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September 8, 2004
Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle)

Law Schools Thrive

By Paul Freeman
Contributing writer
While the economy has struggled in the past few years, the state's law schools have been enjoying boom times.

But the same economy that's driving people to boost their credentials with a law school degree is making it more difficult for them to find work once they graduate.

"It's very much a buyer's market, employers have their pick of qualified people," says Joni Driskell, director of career services at Gonzaga University School of Law.

The state's law schools are seeing unprecedented numbers of applicants.

For this year's entering class, Seattle University School of Law received the largest number of applications ever, nearly 3,000 for 330 spots.

Gonzaga received 1,740 applications for 236 slots, while the University of Washington of School of Law received 2,411 applications for just 180 slots, which translates into more than 13 applications for every available position.

What's driving so many people to apply to law school is the economy. "When the economy slows, people go back to school to improve opportunities," said Carol Cochran, SU School of Law's director of admissions. "The J.D. degree is what the M.B.A. degree was in the 1980s and 1990s. It's the ultimate liberal arts degree."

Thirty years ago, the vast majority of law school students were men. That's changed dramatically -- the law school class entering UW this year will be more than 55 percent female.

"The number of female law students has been going up for the past 20 years or so," says Katja Sipple, the school's communications officer.

At both SU and Gonzaga, women will make up slightly more than half the 2004 entering class. "Since the last part of the 1990s, we've been consistently top-heavy with women," says Cochran.

Law school student bodies have also become more ethnically diverse. At Gonzaga, the percentage of people of color for a given class is usually in the high teens. At SU, the figure is consistently about 25 percent. "That's a number we've worked very hard on and are still working hard on," says Cochran.

UW, where people of color usually comprise more than 20 percent of the law school student body, has also worked hard to create diversity. UW has done "a lot of Native American outreach work," said Sipple, and the school had seven Native Americans in its 2003 entering class.

Law school classes are also showing differences in age and experience. Whereas at one time most students would have come to law school straight from college, many of today's students -- at least at SU and UW -- are older and have worked for several years.

Seattle University, for example, currently has 60 law school students who are employed at The Boeing Co., many of them engineers seeking to become patent attorneys, a legal niche for which there is a strong demand.

This year's entering class at the University of Washington will probably have 12 students who either have or are working on their Ph.D.s as well as 23 students with master's degrees in various disciplines.

But even experienced, qualified graduates are having a harder time finding jobs practicing law.

Josie Mitchell, assistant director for career services at the UW School of Law, said fewer law firms are showing up on campus to recruit for their summer associate programs, which are populated primarily by second-year law students. And those firms that do show up generally have fewer slots.

Since firms with summer programs usually do most of their new graduate hiring from these programs, fewer slots generally means fewer permanent positions for new graduates.

"Law firms, like all employers, are reluctant to hire new people unless they can keep them busy," says Erika Lim, director of career services at SU School of Law.

The ability of new graduates to find jobs has also been adversely impacted by hiring cutbacks at government agencies, like the state's Attorney General's Office, that in the past have been good employment sources.

"We've had local government agencies stop coming because they're not hiring," says Lim.

Another reason it's become harder for law school graduates to land jobs is that many law firms, including those that still hire new graduates, are filling more of their legal personnel needs by hiring experienced lawyers, often referred to as laterals.

"Firms want people who have the ability to hit highway speed fairly quickly," says Lim.

Faced with a tight job market for their graduates, law schools are taking steps to enhance students' job prospects. UW, for instance, recently hired someone part time to help graduates obtain more judicial clerkships, which typically last a year or two after graduation.

Gonzaga offers workshops on such subjects as job interviews and preparing resumés and cover letters.

"We're giving them the skills to help themselves," says Driskell. The school also offers seminars on employment alternatives, such as careers in risk management, banking and finance, human resources and other nonlaw practice fields.

Lim says she's seen increased interest on the part of SU law students in alternative careers. One recent law graduate, she notes, decided to become a bridal consultant, another opened a bed-and-breakfast and a third entered the seminary.

Despite the difficulties of finding that first job after law school, the state's law schools say that within nine months after graduation, at least 95 percent of their graduates will have found jobs.

But, cautions Lim, "this could be a starter job, most people have to build their career."

Or, as Gonzaga's Driskell puts it, "You have to begin law school with the end in mind and start planning your career."