Leading in the New Landscape: Three Keys for Employment Success

Law students always have been concerned with how and where they will find their first job after law school, but over the past four years these concerns have grown increasingly acute.

Law students always have been concerned with how and where they will find their first job after law school, but over the past four years these concerns have grown increasingly acute. The mainstream media has joined a rising number of bloggers in chronicling the challenges in the legal job market. The market for traditional legal jobs has become increasingly fierce. There is no doubt that our profession is changing, and most people believe that those changes are likely to be permanent.

Concerns about employment were not quite as common when the University of St. Thomas School of Law opened its doors in 2001. According to the National Association for Legal Placement (NALP), 2001 was the first year the profession reported declining employment rates for new law graduates since 1993. In the decade that followed, law firms saw continued erosion in their profits, culminating in 2008 when Lehman Brothers crumbled, the national economy collapsed, and layoffs spilled experienced lawyers back into the market.

Despite the layoffs and reduced hiring at major law firms, most pundits viewed the times as a transition period. Now in 2013, however, it is clear that permanent changes have occurred in the legal landscape. Employers are hiring fewer lawyers at lower starting-salaries. These changes, coupled with the increasing cost of legal education, complicate the value equation for a law degree. Law schools nationwide must rethink how they prepare their students for success while ensuring that those same students consider law school to have been a worthwhile investment.

The University of St. Thomas School of Law has chosen an innovative, comprehensive approach, inspired by its unique mission and grounded in the total student experience, including upgrades to the curriculum. The School of Law has focused its response to the new legal marketplace on the three key components of long-term professional success: professional formation, skill competency and excellence in relationship skills. Cutting-edge research at the School of Law unveils that these three components lead to professional success. By training students for long-term career success, the School of Law serves students in a deeper, more meaningful way and helps them be more attractive to employers as they search for their first jobs after law school.

Professional Formation

Rob Vischer, newly appointed dean of the School of Law, points out that students are supported in their career development in many ways during law school, but what happens in the classroom continues to be the most central piece. “Students have to be both technically competent and they have to learn how to think like a legal professional. I believe we do an excellent job of preparing them in both of those ways.”

Support provided to students does not stop at mere technical competency, however. Professional formation continues to be a central focus for the School of Law and an area in which Neil Hamilton has focused his efforts for more than a decade. Most recently, he and Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership Fellow Verna Monson have been working on research projects that compare the skills and attributes that legal employers tell the school they are seeking with specific, measurable outcomes that students are experiencing in their own professional formation.

“One of our major goals as a community is to help each student’s professional formation to internalize a deep responsibility for others and for self,” Hamilton observed. “A student who is internalizing a deep sense of responsibility for others and for self is going to have higher probabilities of securing employment.”

There is empirical evidence that the School of Law’s approach is working. As Professor Jerry Organ and Fellow Verna Monson analyzed the data from the Law School Survey on Student Engagement (LSSSE), which students took last spring, they saw that the overall experience at the School of Law is getting strong reviews from the students themselves. The LSSSE is an 89-question annual survey that seeks to reframe the discussion surrounding the quality of law schools. According to Organ, the data from the student survey indicates students are more than satisfied with the quality of academic, personal, social and career support available at the School of Law. Furthermore, students indicated a greater degree of self-understanding and a stronger professional ethical identity than their peers at other law schools. Students also demonstrated a stronger commitment to community service than peers at other schools.

Kendra Brodin, director of Career and Professional Development, hears about the outcomes of the professional formation coursework when she talks with employers and students. “Our students are uniquely prepared because of the work they are doing on professional formation,” she said. Brodin credits the faith and social justice aspects of the mission that encourage students to use their law school experience to engage in challenging, sensitive conversations and to tackle tough issues in professional ways: “The fact that these discussions are modeled in the classroom and then encouraged outside gives our students a great maturity when they go into a job and have to provide tough advice to a client or discuss conflicting ideas with a peer.”

Over the past two years, the Office of Career and Professional Development (CPD) has built upon the formation work being done throughout the School of Law. Beginning with new student orientation, and then continuing throughout the school year, Hamilton and other faculty have been reinforcing the need to begin planning professional development, and employment contacts, right from the start of law school. First-year students undergo mandatory CPD training in which they are introduced to a roadmap from the beginning of law school to the beginning of their careers.

