How To Navigate The Legal Job Market

BY RYAN BYRNES

You may have heard that it’s tough out there for law school graduates.

Here in New Jersey, only about 60 percent of 2011 graduates of the state’s three law schools found full-time, legal employment within nine months of graduation. Meanwhile, about one-fifth of each of the classes remained under-employed through the same time period. The 2012 class data, which should be released in mid-March, doesn’t figure to vary much. And, comparatively, New Jersey is in better shape than many other states.

Traditional methods of finding post-graduate employment are changing. For example, fewer than four percent of Seton Hall Law’s class of 2011 reported on-campus interviews as the source of their eventual job. More than ever, the path to one’s first professional opportunity is one that must be proactively paved by the individual.

Luckily, we live in an era that makes that arduous task slightly more manageable. Though legal positions are scarce, there has never been a better time to break into professional networks and build relationships capable of yielding dividends in both the short- and long-term. As a recent law graduate, here are three keys I kept in mind as I navigated the legal job market.

The first is connectivity. Expand your web of contacts as wide as possible. Your alumni network – whether undergraduate or law school – is more than willing to help, but think a little more outside the box. I spoke with professors and family friends, but also attorneys I had caddied for and fraternity brothers 20 years my elder. The Internet allows these contacts to be just a few clicks away, but you must take the initiative to connect.

The second is consistency. Lawyers are busy people. The resume they were happy you passed along will soon be pushed aside for more pressing business. Stay on their radar with brief follow-up messages or offers to meet for coffee. Their schedule is busy, but if you show a respectful willingness to work around it, most will find the time to speak with you.

The most important key is confidence. Stop taking rejection personally. Build off of your strengths. Translate your experience into a form that will impress potential employers. Establish a professional presence on LinkedIn or Twitter. Blog about legal trends. Be active in your local bar association. Make it easy for others to see that you have something valuable to offer. If you don’t believe that you do, there’s no reason to think anyone else will either.

Luck will likely play a role in your eventual job, but these tips should diminish your reliance on chance and place your fate more directly in your own hands.

DoJ vs. Beer-Price Inflation

BY BRIAN RUDDOCK

The U.S. Department of Justice yesterday announced plans to sue AB-InBev to prevent its planned merger with Group Modelo SAB. (The former counts Budweiser and Stella Artois as two of its marquee brands, while the latter features Corona and Modelo.) According to a Wall Street Journal report, DoJ’s main objection to the merger is that it would likely lead to price increases for many of the most popular-selling US beers:

U.S. authorities said they want to prevent any overcharging by the global giants that dominate mass-market brews…The Justice Department’s 27-page lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., federal court, portrayed Modelo as an important competitor that puts pressure on AB InBev to maintain lower prices…

The article goes on to cite federal sources claiming to have access to internal InBev memos, which allegedly show that the company both acknowledged and was frustrated by downward price pressure from Modelo. When InBev raised prices on staples like Bud Light, Miller-Coors would follow suit with its core offerings, but Modelo would keep prices flat.

Full disclosure: I am a craft beer fanatic, and like most people, don’t like paying more for stuff I enjoy. Let’s assume the DoJ is correct, and that beer prices would rise as a result of this merger. I still find myself struggling to understand why the maintenance of low beer prices constitutes a compelling government interest.

brownsbeer

Many previous antitrust cases may have been frivolous and unnecessary, but they were at least rooted in reasonable, if overblown, concerns. The FTC went after Google for dominating a very important arena: web search results, which are a huge driver of e-commerce. DoJ successfully blocked AT&T from merging with T-Mobile because of fears over what would happen to the mobile communications marketplace, which serves as a lifeline for hundreds of millions of Americans.

While one does not “need” e-commerce or affordable access to mobile bandwidth, they are staples of life for the majority of citizens, and are largely responsible for conferring what we’d think of as a modern way of life. I may have disagreed with the government in both instances, but at least agreed that we were talking about very important markets.

Beer? Sure, we might drink a lot of it, but it is the definition of a discretionary good. The avoidance of its consumption most likely confers significant health benefits. To that end, the same government suing a private company to keep beer prices down also spends millions of dollars on advertisements encouraging people to consume less beer. (If there’s a better example of government logic, I’m at a loss to think of it.)

