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For Harvard Law School students, navigating the tough job market this year is a bit like a typical plane ride—there may be some turbulence, but no crash landing— at least, according to Assistant Dean of Career Services Mark A. Weber.
“There has been a lot of uncertainty and unknowns,” Weber says. “But the outcome has not been nearly as bad as everyone thought it would be, and that’s a good thing.”
The economy’s woes in the past two years have trickled down to the nation’s top law firms, which have had to significantly reduce the number of entry-level hires. The changed legal job market—complete with job deferrals, offer rescindments, and reduced salaries—has upped the anxiety level among Law School students, many of whom had anticipated multiple offers and relative job security upon graduation.
Though the worst of the job market troubles may have passed, students and faculty alike remain cautious in their outlook on job prospects—Law School professor John C.P. Goldberg forecasts this year and next year as being “particularly tough.”
“Some 2Ls still do not have jobs for the summer, or just got news of that they have been deferred, which is causing a lot of stress,” second year Law School student Jason C. Murray says. “I think students are still pretty nervous.”
But the apprehension about jobs is largely unfounded, according to the Law School’s Office of Career Services, which estimates that between 92 to 95 percent of students seeking employment will have a job lined up by graduation.
This rate is consistent with the data for employment at graduation for the past 20 years. And the OCS says it predicts an even better job market next fall.
But the unease and uncertainty left in the wake of the financial downturn in the fall of 2008 have shifted students’ career focus and expectations, ushering in many small changes in the resources and hiring process that the OCS organizes.
CASTING A WIDER NET
In light of uncertain job prospects, students looking for employment in the private sector have been forced to expand the geographic scope of their job search.
Students who originally only considered firms in Washington, D.C. or New York have had to look at other cities across the country, Law School professor Mark V. Tushnet said.
“There used to be a sense of entitlement among students that they could work wherever they wanted to,” Murray says.
But in a post-recession world, students are returning to their home cities or are looking at smaller firms.
The OCS has also been pushing students to be more open-minded and realistic about their prospects.
According to Weber, the OCS has begun to focus its efforts on cities that have not typically been “core markets”—Denver, Seattle, and Minneapolis for example.
Along with other factors, the recession has also driven more students to seek out opportunities overseas than ever before, said HLS Professor David B. Wilkins.
“If you go to China, you don’t feel like there’s a recession,” he said. “There’s something of a paradigm shift going on here and it’s tied to the shift in the global economy.”
Wilkins estimates that in the last 10 years, student interest in working abroad after graduation increased from 5 percent to about 25 percent—which he attributes to students’ more advanced language skills and prior experiences abroad.
But for some students with families or other considerations, the decision to uproot is not to be taken lightly, and they may face additional obstacles in securing a position.
“If you have mobility, then it is a lot easier to find a job,” Goldberg said.
The economic downturn and its effects on the legal hiring market have prompted students to reflect on their career interests and priorities. With no guarantee of a position at a big law firm, students have become more likely to enter public service directly after graduation.
Law School Student Government President Brian T. Aune says that the tougher legal job market was “an impetus” for him to take a job in the public sector the summer after his second year.
This summer position ultimately led him to decide to work in public service after graduation.
Jackson says he believes that the increase in students looking at government jobs—at the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency—might also reflect enthusiasm for the Obama administration.
But other students say their friends have viewed public sector jobs as a backup plan—for instance, if they failed to receive offers from desirable firms or if their start dates were deferred due to budgeting constraints.
Courtship applications are up this year, and Aune says he thinks it might be due to deferrals, since “people need something to do for a year.”
Third year Law School student Sarah E. Sorscher says she felt “very lucky” to land her clerkship next year.
Sorcher says that though her fiancé has credentials that would ordinarily make him a very competitive candidate, he had difficulty getting a clerkship, and ultimately settled for one that was not in his area of interest.
Weber notes that all jobs in the public sector are just as difficult to get in the current market.
“It is dangerous to look at [public service] as a fallback,” Weber says. “Sometimes it is even harder to get a job in the public sector because there are so many cutbacks in federal, state, and local budgets.”
Students who do choose to take positions in private firms are more conscious of their financial statuses, according to first year Law School student Sarah E. Davis.
“Students are looking more carefully at the firms’ structure to see how they will last through the economic crisis,” Davis said. “There is more awareness of firms’ relationship to the economy.”
Finding careers during a tough economic period has taught students not to simply take “the path of least resistance,” Jackson says.
In past years, students tend to focus on certain markets because that is “what everyone else is doing,” Weber says.
Now that the job search requires more effort, though, students spent more time mulling over their actual interests.
“The silver lining,” Davis says, “is that more people will be forced to use their skills to do something meaningful and beneficial for the world.”
And ultimately, students will be happier, Dein says.
“If you can’t do what makes you money, then you have to do what you enjoy!” she says.
FINE-TUNING THE PROCESS
Law firms’ responses to the economic downturn have spurred adjustments at the OCS, which saw the need to respond to the difficulties students faced in the 2008-2009 hiring cycle.
For the first time, the OCS launched an Early Interview Program, in which applicants for full-time positions interview in August along with roughly 75 percent of law schools across the country, rather than in late September after other schools finish the recruiting process.
Stanford and Yale have also recently moved to an earlier interview schedule.
Though the new schedule requires students to return to campus early, Weber says he believes that most students appreciated finishing their interviews before classes began.
In the past, other schools’ interview schedules were not a serious concern, Weber says.
But in a more difficult economy, firms have trouble predicting their needs and subsequently hire only students they interviewed earlier in the fall.
“A lot of these firms meant to hold spaces for our students,” Weber says. “But by the time our students interviewed, the slots had been filled.”
According to Wilkins, the recession has also pushed firms to move away from the “lock-step” model of promoting associates on a regular schedule, requiring instead that they demonstrate “competency.”
This could also disrupt the normal hiring process for new recruits, Wilkins says, since entry-level positions may not open up with the same regularity.
The OCS has aggressively launched new initiatives and created new resources for struggling students, Weber says.
In an effort to increase the number of avenues students have to find jobs, the OCS has begun utilizing technology to connect students to opportunities.
The OCS records weekly podcasts with a unique focus each week, created a virtual map of the United States with firms scattered across the country, and uses Twitter to post job leads and opportunities in real time for students still on the market.
“We’re leveraging technology to assist our students as best we can. It’s a new generation,” Weber says.
According to Weber, the OCS has begun to reach out directly to Law School alumni at the firms, sending books of students’ resumes to firms to assist second and third year students who are still on the job market.
Last summer, the OCS started a mock interview program to prepare students for the job search process.
The OCS also expanded its spring recruiting session.
Though in the past the spring session was predominantly aimed at first year students, in the past two years, second and third year students have also begun to take advantage of the new program.
“We knew the market would be challenging, and we wanted to make sure students were putting their best foot forward,” Weber says.
Though some students have struggled to find jobs, they say they are aware that Harvard students have been insulated from the worst of the economic turmoil.
“We are lucky enough to be at this school—people will want Harvard lawyers even during bad times,” Dein says.
—Staff writer Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at email@example.com.
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