Sign up to receive breaking news and new edition alerts:
2016-03-25 / Front Page

Law school job placement picks up as students find jobs outside the traditional office

BY R. BROCK PRONKO
Regional Business Analyst


Night photo of the Katz Building on the Penn State University Park Campus, which contains Penn State Law. 
Photo courtesy of Penn State Night photo of the Katz Building on the Penn State University Park Campus, which contains Penn State Law. Photo courtesy of Penn State At first glance, Widener Law Commonwealth in Harrisburg and Penn State Law in State College might not appear to have much in common. Widener is a private school, Penn State’s a public school. The majority of Widener’s law students are from Pennsylvania and practice here after they graduate, many in government, while less than half of Penn State’s law students are residents and most secure jobs at private law firms across 15 states, Washington D.C. and China.

Over the past two years, however, both schools have shared the same experience – they became independent from their sister law schools.In 2014, Penn State received American Bar Association approval to separate the Dickinson School of Law into two law schools, Penn State Law in University Park and Dickinson Law in Carlisle. Last year, Widener Law Commonwealth was approved to separate from Widener’s Delaware Law School in Wilmington.


Houck Houck The separations came at a time when law schools were struggling with enrollment. First-year enrollment in U.S. law schools peaked in 2010, then declined 29.4 percent over the next four years, and last year, enrollment declined another 2.2 percent. The hiring of newly minted lawyers has been stagnant coming out of the recession, and more than twice as many law students graduated in 2012 (46,565) than were estimated job openings (21,640).

In 2013, Penn State reported 94 out of 199 graduates secured full-time, long-term or JD-required employment. Subtracting the five students who went into solo practice, 89 out of 199 secured JD-required employment, only 44.7 percent.

Last year, 60 percent of students graduating from U.S. law schools who passed the state bar exam obtained J.D.- required jobs within nine months of graduation. While the numbers seem bleak, they don’t tell the whole story.


Johnson Johnson “The 60 percent for J.D. jobs that required students to pass the bar exam is somewhat misleading, because it doesn’t explain that many students actually prefer to work in what’s called a J.D. advantage job, which is a position where the employer was looking for someone with a J.D. degree, but the job itself did not require passing the state bar or having a law license,” said James Houck, interim dean and distinguished scholar in residence at Penn State Law School.

Houck joined Penn State after retiring as the 41st judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy in 2012.

J.D. advantage jobs include lobbyist, government regulatory analyst, staffer in the state legislature, corporate contracts administrator, alternative dispute resolution specialist and compliance work in business and industry, for example, working for a bank.


Law students attend lecture at Widener Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg. 
Photo courtesy of Widener University Law students attend lecture at Widener Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg. Photo courtesy of Widener University “J.D. advantage employers generally don’t pay as much as law firms, but they afford employees more flexibility with their schedules, which is something that millennials are looking for, a better life- work balance than they’d have at a billable hours law firm where they would be making more money but putting in longer hours including some weekends,” said Christian Johnson, dean of Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg.

Johnson said Widener’s advantage is being located in the state capital, because many law students who apply to the school are interested in government-related work.

“We have a huge alumni base in the Harrisburg area, 3,300 alums, the vast majority are working in government,” said Johnson.

“We have a popular specialty in law and government, in fact, the National Jurist magazine ranked us in the top 20 law schools in the country for our government law program.”

Some state legislators have law degrees from Widener including Senator Richard Alloway, who received his J.D. in 2002, and Rep. Mark Cohen, Democratic chairman of the State Government Committee, who earned his law degree in 1993.

The median starting salary for private sector law jobs in Pennsylvania is $65,000. The median starting salary for public sector law jobs is $49,850.

“We also have a strong small business advising program, which is helpful because the private law firms our students will be applying to are likely to be general practices in smaller cities such as Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Allentown, whereas law practices in larger cities tend to be more narrowly focused,” said Johnson.

In the second and third year of law school, students have an opportunity to begin to specialize. In some cases, after graduation they will immediately move into an area of specialization at a firm or government agency or an in-house position at a corporation.

“First and foremost, students need to get a solid grounding across all areas of the law. Specialization either begins for students when they are in law school, if they have a clear sense of what they want to do, or after they’ve been practicing law for two or three years and almost by happenstance find themselves working on a particular case, discover they like what they’d doing and begin specializing in that area,” said Houck.

Tuition is not cheap. Widener Commonwealth charges $1,354 per credit. The student-faculty ratio at Widener is 10.5:1. The school has 86 full- and part- time faculty on staff.

Penn State Law charges $43,700 per year regardless if the student is a resident or from out-of-state. The student-faculty ratio is 8.6:1.

Last year, both law schools improved markedly in job placement. In 2014, Penn State had 116 students secure full-time, long-term, JD-required employment, minus the one who was in solo practice, which bumped the school’s JD-required placement from 44.7 percent to 65.3 percent, higher than the national average.

“The demand for lawyers is better than it was a few years ago,” said Houck.

“After the economic crash of 2008, a lot of law firms consolidated and refined their business model such that there was a fairly dramatic dip in new hires in the latter part of the first decade and the early part of this decade.

“The employment picture for law grads has improved somewhat, but it’s not yet risen to the level it was in the middle 2000s.

“We went through a very big ‘correction,’ as they say in the stock market, and though industry conditions have improved, there’s still not a guarantee that if you go to law school there will be a job waiting for you after you graduate, but seeing our numbers go up as dramatically as they did, we feel good about most of our graduates getting meaningful employment after they graduate this year.” .

Return to top

Sign up for Biz Alerts

Email Marketing You Can Trust