Precedence and antitrust legal theory may favor the DoJ here. I’m ill-equipped to opine one way or the other. What I can say with some certainty, however, is that I do not need the government’s help in subsidizing my own bad decisions. That’s what I have friends for.

A New Golden Age For Law Students?

BY RYAN BYRNES

The number of individuals sitting for the LSAT has dropped consistently for two years. Enrollment at law schools for fall 2012 is nine percent less than it was one year ago and 16 percent lower than it was in fall 2010. Tuitions remain at all-time highs while post-graduate employment demand remains stagnant-at-best.

Empirical evidence suggests that, in today’s economy, law school is not a prudent investment of one’s time and money. But for those most qualified to enter the legal profession, there’s no better time to cash in on the opportunity to be a law student.

According to a Kaplan study released two weeks ago, more than half of the ABA-accredited schools surveyed said they reduced the size of their 2012 entering class. Further, nearly 80 percent of those schools indicated that they will have smaller 1L classes by the fall of 2013 than they did last year.

Though there will be fewer seats left vacant for prospective students, those who ultimately receive one may have an easier time paying for the privilege to sit there. In fact, 47 percent of schools said they increased the amount of financial aid available to students for the 2012-2013 school year. Additionally, 41 percent said they were able to maintain their 2011-2012 levels of aid.

Of course, being admitted into law school is only one part of the transaction. While schools do not necessarily have a duty to help students pay for their education, institutions should feel a responsibility to make the law school experience worth the hefty price tag it carries. As students continue to have difficulty securing post-graduate legal employment, this responsibility has only received greater scrutiny.

After decades of course loads stocked with six semester’s worth of lectures, fact patterns and the Socratic method, schools have recently realized that their curriculum must adjust with the times in order to even begin to justify the cost of tuition. The Kaplan study revealed that 68 percent of schools have revamped their curriculum to make their students more “practice ready.” An additional five percent plan to implement such changes, while another nine percent said they are considering doing so.

These changes include providing students with more opportunities to partake in practical programs, such as clinics. Schools have also taken steps to allow students to specialize in a specific area of law, perhaps enabling them to develop a competitive edge over their eventual competition in the job market.

While the effectiveness of such programs and the impact they have on the value of graduates in the eyes of employers remain to be seen, the widespread adjustments reflected in the survey suggest schools are finally taking some steps toward change prospective students can believe in.

“Our survey shows that law schools are taking much-needed action to better prepare new lawyers for the changing job landscape, while at the same time accepting fewer students, as they know jobs will not be easy to come by,” said Jeff Thomas, director of pre-law programs at Kaplan. The survey drew its data from phone interviews with admissions officers from 123 of the nation’s 202 ABA-accredited law schools. The information was collected between August and September 2012.

So while law schools across the country continue to buckle their belts by reducing the size of 1L classes and, in turn, churning out fewer graduates, the opportunity for those qualified enough for admission is perhaps greater than ever. Fewer admissions slots will allow schools to maintain – or even increase – their selectivity, breeding very competitive first-year classes. Those students will often be applying for financial aid that is at least equal to – if not greater – than the amount available to larger numbers of students in earlier years. In turn, 1L classes may be smaller and more intimate than what has become customary in overwhelmingly large lecture halls. During 2L and 3L years, students are less likely to be stuck passing time behind their laptops and more likely to be engaged in a clinical program or a practicum course more aligned with their post-graduate interests.

The legal job market continues to struggle. In June, a NALP survey revealed that employment rates for the class of 2011 were the worst in 18 years. Last year, as other sectors trickle back to respectability, the legal services market – along with other “white collar” fields like finance and insurance – continued to shed jobs. The law market has shown few signs of improvement, though – as one law school dean wrote in a recent editorial – the outlook tends to be distorted by an overemphasis on “first jobs” rather than the opportunities a legal education presents over the span of a career.

It is important to remember that law schools can only do so much to improve the larger economic climate, and the schools are primarily a business. Universities generally consider law schools for-profit institutions, and students who believe they are suited to enter the legal market should incur some cost in order to take that chance. But in the long-term, the changes schools are making should improve the current situation to the extent possible: reducing the seats available so that only the most qualified applicants are granted admission, and updating the in-school requirements to best reflect the industry’s post-school expectations.

