When the economy cycled through a downturn a few years ago, a lot of college graduates who would have gone into the workforce didn’t even apply for a job.
“They just applied for graduate school,” said Joyce Whittington, director of career services, University of Mississippi (UM) School of Law. “As a result of that, I worry. This law school class and the one coming out next year are exceedingly large. It isn’t just here in Mississippi. A few years ago there was a big upsurge all over the country in people applying to law schools. Every law school in the country saw this enormous number of kids. The market is extremely tight right now. I just wish someone would say there is some part of the country that really needs attorneys. It is obviously not around here.”
Normally there are about 170 to 175 graduates from the UM School of Law each year. This graduating class is 207, and the class that will graduate next year is 205.
It is Whittington’s job and passion to make sure that every law school graduate gets a job. Ideally, she wants them to have a job before they graduate. She knows they have invested a lot of time and a great deal of money in getting their law degree.
And, she said, “Only so many of these kids can live in my spare bedroom.”
Many parents help their kids significantly with expenses to obtain their undergraduate degree. But only the wealthiest of families can afford to pay $55,000 to $60,000 for law school.
“So, most law students are borrowing that money,” Whittington said. “If they graduate and don’t get a job, they have no way to repay the money. Even if they get a job, they will probably live with the debt burden for 10 years or longer. If they are married and have children, you have some frantic people. I just want them to get that first job.”
As expensive as it is at UM, it is still a bargain. At some law schools, tuition alone is $25,000 per year.
Best foot forward
One issue is that a lot of people who are hiring want attorneys with two to three years of experience, cutting into the number of entry-level lawyers being hired. But Whittington said their graduates are being creative about putting their best foot forward when applying for jobs.
“One of the things I tell them is to find something they are passionate about,” Whittington said. “We want them to have a job they absolutely love, or at least 85% of the time. If you going to practice 40 to 50 years, you have to want to get up in the morning and go to work. It takes a lot of them a while to find what they really want to do. But with the job market like it is, we encourage them to take whatever job they find to begin with.”
At the other law school in the state, the Mississippi College (MC) School of Law in Jackson, graduates have an advantage from having lived — and hopefully worked as an intern — in the state’s capital where there is an abundant need for government and private practice attorneys.
Heather Carson, who will obtain her law degree from MC this year, has landed a job with a large defense firm in Jackson, Forman Perry Watkins Krutz and Tardy, LLP. Carson came from Fort Myers, Fla., to attend MC.
“Jackson has a great community atmosphere, but the quality of work and the firms here are amazing,” Carson said. “The quality of education is like no other. I like small class sizes, and believe it has been a great advantage for me. You have lawyers and judges well known throughout the community who teach here. The quality of education is excellent. I’m glad I came here, and I’m excited to begin my career.”
Earlier opportunities to do internships gave Carson a leg up getting a job.
“We think our location in Jackson is especially important to our graduates,” said Jim Rosenblatt, dean of the MC School of Law. “They get to know the legal community here in Jackson during their three years of law school. Many work for Jackson firms or state government offices during their time in law school. They are known, have a track record, and have a reputation when it comes time to make the hiring decisions. They come here for a reason, and that is to establish relationships. Many of our out-of-state students end up staying in Mississippi, and specifically in Jackson.”
High placement rates
Although the job market this year is tight, both law schools in Mississippi traditionally have 98% of graduates placed in a job by six months after graduation.
Debbie Foley, director of placement and career services for the MC School of Law, said this year approximately 50% of their third-year students have been placed in jobs before graduation, and by the time graduation occurs, she expects that number to be between 60% to 70%.
“Being a school located in downtown Jackson, our students have an advantage the minute they walk through the door being surrounding by opportunities,” Foley said. “By the time they graduate, their practical experiences, in addition to the classroom work, are phenomenal. That says a lot for the school. They are well prepared.”
Dean Rosenblatt said a lot of graduates will wait to apply for jobs until after they pass the bar. Some firms prefer to make sure that a potential new employee has been admitted to practice before offering them a position. Typically between 84% and 100% of students taking the bar pass the examination on their first attempt.
Rosenblatt said that most of their graduates don’t have a specialty area in mind and aren’t hired in a specialty area. Also, it is common for graduates to have their mind set on one type of practice. But after working a while, they end up practicing in an area they didn’t even consider when they left law school.
“We like to think we are a foundational law school, giving graduates great grounding in areas of law that will allow them to do anything in practice,” Rosenblatt said. “They are trained in methodology and legal reasoning skills. The mark of a good lawyer is being able to take on any type of practice and become efficient at it. If they are interested in specialty areas such as intellectual property and taxation, often the students will go on to get a master of law, LLM. You almost need the additional degree and period of concentrated study to work in those areas.”
The state’s budget crisis due to the Legislature’s failure to adopt a budget is hurting the hiring process. For example, the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office has 125 attorneys. But the AG’s office hasn’t been able to make offers as it would traditionally at this time of year because of the budget impasse.
“I’m confident that when the budget comes in, a good number of our students will end up at the AG office of Mississippi,” Rosenblatt said. “We work closely with Attorney General Jim Hood with the adoption project where our students help do the legal work for families adopting children. That type of experience that our students get during the school year makes them known to the legal community, and also more experienced. When they enter a law firm, they aren’t asking for directions to the courthouse. They have already been there.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.