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The predictions are in on this fall's on-campus interviewing (OCI) season, and it's a mixed bag. Some schools say that despite the still poor economy, they don't expect much change at all from the last few years. Other law schools say they are expecting to see a smaller number of firms lining up at their doors to interview their students for summer jobs this time and fewer offers of summer associate positions from the firms that do show up.
Overall, even for schools not expecting to see much change from last year, there won't be as many legal employers out on law school campuses as there were just a few years ago. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) is the official barometer for OCI activity. The group's most recent statistics show that in the face of a weak economy, many legal employers have been cutting back on their law school recruiting efforts in recent years.
The slump started with the 2001 season and fall 2002 numbers reveal that more than half of law schools saw at least a 5 percent drop in the number of employers on campus last season. What's even more revealing is that 36 percent of law firms reported they had visited fewer schools in 2002.
Given that trend, it wouldn't surprise most law school career services offices if their numbers dropped even further this year. But by mid-summer, most were confident they were on track to book about the same number of employers and schedule the same number of interviews as they did in 2002.
Connie Zubler, director of career services at the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder, said she saw fewer firms interviewing and fewer offers being made to students last year, but she isn't too worried about this year.
"I think we'll see the same thing this year, I don't think it will be any worse," Zubler said. "We actually have one or two firms who did not come last year who are deciding to come this year."
Gihan Fernando, assistant dean for career services at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., echoed that sentiment, saying his employer registrations for OCI are virtually identical to last year.
"My hunch is that we have hit the bottom, and I am hopeful that we are on the way back up, but it's very hard to know that," he said.
Indeed, most career services experts agreed in mid to late summer that until the employers actually showed up in person, they wouldn't know exactly how the 2002 fall OCI season would go.
"We don't anticipate that it's going to be dramatically different than the past fall one way or the other, but it's very difficult to say exactly what this fall will be like," said Jerry Nash, deputy director of NALP. "We have learned from our annual and even more frequent looks into this market that it is a very difficult animal to predict."
Nash said indications so far are that legal employers are being smart about the economy and not panicking, which is good for OCI.
"We have not seen the dramatic drop in on-campus recruiting that we saw 10 years ago when we went through a similar economic situation," he said. "I think employers are more savvy this time. Whereas 10 years ago many firms simply discontinued interviewing on campus and hiring at the entry level, this time many have reduced the number of schools they visit but did not eliminate their OCI program entirely. Many learned a valuable lesson 10 years ago that when things picked up again they found themselves without key junior personnel to handle the influx of new work."
But some employers have had no choice but to cancel OCI recently. Bill Piatt, dean of St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, said some of his school's usual recruiters are facing budget shortfalls or even hiring freezes.
"Some employers have pulled out of OCI state-wide because of money issues, including the Texas Attorney General's office," Piatt said.
Melissa Balaban, director of career services at the University of Southern California Law School in Los Angeles, agrees that more employers are taking the economic slump more in stride this time, but she said given the way the OCI system works, it wouldn't surprise her to see a little panic anyway.
"The way the system works, firms are interviewing students in the early fall of their second year for summer jobs which are a lead-up to jobs they are supposedly going to take two years later," she said. "I don't think there is any other business on the planet that asks people to plan their employee needs two or three years ahead."
Zubler agreed that employers are being smarter this time. Her school sees mainly local and mid-sized firms recruiting, and she says they are still recruiting, but are making fewer offers.
"It's the out-of-state firms that are making the choice whether to come here or not, and the local ones are being choosier so instead of six or seven clerks for a summer, many firms will have four or five," she said.
Lois Casaleggi, assistant dean for career services at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, said she has warned her students they can expect fewer offers this year than in past years.
"The place where we have seen the changes impact the most is in the number of offers any particular student gets," she said. "I wasn't here at the time, but I understand that in the late 1990s, students were getting five to 10 or more offers each out of OCI. Now probably on average they will get from two to six. They are just being more conservative with that."
David Booher, a third-year law student at USC, said he's seen the impact of the poor economy on recruiting first-hand.
"The type of people [employers] are looking for and making offers to either after interviews or after their summer associate positions are more serious about working," he said. "The jobs are less about socializing now and the interviews are less of a personality fit. The firms are more focused on getting people that are going to be doing the work and who present themselves in the interviews as successful attorneys."
While it's generally accepted that the legal marketplace lags behind the main economy by 9 to 18 months, so things theoretically could get even worse before they get better, there is some good news on the horizon. Nash says he doesn't expect to see any further serious decreases in on-campus recruiting. OCI may remain at its current reduced size for a while longer but he predicts it won't likely shrink any further.
