PUBLISHED:April 14, 2010

100% employment: Meeting a lofty goal

Duke Law School has long maintained high standards for employment for graduating students, resulting in 100 percent employment nine months after graduation in five of the last six years.

For 2008 and 2009, graduates have hit 100 percent employment at graduation as well. How is this possible during a time of economic uncertainty and upheaval in the profession? For Dean David Levi, the answer is simple: a total commitment by staff, faculty, and alumni to making sure that every graduating student who wants a job has one.

Since becoming dean in 2007, Levi has made it a priority to marshal resources at the Law School and beyond to help all students secure jobs that put them on track for successful careers in the law.

“Our students deserve to leave here with a job,” said Levi. “They work hard to get here, they pay a lot of money to be here, and they are tremendously well prepared and capable when they graduate. We are absolutely dedicated to doing everything we can to support our students at this most critical time in their lives.”

Doing “everything we can” has meant that the school has launched a number of new programs during the last two years to aid students in job searches that are increasingly difficult. For many students, the search starts with Duke’s On-campus Interview (OCI) program, which brings about 200 employers to campus every fall for interviews with 2Ls. More than 3,500 on-campus interviews were conducted with 221 second-year students during fall 2009. Students averaged 18-20 interviews each; many received multiple offers.

Beyond OCI
In another time, OCI was the path to a job for the vast majority of Duke Law students. That has changed in recent years, meaning a larger number of students must look beyond on-campus interviews -- and beyond the big law firms and cities -- for opportunities. According to Associate Dean Bruce Elvin, this is where the hard work kicks in, both on the part of student job-seekers and the team that supports them.

“We have greatly expanded our efforts to support students in securing positions from a broader pool of employers than those who are able to come to OCI,” Elvin said. Students are matched to faculty and alumni mentors and work closely with a Career Center counselor to map out a plan, identifying their goals for both type of employment and location, and to begin an aggressive outreach and networking effort. (Read more about the Career Center’s strategies here.)

Last summer, for example, Career Center counselors personally contacted hundreds of alumni, employers, and judges to establish relationships. “Our alumni were incredible,” Elvin said. “Their willingness to jump in and really help our students -- by mentoring them, by hiring them, by connecting them to opportunities and contacts -- is a real testament to the loyalty of our alumni and the real value of having such an engaged and supportive alumni network.” (Read more about the Duke alumni network here.)

Duke Law professors also are deeply involved in the process, helping students make professional connections and advising them on their chosen paths. Levi himself works closely with alumni and has been known to call upon his own professional network -- developed over two decades as U.S. Attorney and U.S. District Judge in the Eastern District of California and through participation in a number of professional organizations -- to assist students in their job searches.

“Our students are extremely well prepared for work,” Levi said. “I know, and my colleagues know, that when I recommend someone for a job, that person is going to be capable of legal work of the highest quality. Duke has a well-deserved reputation for training its students in the basics of legal analysis, writing, and problem solving. Employers see our graduates as young lawyers who can get the work done and who can be trusted with clients.”

Building a bridge to practice
Of course, every year there is a small number of students for whom the desired jobs don’t work out, or who are planning to launch their careers in government, public interest agencies, small firms, or businesses that do not typically hire applicants until after they have passed the bar exam (summer bar exam results are not available until the late summer or fall following graduation). So how does Duke help them make the transition to practice?

“Two years ago we saw that more of our students wanted to commit to public service careers or pursue more unique paths,” Elvin said. “This is of course something we want to encourage and support and expand. But we knew that they needed to work in the interim to continue to build skills, develop professional relationships, enhance references, and have a substantive platform from which to pursue their full-time goals. As the saying goes, ‘You need a job to get a job.’ We also wanted to provide more help to those students who were still trying to determine their path or who hadn’t found the full-time job they hoped for.”

To that end, the Career Center launched the Bridge to Practice program, which offers an eight- to 12-week fellowship in a variety of legal positions. Graduates are paid a stipend, usually supported by alumni contributions, gain on-the-ground experience, and strengthen their lawyering skills. They also work throughout their fellowship with career counselors and mentors to continue their searches.

Students may apply for fellowships in late spring; securing a position before graduation allows them to focus on studying for the bar during the summer with a little less worry, Elvin added.

“When we approached employers with the idea, they were thrilled,” Elvin said. “Often these are some of our best students, so the chance to have those extra hands for eight weeks is very attractive.”

Since 2008, Bridge to Practice fellows have worked in positions around the country, with nonprofit and advocacy organizations, district attorneys offices, law firms, and courts. Fellowships provide a springboard to other positions and, in some cases, convert into permanent positions with the host employer.

"Through the Bridge to Practice, I was able to continue working on cases and prepare for one of my DA interviews, where I was asked to ‘run the courtroom,'" said Kyle Pousson '08, whose fellowship led to a permanent position with the Durham County District Attorney's Office. "Because the office knew me well and I was working there before and after my bar studies, I was in a great position to become an ADA once I had passed the bar."

A community effort
Ultimately, achieving Levi’s goal of full employment at graduation is an enormously difficult task, Elvin said -- and having met that goal for two years now only increases the pressure to continue meeting it, particularly as uncertainty in the economy and profession continue.

“We are working every possible angle, every possible idea that comes up,” he said. “But we also are pushing our students hard. They have to be the ones who drive the job search. They have to own it and work for it. And they have done a great job these last two years, in the face of really tough circumstances. Our institutional employment record really is a reflection of our students’ efforts and how hard they work, as well as the entire Duke Law community, including alumni and faculty, and the broad commitment to supporting students through their three years here and long afterward.”