongst the schools that meet those criteria?  The instinctive choice, one would think, would be to choose the school with a higher ranking.  Higher rankings open more doors, right?  And if “C’s get degrees,” what need is there to worry about taking  a hit to your GPA if it means you get a degree from one of the top schools in the country?

Not so, say two law professors. UCLA law professor Richard Sander and Brooklyn law professor Jane Yakowitz argue that the “eliteness” of your degree doesn’t matter as much as your GPA. When it comes to predicting career success, they say, it’s all about the grades.  So, while C’s may get degrees, it’s the A’s that get what pays, if you will.  My first reaction to this, not being part of an elite law school myself, was: “Excellent!”

castle-336498.jpg

Choose your law school by the height and quality of its towering spires. 

My second thought was: “Wait … what?”

But before I can get to the major problem this study leaves untouched, for the uninitiated let me provide a quick bit about law school grading– which is vastly different than anything you experienced in your undergraduate studies.

 

(1): Nobody Fails Law School

Seriously.  Of course, like JET, every law school’s grading situation is ESID.  But, even with bare minimum effort, at law school you are guaranteed a C average.  Once you are in, it would take a far more concerted effort to fail — requiring you to get things blatantly incorrect on exams and plagiarize your papers to truly fail out of law school.

(2): Most Law Students Don’t Have an A-Average

Unlike your undergraduate years, a well-concerted effort in law school is no guarantee of an A. The undergraduate system rightly rewards hard work: put forth the effort and show mastery of the material and you will get an A, if your understanding is a little off, you might hope for a B. Law school, however, grades on a curve.  This is assuming your law school even has grades, but again, ESID on that. Most law schools set a curve where a few number of people walk away with A/A-, a glut of people walk away in the B range, and a few unfortunate souls get a C.  If you do walk away with a C, there is a slight chance that your grade may actually go up, retroactively, with inflation, but that’s a risky strategy not worth banking on. Moreover, because the whole system is curved, the law school grades aren’t a measure of competence or material mastery, but a competitive comparison of where you stack up against your classmates.

Add to that the fact that most people at any given law school are within the same LSAT range, and that means that if you go to a law school within you LSAT range score, you are competing against a couple hundred clones of yourself for a very finite number of As.

(3): Most Employers Know Both (1) and (2)

And hire accordingly.  Of course, one C on a transcript can easily be explained as an outlier and dismissed if the rest of your transcript shines accordingly– but a host of  C’s on a law school transcript will likely raise a red flag to potential employers.

But really, do grades outweigh eliteness?  Is it really advisable to take that lower ranked law school instead of that shiny Harvard or Yale law degree?

It seems that the study runs a great risk of being misunderstood.  Perhaps there is a correlation between GPA and the amount law graduates end up earning in the long run (which is what the study maintains), but the study doesn’t speak to your actual job prospects in the lower ranking schools as opposed to the elite schools.  The ability to earn more money with a great GPA from a lower ranked school is meaningless if you don’t have a starting salary to develop that from.

Certain employers, moreover, knowingly discriminate by eliteness of school. If you’re an Ohio State law student, for example, you can pretty much count out a Supreme Court clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Scalia.

My point is simple: a higher GPA at a lower ranked school might net you more money at some point, but it’s still the elite named law school degree that will open doors.  And, in an economy where the doors to the legal profession are few and narrow, the edge of eliteness cannot really be understated.  Of course, in an era where even the elite law students are begging for work on Craigslist, my guess is as probably good (or bad) as any.