"I would even predict a further stabilization next year," Nash said.
My program is bigger than yours…
When it comes to OCI, not all schools are equal. Georgetown University Law Center, for example, usually expects to see 300 to 400 firms recruiting at its late August program, sometimes with as many as 10 interviewers from different offices of the same firm all looking for summer associates. Another 100 to 200 employers will recruit on campus during the early school year and about 30 government employers will come to campus to interview throughout the fall and into next spring. When it's all over, 60 to 70 percent of Georgetown's law students will have found jobs through OCI.
The University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, meanwhile, consistently hosts about 100 employers each season, and 33 to 35 percent of the class secures summer employment through on campus recruiting efforts.
And the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder usually sees between 60 and 70 employers for its OCI program in a year. All told, about 75 percent of students get at least one interview. Less than half of class members nail down their summer clerkship through the OCI program.
There are a number of factors that affect the size and scope of a law school's OCI program. School reputation and national reach is one.
"Obviously when you are looking at a top-10 ranked school, employers are just flocking to them," said Lois Casaleggi, assistant dean for career services at Illinois.
Size and financial resources of the firms themselves play a role in the characteristics of the employers participating in many programs as well. OCI is an expensive undertaking, especially if firms send representatives across the country. They have to pay airfares, hotels and meals for the recruiters, and obviously the recruiting attorneys are not getting any case work completed during the weeks - or even months - they are on the road. "The larger firms can more afford to recruit in this way," Fernando said.
Southern California's Balaban said the nature of OCI, and the fact that firms are recruiting for summer associates they hope to be able to hire permanently in two years, also makes it easier for large firms to participate.
"Very large employers have a larger cushion because they can as easily take 30 employees as they can take 20," Balaban said. "But a smaller business that needs only two employees can't anticipate and plan that far in advance."
Fernando said while the larger firms tend to gravitate to the larger or more nationally known schools, some do visit other OCI programs as well.
"Those large firms may go to some of the smaller schools as well, but they are going to be looking at a much smaller group of students while they are there, only the top few percent of the class," he said.
Geographic location can make a difference in which schools an employer chooses to visit for OCI.
"In the smaller metropolitan areas with fewer schools, it's more expensive to do outreach because there are fewer students to see," said St. Mary's University's Piatt.
And, as is the case with many aspects of law school, tradition is important.
"For some employers it's tradition - we have always gone to that school to interview - type of thing," said NALP's Nash. "And if they have a large contingent of alumni from that school or have had good success recruiting from there, it's always on their list." Casaleggi said she has a lot of those employers who would never consider taking her school off their list.
"They have just been coming here forever," she said.
A school's focus may also dictate its fall OCI schedule. For example, a school with a significant public interest focus is not going to see as many fall recruiters, Casaleggi said, because public interest jobs tend to come open in the spring when their budgets are finalized, and their recruiters don't tend to travel to campuses as often.
Schools like that, such as Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans, may spend more time helping their students find employment through job postings, alumni networking or legal career fairs, rather than OCI, Casaleggi said.
However, she said the extent to which a school markets and promotes itself to law firms can overcome many of the other factors that tend to influence OCI programs.
"It really varies depending on how the school markets themselves," she said. "You have to tell the firms 'Yes, it's worth your time and money to come here.'"
And today, that marketing is more important than ever before.
"The firms are getting choosier and the schools that are not perceived as top tier may get fewer employers or may have to work harder to get employers to come to their campuses," Nash said.
Despite cutbacks by some firms in recruiting efforts and job offers being made, he thinks many employers will avoid cutting schools off their OCI schedules altogether if they can help it. They did that 10 years ago, during the last recession and suffered greatly for it when the job market picked up again.
"I think also many employers learned that when things picked back up that trying to re-establish their presence on campuses was harder than anyone expected, and that's natural with any market," he said. "So this time employers are taking the chance to keep going to campuses and even add some new ones to their rosters, so when things turn around they have their established presence at schools that will pay dividends in the long run. This time they have adjusted better to the new market reality and are recruiting more effectively and efficiently."
More efficient recruiting means some schools are forgoing marketing their OCI programs in favor of other methods of finding their students jobs, such as electronic job and resume banks and resume bundling - sending student resumes directly to law firms en masse. Casagleggi said her school is one that has been focusing on that idea, and she saw a 340 percent increase in the number of employers asking for bundled resumes between the fall of 2001 and the fall of 2002.
"Part of it is that we have made a lot of effort, but part is also a response to the economy because employers are saying they can't afford the attorney time or the money to send someone to your campus," she said. "But at the same time they are still interested in your students, so they are treating the paper resume as an initial screening interview like they might do on campus."
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