Unsurprisingly, not every school is on-board with the downsizing. In June, an associate dean of Cooley Law School told the Wall Street Journal that the school’s “mission is inclusiveness” and that the institution wasn’t “interested in reducing the size of its entering class on the basis of the perceived benefit to society.” In perhaps related news, the same school’s dean recently questioned whether his institution’s 2012 Michigan bar passage rate of 51 percent was “for real.”

But the Kaplan survey suggests that most schools are getting the message. The legal job market is changing with the times, and the education preparing individuals for that market is finally showing signs of changing along with it. It may be late, but it is better than never. For the average person, it is probably true that law school is not a wise use of time and money. But for the right person, there’s no better time to apply than now.

Within Law School Industry, The Quest For Clarity Continues

BY RYAN BYRNES

From student gripes on Internet forums to official orders from judicial benches, the calls for greater transparency regarding post-law school employment data continue to grow louder. And, slowly but surely, law schools themselves have begun to oblige.

As reports of smaller hiring classes and lower average salaries circulate the industry, this generation of law school graduates appears that it will actually have one characteristic that will positively impact the law school application process in the future. A perfect storm of an epic recession, an already saturated legal job market and just enough disappointed graduates set on blaming the system instead of themselves has left in its wake a new era of expectations, one where clarity is king and anything short of that is regarded as potentially deceptive.

One example of the new era is the organization Law School Transparency, a non-profit company started by a pair of recent graduates of Vanderbilt University Law School. What started in the fall of 2010 as a mission to gather more useful employment data from ABA-approved law schools has evolved into a system of reports that specifically details what schools are sharing what information on their websites about their graduates’ employment status. In January, LST published an index based on 19 categories of employment-related data, including specifics on full-time vs. part-time employment and salary data that reflects graduated classes in the aggregate.

In the March issue of the National Jurist, the magazine translated the LST index into a grading system and provided a list ranking the transparency of 197 law school websites. Seton Hall University School of Law received an A, ranking it among the top 15 schools listed. The grading was even more impressive when compared to those assigned to the law schools of Seton Hall’s regional rivals (though St. John’s and Temple each received an A+). Villanova received a B-, New York University got a C- and New York Law School and Pace each received a D+. More glaringly, Brooklyn, Cardozo, Columbia, Fordham, Hofstra and both Rutgers campuses received failing grades.

That last group is hardly alone – the National Jurist grading system was harsher than the curve in any law school course. Forty-one percent of schools on the list were assigned failing grades, with an additional 15 percent getting a D. The fact that such a staggering number of schools received such low grades speaks less to the flaws of any one particular institution and more to the glaring gap between what the purveyors of transparency see as ideal and what schools have accepted as commonplace. But some school officials just don’t see why that gap has grown so wide.

“There’s no reason law schools can’t be posting the information they’ve always been gathering on their website,” Beth Kransberger, associate dean for student affairs at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, told the National Jurist.  “You have to feel good enough about the integrity of your law school and the legal education you’re providing [so] that there’s no reason to shy away from transparency.”

The grades assigned by National Jurist don’t carry anywhere near as much weight as more traditional law school rankings, such as the annual list released by U.S. News and World Report last week. But the coverage is representative of the increased scrutiny that law schools have found themselves under as recent graduates find that their early careers (or lack thereof) are not what they expected them to be. Though signs of an economic downturn were evident as early as late 2007, many students claim their decision to enter their respective law schools were a result of misleading or deceptive data about what careers they could expect after graduating. At least 14 law schools have or are facing lawsuits from former students, with claims centering around this central gripe.

The first of those suits, filed in August by a group of recent graduates of New York Law School, was dismissed on Wednesday by the New York Supreme Court for New York County. The court’s holding was significant, noting that “the issues posed by this case exemplify the adage that not every ailment afflicting society may be redressed by a lawsuit.” (The dismissal was essentially based on three grounds: that the school’s marketing materials were not misleading to a reasonable consumer acting reasonably; that the plaintiffs could not have reasonably relied on the school’s alleged misrepresentations, given ample information available from other sources; and that the plaintiffs’ theory of damages that was too speculative.) But in addition to the legal aspect of the dismissal, the case was notable for the op-ed-like conclusion to the court’s decision, which seems to be a call for correction from all within the legal world.

