Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Go To The Best School...

Or not.

For, and about, the second-year summer job process.

The Top Ten Things No One Will Tell You

As always, it seems, I have a rather different view on how to pick a law school. I attend one of the best law schools in the nation, but would I choose it again if I had the choice? It's a tough call. First of all, I don't know enough about any other law school to say for sure whether I'd prefer it over another one. I like my school, and the reasons why I don't like it would likely exist at any other law school, i.e. indirect alienation by both blacks and whites and just hating law school in general. Then again, I've asked myself a few times, particularly throughout the summer job search, whether or not I should have taken the full scholarship to a lower-ranked--but still a top 30--law school.

If all I cared about were job opportunities and debt, then my answer, frankly, would be yes--I should have gone to to the lower-ranked school. After all, the school is not terribly lower ranked, and it is still considered prestigious. I want to work in Chicago after graduation, and this school would have gotten me a job in Chicago just fine. As a matter of fact, it would have gotten me the summer job I'll be working just fine, because many of the students who have worked there in the past attended schools that are even lower ranked than the school I turned down.

After being in law school for almost a complete two years, here are some of the things I've learned:

1) The school you attend doesn't always matter, especially nowadays. Law firms, in particular, are becoming more grade-heavy than school-heavy. The best thing to do is to make top grades at a top law school, but there's never any guarantee that you'll make top grades. However, my experience is that making lower grades at a top school doesn't help that much. Finding this out the hard way resulted in a lot of frustration, because my friends and I felt entitled to job offers after dishing out all this tuition on a top 10 law school, and we weren't really getting as many as we thought we would. Meanwhile, kids at tier 2 and tier 3 schools were receiving multiple job offers. In weighing making top grades at a somewhat lower-ranked school and making below, say, a 3.0 GPA at a top law school, you want to have the former--trust me. And making above a 3.0 is easier said than done--trust me there, too. Our school's grade curve is in the 3.1-3.3 range, so maybe a good 30-40% of students are going to make below a 3.0. It's got to happen to somebody, and it could easily be you.

2) The key word in that sentence about weighing a top school vs a lower-ranked school with top grades is "somewhat." You can't attend barely accredited, part-time and most 4th tier schools and expect to compete with the top 50 law schools, for the most part. It's going to be much harder for you, regardless of grades. If you can, try not to dip below a 3rd tier school. Not all hope is lost if you attend a 2nd or 3rd tier school...

3) If you find yourself in the predicament of earning lower grades at a top or decent school, target employers who don't request transcripts. It really works, especially in conjunction with...

4) Knowing what area of law is right for you and having the resume and/or class schedule to back it up. Once I started focusing on civil rights, I received so many job interviews that I was complaining to classmates about them. And they'd say, "But that's good..." If you have high grades at many schools or average-to-slightly above average grades at top schools, you have the luxury of doing any job interview and getting hired fairly early on even if you admit you don't know what you want to do. But for everyone else, knowing what you want to do, showing passion and showing you're a good fit for the area of law is essential. I found myself always having to convince interviewers why I really was interested in an area of law, and that seriously was important to them (the ones who don't request grades). Having a genuine interest makes it so much easier to convince people than when you don't, and before realizing I'd be passionate about civil rights, I always felt like I was making up what I had to say to interviewers and that I was being fake. That probably showed.

5) If you attend a very low-ranked school or don't pull off the grades you need, look at options outside of law firms. As a matter of fact, you're essentially forced to forget about law firms. I learned this, as well, after wasting a lot of time and doing a lot of pointless interviews. They are the ones who are grade and school snobs; organizations and public interest-related employers are generally not. You have the best chance of grabbing a job with the latter. Now, if you find law firms that you really want to try for, do it. Smaller law firms will be your best bet, but there's nothing wrong with giving other law firms a shot if that's what you want. However, the bulk of your search is going to need to be other opportunities.