The plan is customizable to reflect the students’ wide variety of professional aspirations. A key focus of the plan is helping students understand how the professional formation they experience during law school ties to the skills and attributes employers are seeking from their new hires, and ultimately clients are seeking from their attorneys. CPD offers a series of ongoing programs that help students connect their formative law school experience to their future professional success.

The Mentor Externship Program also plays a role in professional formation and contributes to and supports an individualized, differentiated employment story for each student. Not only does each student work with a mentor in the law field, each student also is assigned to a faculty mentor. The faculty mentor evaluates the professional development plan in concert with the identified experiences and skill development activities that the student and mentor participate in together. The faculty mentors contribute to the conversation, sharing insights, suggestions and contact tips on how to bridge to meaningful employment. The 20 faculty mentors who participate in the program are diverse in their backgrounds, work activities and experiences. Faculty mentors are quick to share individual networks to help advance the professional goals of the student and to broaden the scope of contacts and understanding of the hiring patterns in the profession. The new focus on an individualized approach helps each student attain personal and professional satisfaction by developing the qualities of excellence, social responsibility and ethical integrity.

The newly revised Mentor Externship curriculum allows students to strengthen technical skills through a field-placement and develop the habits necessary for professional growth through individual reflection, personal dialogue with faculty and other mentors, moral development and vocational discernment.

Additionally, Brodin and Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Dave Bateson have spent a significant amount of time in the last two years meeting with a wide range of employers, including the state’s largest law firms, small firms, government employers, nonprofits, judges and corporations. During those meetings, Brodin and Bateson have had the opportunity to learn what each employer is seeking in its new attorneys while also sharing with employers the unique aspects of the School of Law curriculum. For Brodin, these meetings generate optimism about the future of the School of Law: “As employers hear about how we are approaching legal education, the classes we have, our Mentor Externship, our overall approach to producing well-rounded and solidly grounded graduates, they are excited. What we are doing here seems to match up so well with what employers are seeking. While we will continue to improve as a school, the feedback indicates that we are very much on the right track.”

Skill Competency

Great lawyers not only have strong professional formation, but they also bring a diverse portfolio of competencies to the table. Employers who used to help their new employees sharpen their technical skills now look for new hires already proficient in certain skills.

Brodin noted that firms are focused on finding “practice-ready” lawyers, and their hiring practices reflect that. “We are seeing more lateral hires or firms looking at associates with more professional experience,” she said. This change has increased the pressure on new graduates to hone their technical skills in law school. The positive side of this pressure has been that although it may have taken longer for a new attorney to get the job they wanted right out of law school, they are finding new and greater opportunities after three to five years of practice.

Because of the philosophies on which the School of Law was founded, Dean Vischer feels confident that St. Thomas is focused on the skills that will help students both get jobs and become valuable members of the legal community.

“For some time there has been a call for a greater connection between the classroom and the practice. This isn’t only happening in law; it really is affecting all of higher education,” Vischer explained. He further suggested that this nexus between the law school experience and the professional experience always has been important, but law schools that thrive in the future will be those that can demonstrate they have done the best job of preparing their students and alumni for the “real world” of legal practice and employment. The School of Law has been strengthening and growing opportunities for this kind of preparation since its inception. In some areas, the School of Law is already a national leader, and students, alumni and employers are noticing.

Particularly in the past three years as the job market has tightened, many schools have adopted a new focus on practical skills-based courses and clinical education, which are areas on which the School of Law has focused since it opened its doors.

“Just the other day I was on the phone with a faculty member at a school on the West Coast who wants to figure out how to build what we have,” Director of Clinical Education Virgil Wiebe commented. He explained that the Interprofessional Center (which includes students not only in law but also in psychology and social work) is a model of cross-disciplinary education that many law schools would like to follow.

The Interprofessional Center recently moved into a new facility remodeled to meet its particular needs and to accommodate a growing list of clinics, clients and students. In the past two years, clinical education offerings have expanded to include the Appellate Clinic, Bankruptcy Litigation Clinic, Consumer Bankruptcy Clinic, Federal Commutations Clinic, Nonprofit Organizations Clinic and Misdemeanor Clinic. These were added to the existing clinics, which include the Community Justice Project, Elder Law Clinic and Immigration Law Clinic.