“If lawsuits such as this have done nothing else, they have served to focus the attention of all constituents on this current problem facing the legal profession,” wrote Judge Melvin L. Schweitzer. “All must take a long, hard look at the current situation with the utmost seriousness of purpose.

“To the extent law schools are turning out too many graduates for the positions available, market forces will begin to correct themselves,” he wrote (a trend that already appears to be occurring). “But that does not itself excuse our collective responsibility to those who have been unfortunate enough to have been caught in the midst of the maelstrom. To them we owe our best efforts to get them situated.”

Unlike this decision, a similar suit brought against Thomas Jefferson School of Law survived a motion to dismiss in a California court. But in a way, the New York Law School decision presents of blueprint of how the issue is likely to be resolved. On one hand, courts are unlikely to bail out students for failing to read the writing that was on the wall before or during their law school experience. However, it also appears that courts hope to bring about some change by wagging their fingers at schools themselves, even if their pats on the backs on plaintiffs are not as encouraging.

The judiciary does not appear to be alone in bringing the pressure. Sens. Charles Grassley (R-IO) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) have written to the ABA about the issue, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) has called for the Department of Education to investigate law schools.

But before the legislature can even begin to intervene, law schools have already showed signs of change. Many schools quickly responded to LST’s index when it was published this winter, according to the National Jurist (noting the University of Colorado School of Law as one school that quickly updated its site to include detailed graphs and charts).

As a Seton Hall Law enrollment official said last month, the law school cycle is going to reward the schools that play by the rules. Even before the courts and Congress can intervene, it appears an increasing number of schools are beginning to realize that just might be the case.

Patently Offensive: Yahoo Sues Facebook

BY RYAN BYRNES

Back in the summer of 2004, Google was preparing to go public when, somewhat surprisingly, it was sued by fellow Internet giant Yahoo for patent infringement.

Now, with Facebook gearing up for its own IPO, it appears Yahoo is employing a similar tactic.

Yesterday, Yahoo sued Facebook for patent infringement in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. The patents in question allege that Yahoo has patent protection over many seemingly common features of web design and social networking – including news feeds and personalized advertising – and that Facebook has wrongfully prospered by using Yahoo’s patented technology without permission.

The complaint specifically cites 10 Yahoo patents in question: four advertising patents, two privacy patents, two customization patents, a social networking patent and a messaging patent. Yahoo claims that much of Facebook’s growth since its 2004 launch has been a result of the use of these patents. It essentially states that all relevant aspects of the social network’s functionality is based on technology protected by Yahoo’s patents, including everything from its advertising model to its privacy policies.

“Facebook therefore owes much of its popularity with Internet users to its unauthorized infringement of Yahoo’s patents,” the complaint states.

Yahoo’s prayer for relief is nothing short of steep – it requests (in addition to damages) an immediate and permanent injunction, which would mean Facebook would be legally barred from using the technology in question.

According to the complaint, Yahoo notified Facebook of its infringing behavior on Feb. 27, when the two companies discussed the issue. But the issue remained unresolved, and the two are now on the litigation path, much to the chagrin of Facebook.

“We’re disappointed that Yahoo, a longtime business partner of Facebook and a company that has substantially benefited from its association with Facebook, has decided to resort to litigation,” a company spokesman said.

While such a move might be common for “patent trolls,” it’s relatively rare for a company as large and prestigious as Yahoo. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson suggests that Yahoo has broken an unspoken agreement among web companies by suing Facebook over its patent portfolio. “I don’t think there’s a unique idea out there in the web space and hasn’t been for well over a decade,” Wilson said. “Pretty much everything useful is based on prior art going back before the commercial web existed.”

There is a sense within the industry that the suits are an example of Yahoo – whose growth has been stagnant – attempting to squeeze any revenue it can out of its patents and licensing deals. Facebook is particularly susceptible given its impending IPO.

The strength of Yahoo’s claims will hinge on how strictly a court interprets Yahoo’s patents. If a judge construes them broadly, then Facebook is unlikely to be the only website found to be infringing, since the technology that Yahoo alleges it owns is so commonly used on the web.

That’s assuming the matter ever gets to a judge. When Yahoo sued Google in 2004, the two sides reached a settlement. Yahoo ended up with 2.7 million shares of Google, and Yahoo agreed to license Google the rights to use some of the disputed patents.

