Heather Spielmaker, assistant dean for Career Services at West Virginia University College of Law, and Stephanie Gallo, senior career development specialist at the University of Houston Law Center (UHLC), published an article in the NALP digital newsletter providing guidance on how law school career development centers are preparing the “modern law student.”
Both Spielmaker and Gallo are lawyers by training and have had very different career paths: Spielmaker was involved in legal professional development long before starting law school; and Gallo practiced law for two years and completed a clerkship before transitioning to career development.
Career services centers at law schools have become very adaptable, mostly out of necessity to address the needs of ever-changing students and shifting law school accreditation requirements. More specifically, Spielmaker and Gallo describe it as preparing the “modern law student” for the often slow-to-change legal profession.
During the 2017-2018 school year, the first Gen-Z students entered law school. These students are also known as the “iGeneration” because they have never known life without the internet, and a good portion of them are also first generation law students, meaning they are the first in their family to attend law school or even to graduate from an undergraduate institution. The first year students entering in 2017-2018 at UHLC were 75% first generation, and those at typically WVU Law are 66% to 75% first generation law school students.
Defining the ‘Modern Students’ and Their Diverse Needs
The demands on law school career services centers are expanding beyond the typical offerings, which have generally operated as if the needs of the students are monolithic. Traditionally, the core services of any law school’s career center are resumé and cover letter workshops, etiquette training, career exploration, mock interviews, and networking events, in addition to coordination of on-campus interviews and job postings. Today, these offices are doing all of this and more to meet the needs of diverse students. For example, West Virginia University is offering custom programming for students; and according to Spielmaker, WVU Law is bringing in attorneys from a variety of career settings and with diverse backgrounds to participate in speed-mock interview sessions.
The demands on law school career services centers are expanding beyond the typical offerings, which have generally operated as if the needs of the students are monolithic.
Events like these offer students the opportunity to relate to different types of interviewers and questions. For networking, the career services center, “bring[s] in diverse attorneys to give networking tips in advance of networking events, including ideas on how to start and exit a conversation appropriately and how to follow-up to build a more meaningful connection,” Spielmaker says.
At UHLC, Gallo and her team recently launched an alternative career program during the school’s “Alternative Careers in the Law Week” featuring panels of individuals who are JDs but are now in non-practicing-law roles. The school also offers custom programming for its diverse students by partnering with the Houston Bar Association to pair diverse students with members of the bar for additional support in assisting the students with getting their first jobs out of law school.
Addressing the Unique Needs of First-Gen Law Students
The first-Gen law student is a significant percentage of the law school student population, and the iGen/Gen Z is also quickly becoming the majority of that population. Thus, law school career development centers must be ready to address the unique needs of both groups.
Indeed, according to Spielmaker and Gallo, it is common for first-Gen law students to feel a lot of discomfort because of “imposter syndrome or feelings of inferiority, loneliness, isolation, and invisibility.” To make these students feel comfortable, much of their career preparation is delivered through one-on-one career counseling. The career services counselors put a lot of emphasis on confidence-building exercise. For example, Spielmaker explains how she tries to help first-Gen students reframe negative thinking into positive thinking. “Instead of seeing what they perceive as a lack of networking opportunity as a negative thought, we try to help them see how valuable their pioneering spirit can be to potential employers,” she says.
Some first-Gen students perceive themselves as less desirable to legal employers, and in response, the counselors also help them challenge their inner critic and “practice self-compassion and create and maintain personal boundaries,” notes Gallo.
Networking and Confidence-Building
Another part of career preparation is small-group work that focuses on the networking, communication, and confidence-building skills students are learning. At WVU Law, for example, as a follow-up to a lawyer panel that offered networking tips, students sat in small groups and practiced the tips each panelist suggested. The panelists and classmates then provided feedback and encouragement. Similarly, to help alleviate the demand on career center staff time, the UHLC plans to experiment with having student-led small groups next year.
These students may exhibit a lack of grit, tenacity, or perseverance when they are rejected for internships, summer associate roles, or other opportunities. It’s important for career services staff to understand that students are coming in without much exposure to or familiarity with rejection.
Another gap that is common among first gen and iGen students is resilience. “Students that are coming to us now have often had most of their uncomfortable life experiences filtered by their parents, teachers, and other adults in authority positions,” says Spielmaker. “They have not had the same exposure to situations where they need to mediate their own conflicts or resolve disputes.”
Additionally, these students may exhibit a lack of grit, tenacity, or perseverance when they are rejected for internships, summer associate roles, or other opportunities. It’s important for career services staff to understand that students are coming in without much exposure to or familiarity with rejection, and that this is an area that needs to be worked on. “It is important to focus on grit and not losing confidence, not giving up on law school, or a particular area of the law because of rejection,” Spielmaker explains.
Moreover, these generations often crave feedback, but struggle with asking supervisors for it and handling it effectively when it is received. They’ve had less criticism growing up than previous generations, so this tends to be new for them. They are also not necessarily comfortable having difficult conversations and tend to shy away from giving constructive feedback. And finally, this generation is accustomed to immediate answers and responses from internet sources, parents, and teachers.
Gallo agrees, pointing out that a legal job search inevitably involves rejection, difficult conversations, and long waiting periods. To address these issues, Gallo uses analogies to make those situations relatable to her students. For example, she uses a dating analogy to address patience. “We tell our students to imagine themselves in a dating situation when communicating with a potential employer or networking contact,” Gallo says. “You wouldn’t text the person the second after you met them. You would wait a little while.”
In terms of handling feedback, the dating analogy also works well. Gallo asks students to “imagine how this would sound if you were to say this to someone who you were dating. The relationship you are trying to build and foster is delicate.” Gallo finds that dating and the texting analogies, while seemingly out of the realm of career development, really resonate well for her students when it comes to teaching them about grit, resilience, and soliciting feedback.
Finally, Gallo says it is essential for law school career development staff to be trained on communicating with this new generation of law students by “learning how to speak their language, how to integrate technology into programming, how to access these students in a way that is comfortable for them to receive, and to experiment with ways to teach these students social, professional, and resilience skills,” she explains.