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Law Schools Work to Make Students More Employable

The poor legal job market means prospective law students need to have a clear idea of where they're headed and how to get there.

 Nick Schmitt talk with his peers during a mediation course at Cardozo Law School on Jan. 26, 2014 in New York, NY.

With law school graduates facing bleak job prospects, more law schools are shifting their curriculum toward hands-on learning and developing practical knowledge.

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Welcome to the new normal for anyone considering law school: The people who have the best shot at landing a job these days have carved a strategic path from the get-go. 

"It used to be the case that you could be a generally smart person and rely on getting a job," says Phil Weiser, dean of the University of Colorado—Boulder Law School. "Those days are over."

The stats bear that out. The percentage of new J.D.s who were employed nine months after graduation has fallen for five straight years, according to the National Association for Law Placement. Just 60.7 percent of the class of 2012 had found a full-time job requiring bar exam passage. 

Starting salaries, while lately ticking up to a median of $61,245 and $90,000 at law firms, are still considerably lower than they were in 2009: $72,000 overall and $130,000 at firms. 

Given the bleaker job prospects and high debt loads required, it’s not surprising that law school has become a less attractive proposition. Applications for the 2013-14 academic year fell to the lowest level in decades, according to the Law School Admission Council. 

At some schools, that’ll undoubtedly mean less competition for admission. But many are also adjusting supply. Some 54 percent of admissions officers polled by Kaplan Test Prep say they reduced their class size for the current school year, and 25 percent will do so again in the next one.

[See photos of the Best Law Schools.]

Bad times for graduates have drawn attention to law schools’ failings. An American Bar Association task force draft report last fall recommended further focus on practical skills, like how to draft a brief and work in teams and more hands-on learning.

Plenty of administrators are having conversations with employers about what should be taught, says Alli Gerkman, director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver

And many, as a result, have integrated much more practical work into the curriculum. A Kaplan survey found that 71 percent of schools are in the process of introducing more clinical courses and practical training. Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia has made its third year entirely centered around practice-based courses, for example. 

Starting this summer, two University of Colorado law students will work as paid interns at IT giant Cisco Systems’ San Jose, Calif., headquarters for seven months rather than going to class. They’ll also avoid a semester’s tuition, completing all their requirements in 2 1/2 years.

“Working in a state-of-the-art law department” on such corporate issues as open-source licenses and nondisclosure agreements will definitely “make them more employable,” says Weiser. 

[Find out what recent grads think about the third year of law school.]

Back in the classroom, law schools are also reconsidering what they need to be imparting. Many schools have been shifting attention to “soft” skills like leadership and teamwork and the importance of “putting your blood, sweat and tears into someone else’s problems, needs and goals,” says Michael Madison, a professor and faculty director of the Innovation Practice Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.