In addition to its strong clinical program, every student benefits from an exceptional Lawyering Skills program.

“The goal of our lawyering skills program is to make students practice ready,” noted Associate Professor Julie Oseid. “Even before these tough economic times we knew that new lawyers are commonly judged by their writing, analytical and research skills. Our class combines all these critical skills to contribute to a practice-ready lawyer.”

Lawyering Skills faculty emphasize to students that they must add value through their work as a lawyer. Their writing must be clear and concise. They also emphasize the value of creativity, innovation and resilience as expressed through writing and in solid research. Oseid said, “We also take time to explain what real practice is like. All of us have substantial experience in practice. Even though some things may seem obvious, we make a point of giving students a very specific list of habits and traits that should be
developed to increase their chances of both finding and keeping a job.”

Relational Skills

“Relationships have always been central to the mission at the School of Law, and those relationships and the relationship-building skills our students continue to develop during law school are the key,” Vischer said. A concrete example, he said, can be found in the Mentor Externship Program, which is still the only program in the country providing one-to-one mentoring for every student every year of law school. This claim is supported by National Jurist magazine, which twice named the school the national leader in externship placements.

Lisa Montpetit Brabbit, senior assistant dean of External Relations, has been with the Mentor Externship Program for more than a decade. She explained, “The Mentor Program challenges each student to build his or her emotional intelligence (EQ) just as they build the more traditional intellectual skills in the classroom.

The delivery of legal services, the stewardship of intellectual skills, and the ability to maximize passion for a vocation in law are all tied to the ability to grow and engage professional relationships.”

Brodin agrees that relational skills are a key for employers: “The market is tight, and soft skills are critically important. As they hire, employers are thinking ‘How will this person fit into our team? How will they interact with and serve our clients at the highest possible level?’ If an applicant can demonstrate both intellectual and interpersonal skills, they are much more likely to be hired.”

Those same relationship skills are also a strong focus for CPD as it works with students to find employment. Just as lawyers need to network to build their professional reputations and to generate sources of work, law students need to build a network of connections before graduation.

“We strongly encourage our students to understand how important it is to build authentic relationships with the practicing bar even while they are in law school,” Bateson noted. “We are all part of a larger profession and a larger community. The relationships we build are the lifeblood that nourishes great lawyers throughout their careers.”

CPD has added training that not only teaches why networking is important but also gives students practical skills to make and build relationships.

Brodin noted, “Most students understand the importance of networking at this point. Some people just need a little help on how to get started, how to make the first outreach, or how to make a great first impression. Our students are amazing, interesting people, and our goal is to give them the networking skills to let that talent shine while building a genuine relationship with other amazing, interesting and talented people in the legal community.”

Successful Improvements

More than just hopeful theories, the improvements at the University of St. Thomas School of Law are making a difference. The positive impacts on professional formation seen in Hamilton and Monson’s research and the LSSSE data on student experience are backed up by external evidence, such as the School of Law appearing again in Princeton Review’s top 10 law schools for the “Best Quality of Life.” It is a ranking the school has achieved six of the past seven years. Sixty percent of UST Law students chose to participate in the LSSSE, which is well above the national average student participation rate of 44 percent. Jerry Organ and Verna Monson recently finished compiling UST’s data, noting that more than 40 percent of the survey questions garnered statistically significant positive results. “The University of St. Thomas has very encouraging results,” Organ said.

Bateson points out that students’ satisfaction with the law school is also tied in part to the one-to-one relationships that students build with each other, faculty and staff. Successfully helping students transition to employment flows from that same focus on relationships. CPD, faculty, staff and even other students all collaborate to help students as they move along the path to the job they seek. The focus remains on helping students discern what they personally want from their legal degree, while ensuring that the law school experience ultimately has a positive impact on their careers and their lives.

“As each student sits down with CPD, or any other mentor in the building, we are focused on finding out what that student wants in their career and helping them create their personal plan to get there. Students enter law school with a wide range of career aspirations. Many want to practice law, and we should ensure that those students are well prepared and able to find meaningful employment in the profession. At the same time, we also need to encourage and support those students who wish to use their J.D. in other ways. We support students whose goal is to start and lead a nonprofit. We support students who want to work as corporate executives and see a J.D. as a way to advance on that path. All of our students have their own unique aspirations. The best measure of our success is whether we helped them move closer to their professional goals.”