Law School Market Corrects Itself

BY RYAN BYRNES

The following article will appear in the March edition of “The Cross Examiner.” 

As we approach mid-March and applications continue to arrive at law school admission departments around the country, one message appears to be increasingly apparent to those deciding whether a legal education is a sound investment:

Buyer beware.

The total number of individuals applying to American Bar Association-approved schools dropped 16.7 percent from a year ago, according to a recent report by the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). The data indicated that, as of Jan. 13, applications to law schools had experienced an overall decline of 15.3 percent from the level they had been at that point a year earlier.

The information in the report was obtained from a password-protected LSAC report and was later confirmed to the ABA Journal by LSAC’s communications department.

The decrease in applications is considered by most an indication that the law school market is correcting itself as it continues to respond to the effects of an economic recession, rising tuition costs and a well-publicized tumultuous legal job market. Seton Hall Law is not impervious to the development, and the school’s admissions department and administration said it is adjusting accordingly to keep pace with a trend that seems to be affecting the law school industry as a whole.

“This is a national trend,” said Gisele Joachim, the dean of enrollment management. “The vast majority of schools are showing a decline in their application pools.”

The dip in applications is not exactly new, even if it has only recently begun to receive publicity. Joachim said the decline actually started when the number of students taking the LSAT declined, beginning with the October 2010 sitting of the entrance exam and continuing at every seating since. The drop-off caught many law schools off-guard, but Joachim said that Seton Hall is prepared for what is likely to be a second consecutive year of fewer applicants.

“What is important is how our law school is both reactive and proactive,” she said. “Change is coming, so the question is: What are we going to do about it?”

One thing Joachim said Seton Hall aims to do is hold onto the quality of the students it admits. Though she acknowledged that restructuring or other adjustments could mean fiscal changes will be necessary, she indicated that those alternatives are more preferable than increasing class sizes by opening the door of admissions to more students.

Despite the sudden drop in applicants last year, Seton Hall stayed close to its median statistics. Joachim said the average LSAC score of those comprising the class of 2014 remained at 159 and the average undergraduate G.P.A. actually rose from 3.43 to 3.5

Though this year’s application picture remains hazy (as of Feb. 28, Joachim said data from the February 2012 sitting was still not available, data that is key to admissions departments projecting what their applicant pool will look like), it is likely that this year’s number of applicants will indicate that more fringe, would-be students are deciding that law school might not be the best decision for them. During tough economic times, graduate programs generally – and law schools specifically – see a boost in applications. Joachim said that had been the case at Seton Hall and other schools for about four years prior to this decline.

But as a result of the economy remaining stagnant for so long, the bubble of applications has burst. Students have incurred more debt while paying their undergraduate tuition. Media coverage of the struggles law school graduates have had finding employment and the unethical practices of some law schools when submitting their admissions and employment data has likely deterred some from choosing law as a career path.

“Many applicants are saying, ‘Hold on – this isn’t what I should be doing,’” Joachim said.

But tracking the number of students applying is only one part of the picture. Joachim indicated the admissions department is particularly focused on getting those students who have been accepted to actually enroll at the school. This is referred to as “yield” or “conversion” and Joachim said there are a few ways Seton Hall plans to convince those admitted to attend.

The first method is by taking a strong stand against the type of behavior that has gotten several other schools into trouble and not being “loose with its numbers,” she said. Seton Hall plans to be transparent by allowing admitted applicants to access a website that includes the employment data of former students and related information. Joachim said the school also conduct a voluntary audit of its admissions numbers and has a mission to remain open and accessible to those who seek the information.

The school will also be increasing personal contact with admitted students, particularly during the decision-making process. This includes having faculty members and current students reach out to those admitted and being available for any questions or concerns they might have.

Seton Hall’s priority deadline for applications is April 1, so Joachim said it is still too early to know the exact state of this decline or the degree to which it might be continuing. But she also said that the dip in applications, and the proper responses to it, could ultimately be a benefit for both students and the law school.

“Even with an application decline, we can still come forward with a strong class in terms of quality and quantity,” she said. “In the long-term, the trend of law school admissions is going to reward the schools that play by the rules.”