Are Career Services Offices Making the Grade?

Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association.

Vol. 43 No. 2


Ed Finkel is a freelance writer and editor based in Evanston, Illinois.

Spencer Merk, who graduated this past spring from Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, wasn’t shy about squeezing his career services office (CSO) for leads. This proactive attitude separated him from many of his “less pushy” peers—and got him results.

“I constantly went in there and asked for names of people I could talk to. Most of [my peers] don’t take advantage of [the career services office] the way I did,” Merk said. “I would set up lunch meetings with any old attorney around town to get my name out there, to get an idea of what field of law these people worked in, to see if I would be interested. Student career services definitely helped me get those opportunities. They said, ‘When you run out of names, please come back and we will give you more.’”

His relationship with his law school’s CSO helped him find summer work in Louisville last year, as well as his current position at the Levy Law Offices in Cincinnati, Ohio.

But according to feedback from several hundred students surveyed nationwide by Student Lawyer magazine, Merk’s experience is not typical.

Many students expressed some dissatisfaction with the service provided by their local CSO. Common complaints were that the offices aren’t proactive enough in soliciting job leads, they focus too heavily on the top students, staff are not well-informed about the field or in recruitment generally, and their approach to résumé and cover letter review is too formulaic rather than being individualized to the particular student and opportunity.

One student surveyed said his CSO was doing a great job—for the legal market of a very different era, saying it needs to be “more tuned in to what the current job market is like for our tier-50 school. Career services seems to be acting like it’s 2005 still . . . and not talking about the reality of ‘50 percent of you won’t have a job at graduation. Here’s what to do . . .’”

It’s Not a Battle—Both Sides Are Accountable

In a changing legal market where student morale and job employment rates seem to be spiraling downward, should CSOs rethink their strategy? What steps can law schools and students take to ensure this crucial resource is adapting to a changing reality and serving the unique needs of today’s law students?

The CSO perspective. Rebecca L. Brown, associate dean of career services at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri, said her school made it a priority to revamp its CSO to better resonate with today’s legal market. “The market has required career services offices to adapt and be more innovative,” Brown said. “We have worked hard to adopt a CSO advising model based on individualized attention to each student’s professional career plan.”

Beyond the traditional career services offerings, her school has greatly expanded networking opportunities for students and is offering increased on-campus professional programming (employer showcases, small and large firm days, corporate counsel days, a government and public interest job fair, etc.). The CSO has also expanded its on- and off-campus recruiting programs and developed online tools to improve job searches, Brown added.

But really, it all boils down to those crucial connections, Brown said. That philosophy is exemplified by the school’s Becker Project, a network of alumni and friends that introduces students to thousands of attorneys across the country, providing students with what they really want: valuable advice and potential employment opportunities. “Through our one-on-one approach, we help our students create valuable connections,” she said.

By closely following market trends and being in “continual contact with employers about their needs and expectations,” and combining this with solid programming, Brown said her CSO is keeping up with an evolving industry and helping students stay ahead of the game.

So far, it appears Washington University School of Law is doing something right. “For 2013 and 2014, every one of our students completing their first year obtained summer legal experience,” she added. “We expect this to pay off in terms of better opportunities, earlier, even as the market remains challenging.”

Students must also take responsibility. Law schools aren’t the only ones that need to rethink their game plan in a changing playing field.

Ultimately, the burden falls on the student to take the first step, said Joe Cunningham, a recent graduate from Salmon P. Chase who sat on the Law Student Division’s Operations & Publications Committee.

“Students who are more proactive will get more use out of the office than students who think it’s the job of the career services office to come to them with a job,” said Cunningham, who relocated to South Carolina after graduation and was studying for the state bar when contacted in June. Chase’s office has reached out to Charleston (S.C.) School of Law on Cunningham’s behalf, and Charleston granted reciprocity so that he can use their online job listings.

Cunningham has logged summer or school-year externship time at the Boone County Commonwealth Attorney, Kentucky State Auditor’s Office and one civil attorney. “The career services office was most instrumental in helping me rework my résumé, whittle it down and tailor it to what most employers are looking for,” he said. “A lot of students probably don’t take advantage until their 3L year, which is unfortunate. Every career services office probably sees this—3Ls who come in during their last semester, and they haven’t been doing anything. They can do more for you, the earlier you come in.”

While the CSO makes students aware of what it offers at the outset, Merk figures staff could do a more consistent job of marketing themselves. “They could do a little bit better job of reaffirming, going back to people to say, ‘We do this, and this, and this,’” he said, adding that students can’t expect career services offices to be too persistent. “They seek to help people who are ambitious enough to look for help. You have to have a drive to go in there and want to network and use these services, instead of them just helping you—whether you like it or not.”

CSOs Should Expand Focus Beyond BigLaw

Chloe Woods, a 3L at Washington University in St. Louis and her school’s representative to the ABA Board of Governors, said that her school’s CSO has seemed most focused on “BigLaw” and less so on the midsized firms and military opportunities she has pursued. Woods spent this past summer split between Heil, Royster, Voelker & Allen in Edwardsville, Illinois, and an Army Judge Advocate General Corps assignment in North Carolina.

“It’s generally a trend, not just at my school, and they’re focused on BigLaw and getting those placements first. There’s less information about the midsized firms—what that process is, what that looks like,” she said. “They’re thinking of other opportunities as a consolation prize, not realizing that some people don’t want to do BigLaw.”

However, Woods appreciates the fact that her CSO has funds available to reimburse students for travel to conferences like those put on by the ABA and its Law Student Division. “You have to submit [a request] a month in advance and tell them what you hope to gain; and then write a one-page report [afterward] about whether you got that [value] from it and whether you recommend that other students attend,” she said. “Our school recognizes the value of being able to go to these conferences and make connections. If there’s a job fair attached to it, that’s an added bonus.”