Bateson encourages students to take a “long view” not only of their careers but also the profession: “Very few people spend their whole career in one job. It is certainly a difficult time for new lawyers. Many of them end up in first jobs that may not be a perfect fit. One job is not, however, the final determination of your career. Each job is a step. If you are excellent in that job and thoughtfully assess the transferable skills you can learn, then that position is still another step closer to where you want to end up.”

Together, law students, alumni and the law school itself can and will navigate this challenging time in the legal profession and emerge stronger, better positioned, and true to their core identities and missions.

Erika Toftness Kelly ’07
Houk Kantke Toftness Kelly, P.L.L.C.

The true gift that UST Law gave me was not immediately apparent to me as a student. Following law school, I went to work for a large law firm that emphasized collaboration in the practice of law. I felt well-prepared to practice in a collaborative environment, because I felt that St. Thomas really fostered a noncompetitive and collegial environment.

Ultimately I found that I also needed fulfillment from the clients I served and their aims so I left “big law,” to start my own elder law and estate-planning practice. Very shortly thereafter, my UST trial advocacy partner, John Kantke, approached me about being his law partner. It was an immediate no-brainer. He had all of the qualities in law school that now make him a great lawyer. We collaborate daily, and pursue excellence together, while mostly serving an elderly population. We are having an exceptional time doing so.

John A. Kantke ’07
Houk Kantke Toftness Kelly, P.L.L.C.

St. Thomas emphasized to us as students that we are practicing law within a community of lawyers. That sounds like a simple concept, but I don’t think I realized how true it was until after practicing law for a few years. Lawyers work with other lawyers, work against other lawyers, cooperate, network, socialize and volunteer with other lawyers. Not surprisingly, one of the favorite topics of discussion among lawyers is other lawyers.

Starting out as a new lawyer you have the unique opportunity to begin defining yourself in the legal community. Choosing a specific practice area, being involved in the bar association, joining informal study groups, or volunteering with other lawyers are simple ways to meet other lawyers and begin defining yourself. The longer you practice law the more people you will meet and the more impressions (both good and bad) you will make. None of us are able to practice law in a vacuum.

Looking back, I appreciate the deliberate work done by St. Thomas to start connecting us as students with practicing attorneys and pushing us toward involvement in the legal community.

Chris Wheaton ’08
Barry, Slade, Wheaton & Helwig, L.L.C.

My professional formation at the School of Law was filled with opportunities for developing the soft skills of the legal profession. Through the Office of Career and Professional Development (CDP) I learned that, as a student, it was my responsibility to take charge of my career. CPD was there to help with resources, résumé workshops, etc., but engaging in my own career ownership was going to be paramount to becoming employed post-graduation. It was that personal responsibility and career ownership upon which I relied when forging relationships with other attorneys through the Mentor Externship program. Learning skills such as relationship development, expectation management, professionalism and civility in an adversarial practice through the Mentor Externship classes became the templates for interaction with my mentors as well as their colleagues and judges in the legal field. These skills are still at the cornerstone of my practice.

And finally, our student government programming supplemented both the CPD and Mentor Externship pieces through professionalism events where you would learn professional dress, and meal and conversation etiquette in casual, semicasual and professional situations.

Elizabeth Drotning Hartwell ’06
Geer Wissel & Levy, P.A.

My time at UST Law prepared me for the practice of law in countless ways. Beyond honing skills in analysis, research and writing, my clinic experience and other classes such as Client Interviewing and Counseling taught me how to view issues holistically. I practice primarily family law; my clients don’t have solely legal problems, but usually come with financial and emotional issues as well. UST’s emphasis on seeing the dignity in all people has been enormously helpful to me, especially with clients with significant mental health or substance-abuse issues. I try to remember that everyone is a child of God, and that my words have the power to help or heal. It’s vital to represent clients zealously, but I also remind myself not to do any harm. There is no point in kicking an opposing party when they’re down, and I think my reputation for being compassionate helps me win points with judges and settle cases more efficiently.


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