New law school graduates are hard to find, say those who are hiring

Now, history has been repeating itself since the last days of the COVID-19 pandemic: Workers, especially those who would fill entry-level positions, have been hard to find for employers.

Stories on this subject often focus on the challenges of the lack of frontline workers, such as those in retail or the restaurant industry. But these industries are not the only ones to face a difficult hiring market. The legal profession, too, faces its own labor challenges.

McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp said he remembers working under his predecessor, Jason Chambers, who “always talked about having 2 to 12 Resume handy” and “every time we had an opening, people lined up waiting for it. .”

These days, that is not the case.

“We’ve never seen, at this point, not having candidates,” Knapp said in an interview. “We go to job fairs, drive 4 1/2 hours one way to a job fair at Southern Illinois University, only to have, maybe, five kids going through the whole job fair. job because there are so few graduates. And everyone there already has jobs.”

McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp, left, with his predecessor, Jason Chambers.

At the time of the interview, Knapp said his office had lost three people; 27 are needed to be at full strength.

“I could potentially see a time when we have to make tough decisions, just based on the size of the office. We’re not there yet – we’re a long way from it,” he said. “But if this trend continues, it’s not a good trend.”

According to statistics from the American Bar Association, enrollment at ABA-accredited schools in 2017-2018 — classes that would likely be currently seeking employment — were 37,320 and 38,390, respectively.

“These are some of the smallest classes we’ve seen,” said Rebecca Ray, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Law School.

“It’s really, I think, this small pool of applicants and enrollments that drives the smaller number of lawyers looking for employment. New lawyers come from those classes where there were simply no not many people applying to law school, and not many people going to law school, nationally, in the last few years.”

Target new graduates

New law school graduates are typically targeted by public defender or state attorney’s offices, said Peoria County public defender Nathan Bach, so a shrinking pool makes it more difficult to functioning of these essential offices.

His office is not understaffed, per se, but he aimed to change its structure to one that relied on full-time employees instead of independent contractors; when an independent contractor leaves, Bach said that’s when he aims to replace him with a new hire who will work for the county full-time.

“There’s just been, when we’re trying to staff some of these courtrooms with full-time staff, I haven’t found suitable candidates or the volume that I would have hoped or expected,” a- he declared.

Locally, McLean County Council recently approved a temporary contract with Adam Casson, a Pontiac-based attorney, to “ease the burden” on other public defenders as two people were wanted.

In documentation submitted for the board’s review, public defender Ron Lewis said at the time that the vacancies were for lawyers who would handle major traffic or DUI cases – a “division high volume”.

“I think the six-month time frame (of the contract) will allow us to extend our search to potential candidates who are graduating and taking the next bar exam,” he wrote.

In fact, it was bar-related issues that complicated the hiring process for these vacancies — and it’s part of a larger trend among people who recently took the test.

Data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners showed that the overall pass rate for the Illinois bar for the most recent exam in February was less than half – just 43% of all test takers. succeeding it.

“I think it has a lot to do with why we don’t see as many applicants for these jobs, especially younger applicants or less experienced people…people who haven’t worked professionally as lawyers. “Bach said. “That is to say, it’s a real deal breaker for our profession. If you go into private practice, like you go into a law firm, maybe they could find you a place. which isn’t technically considered ‘the practice of law’.’ But here (in the public sector) with our limitations, resources and real space, it’s not really possible to hire someone who doesn’t didn’t pass the bar and pay them to do the work because we couldn’t use it effectively in order to justify the amount of compensation they would receive.

Illinois has no limit on the number of times a person can pass the bar exam, so failing to pass it once is not, in and of itself, a deal breaker for the profession forever; people take the test more than once so often that the National Conference of Bar Examiners ranks these candidates separately.

See cycle

Ray, from the UIUC College of Law, said the legal market could improve for those hiring – with the caveat that it will take a few years.

“We’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in applications over the past year,” she said. “Applications this year – again, this is nationwide – are down from last year, but still up 5% from 2020. Classes that have enrolled last fall, and the class enrolling this fall, are going to be bigger than what we got in 2020, 2019 and 2018.”

Ray said she expected some sort of pendulum shift with the apps one way or another. The only question was what direction the change would take.

“That kind of dramatic bump that most law schools saw in the last year was not at all unexpected,” she said. “I thought we would have an extreme one way or the other: either people would hunker down and say, ‘I’m not going, I’m going to wait until the pandemic is over’, or we’d see a huge Number .”

Yet even if the pool grows a bit, downstate law firms will face a problem they’ve faced for years: persuading new or young lawyers to work in Illinois. outside of Chicago.

“I think a bit (the challenge) is being down-state — young lawyers want to go to more urban areas, where there’s a perception that there’s so much more to do. Whether that’s the reality or not, I don’t know, but it’s definitely the perception,” Knapp said.

Knapp said the county is participating in a salary review to see how financial incentives can stay competitive; Lewis said the public defender’s office was among the attendees.

Of public defenders, Bach said he “almost” wishes a different term had been used to describe them, given the negative connotation some people have with the office. Maybe with a different description, more seriousness could be put on the desk.

“I think, at least here in Peoria, and I think the same from McLean County, (we have and they) are doing a great job,” he said. “I hope that in a larger scheme or vision that continues to increase the incentives to enter the public sector – like the cancellation of public loans, and certain measures like this will attract young people, or people who owe a debt of their education, in the work that we do, because it is extraordinarily valuable.”

Jon J. Epps