Woods, who at press time didn’t yet have a job lined up after graduation, believes it would be helpful if CSOs provided a timeline of what steps students should be doing at particular stages of their law school experience to prepare for their careers. She suggested that law students approach their career services staff not just for résumé review but also for help in building informal mentoring relationships with alumni, even if the latter might not have a job opening right then and there.

Student Satisfaction Varies 

The 450 students who responded to the Student Lawyer survey had several other suggestions for how CSOs could help students find jobs and better serve their needs. Suggestions included: “Expand the focus and resources beyond firms in one market.” And, “[T]hey need to think outside the box when it comes to helping students who have not been able to secure employment through on-campus recruiting.” A third said, “Better collaboration with alumni network.” And another said, “Bring. Employers. To Campus.”

The survey, which was distributed in June 2014, placed a statistical lens on the breadth and depth of concern among respondents, 81 percent of whom first used their law school’s CSO in their first year as law students.

More than half (53 percent) indicated varying levels of dissatisfaction, 15 percent said they were neutral and only about a third (32 percent) said they were more satisfied than dissatisfied. Perhaps not coincidentally, almost the same exact proportion of students (31 percent) said their career services office had played a role in helping them find a summer associate position or a job after graduation.

Nonetheless, a plurality of respondents (45 percent) said they would recommend their CSO as a helpful resource to another student, while 37 percent said they would not and 18 percent were undecided on the question.

A separate, broader survey of Student Lawyer readers that asked about CSOs and other aspects of law school revealed more positive responses, among a smaller sample of 228 respondents. More than two-thirds said they were more or less satisfied—broken down to 14 percent very satisfied, 32 percent satisfied, and 22 percent somewhat satisfied—while 10 percent said they were neutral and only 21 percent responded with varying levels of dissatisfaction.

CSOs Should Provide Help Beyond the First Job

A wide plurality of alumni said their law school’s CSOs services were aimed at just helping them land their first job—not necessarily offering substantive help beyond that. More than 50 respondents out of the 121 who answered the question said their office had been no help in providing assistance beyond their first job, only about a dozen said the office clearly had helped, and the remainder gave either a mixed response or N/A because they were still students.

Those who responded negatively had many of the same complaints as with the question about the assistance provided to law students. But there were some comments that related specifically to alumni. For example, one student wrote,“Career services seems to have been helpful for students who stayed locally, but not at all helpful for those of us who were from out of state.”

Those who provided a positive response to the question elaborated by saying that career services staff continued to reach out after graduation to find out how they could assist, paired recent graduates with mentors in the field with whom they formed ongoing relationships, and helped connect them with alumni in their area even if it was away from the school.

One respondent who said the office had been helpful noted that alums sometimes need to be proactive to get help from career services. “It does seem like the focus is on 1 and 2Ls,” the person wrote. “However, when I reach out to them they are helpful in helping me make connections.”

Students Shouldn’t Put All Their Eggs In One Basket

The CSO at University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) “does a pretty darn good job” overall, although it had difficulty helping Zachary Berkstresser, who’s beginning the last of four years in the university’s combined JD/MBA program. Berkstresser’s longer-term interest is more in academia than law practice.

“For being a school that hires law professors, they didn’t seem to know a lot about how law professors get hired,” he said. “I didn’t think it was too far out there. I’m the ugly duckling among the crowd.” He added that UMKC does a better job than most career services offices in working with students who are not in the top 15 to 25 percent of their classes.

Berkstresser said that some students make heavy use of the CSO and others simply do not. “There’s the group of students who either wanted to do their own thing, or they feel they’re bogged down so much with school that they’re not thinking forward,” he said. “Be participatory from the very beginning. You have to send out a lot of résumés and do a lot of cover letters, and it’s miserable. I’ve sat through quite a few of their [career services staff’s] speeches, and I don’t think they impress enough how important it is, even as a 1L, to do something.”

On the active side of the student spectrum has been Jordan Glasgow, a 2L at UMKC, who did a summer internship with the Jackson County prosecutor’s office after pursuing a connection through a friend of a friend. Ironically, the interview with Jackson County was the only one of “seven or eight” that wasn’t set up through the CSO, but she appreciated their help, nonetheless, in writing cover letters and preparing for hours-long interviews.

“Definitely utilize [career services]. It’s a good resource to have,” Glasgow advised other students. “I just wouldn’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Look at your contacts and see who you do know outside of law school who might have connections to an attorney. That was most beneficial to me, in the long run.”

Several alumni who responded to the Student Lawyer survey echoed Glasgow’s advice about seeking out multiple streams of assistance beyond just their local CSO. “I have found professors to be a more valuable resource for networking and career development,” one said. Another wrote, “We have a division of the alumni department that is devoted to helping alumni stay connected and find subsequent jobs.”

Let’s All Get To Work

As the legal market continues its metamorphosis, students and CSOs must join forces to tackle the new challenges that await them. After all, they are both on the same side.

As one survey respondent stated, “Career services is not hoarding jobs to hand to students. It doesn’t have a magic superpower that allows it to find the perfect job for everyone or anyone,” the student wrote. “The people who work in career services are dedicated to help students achieve their goals, not achieving the students’ goals for them.”

Brown, associate dean of career services at Washington University School of Law, urges students to get to work ensuring their CSO is working for them. “Develop your comprehensive career plan early, remain committed and engaged with that plan, and actively use all the resources offered by the CSO,” Brown said.