6) It's easier for anyone in a "majority" group to defy the odds. I have met guys here with GPAs lower than a 3.0, and they got job offers from major law firms. I've met white people who have done the same. There are also a few major law firms that are willing to look beyond GPA for a few candidates, particularly candidates with a strong personality. For blacks, that means not being "too black" and seeming very easy to get along with. If you're black and this isn't you--it damn sure wasn't me--stick with the suggestions in #5. My friend Nikki is that kind of black female, so she got one (out of over 30 interviews) job offer from a major law firm--one of the few that seems to look beyond grades for candidates they really like.

7) I've talked to a few "professionals" and "consultants" who say being in the "minority" helps. In general, I don't think it does, especially when you don't have the grades. If you have the grades, then you might be a bit more assured of an offer than the white kids who interview with that same employer. I have no basis for that statement, other than that being what a black female who does have good grades here has told me she thinks. My observation has been that law firms, in particular, don't like to take a chance in hiring a lot of the time, and the way many major law firms seem to get their black associates and partners is through lateral hiring. Lateral hiring basically means these people come into the firm after having proven themselves somewhere else. You have to prove yourself somewhere else as a black person before many law firms will take a chance with you. And most major law firms still have very few, and even no, blacks, regardless of the fact that more blacks attend law school now.

The truth of the matter is still the same as what I wrote in my post on "American Idol" being racist--this is a country in which every single person internalizes racism and cannot escape from doing this. This will affect everything, and when you're coming from an institution of higher learning as a black person, don't think the most-of-the-time white interviewer is not sitting there thinking you were an affirmative action admit somewhere in their subconscience...especially if you have lower grades. This might result in a white person receiving the benefit of the doubt where you don't. I also believe the talk law firms spew about "looking for a fit" based on personality and the culture of the law firm provides them the opportunity to discriminate against people based on cultural differences and get away with it. If a law firm seems more like an old-boys club and they are looking for a fit, then don't think this won't work against blacks, women and any other minority. Most law firm culture is white male culture.

8) Women, on the whole, do seem to be fairing better than blacks in law firms, though women still exit law firms and the legal profession at higher rates than men do. A lot of the time, a law firm that does have blacks will only have black women. Some will only have black men. But, ironically, I've rarely seen a law firm have both. I can think of about two or three major law firms that do. But if you're a white woman or a white gay individual, you can rest easier in the knowledge that you will likely receive a job offer early on just as straight white men generally do. However, I have definitely witnessed some whites--male and female--struggling with job offers, and they had lower grades. However, a good number of them ended up with jobs at major law firms...something I was never to, and will never be able to, accomplish.

9) Other people of color struggle more in the legal profession than probably in most professions. They report many of the same difficulties blacks experience and tend to exit the legal profession and/or law firms at higher rates than whites do. Many of my classmates whom I noticed heading into Christmas break jobless were non-black minorities, in addition to some blacks. Several of them also share many of my opinions about law firms and don't feel wanted, welcome or comfortable at law firms. None of us, as far as I know, will be working at a law firm this summer.

10) I have noticed that most of the time when people think the school's reputation helps or hurts, it's people who either do well or average at top law schools or people who attended lower-ranked law schools. Reputation helps a bit, but not nearly as much as you'd think it does. A lot of kids at my school are simply mis-attributing their success to the school's name, not realizing that there are other students struggling and falling below the 3.0 line, or trying to sell the school to those questioning about jobs. A lot of students here do act as if we all make roughly the same grades and that's where our school's average GPA comes from. That's simply not the case--I've known students with over a 3.6 and students with under a 2.7 here. The ones with a 3.6 get job offers from almost every major law firm they interview with (if not every law firm), and the ones with a 2.7 get rejections from almost every major law firm they interview with (if not every law firm). They eventually find a job, but not without stalking Career Services and/or beating the path and working harder to find a job than they ever expected to with their credentials. Some of the stories I heard saw January and February come around for some of these students without even one summer job offer, whereas the majority of students have been made several offers before October.