Maturity matters

Daniel Rodriguez

Northwestern University School of Law

September 2012

The emerging new legal economy has had a significant impact on the ways law firms hire new law school graduates. While attention is focused on the decline of entry-level positions and its impact on law schools, an intriguing dimension to this complex debate concerns what kind of qualities firms are demanding as the world changes. What are legal employers looking for in addition to good grades at a top law school?

Based upon extensive feedback, much of it publicly disseminated, one key quality is maturity. And some appreciable time between college and law school is one salient measure of maturity. For modern law firms hiring new lawyers, older is better. Life and work experience is essential for the modern legal marketplace for various reasons.

First, students with germane work experience during, and especially after, graduation from college have greater knowledge about how to work together in teams for common professional goals and how best to serve clients in pressure-filled environments. They simply "get it" more quickly than their less-experienced brethren. Experience in relevant respects will grow over their early and middle careers. But, in the current world, the ability to hit the ground running from the beginning and, specifically, the sense to draw upon the lessons (including the mistakes made) from working and engaging with professionals outside the classroom, is invaluable.

Second, students who have meaningful post-graduate experience are more focused once they get to law school — if for no other reason than they have had more time to reflect upon the choice of whether law school is the right path for them.

This focus enables them to take maximum advantage of the opportunities that law school has to offer.

Third, law students who have worked for a time after college are generally more able to consider carefully the financial challenges that law school brings.

While this does not solve the vexing problems of affordability and student debt, it does ameliorate some of the burden for those students who have managed to accumulate resources in their post-college careers in order to defray high tuition costs.

Finally, life experience gained outside of college exposes students to diversity in myriad ways, culturally, professionally, socially — in all ways that help a young lawyer navigate the complex environments in a world of dissolving borders and dynamic change.

Business schools have long incorporated these insights into their admissions policies. It is rare to find an entering student at a top business school with less than two years of work experience between college and a Master in Business Administration program. The emphasis in law schools on maturity has come more slowly. Make no mistake about it, however, this shift is underway. The average age of matriculation at leading law schools is steadily climbing.

At Northwestern University School of Law, nearly all of our students have a gap between college graduation and entrance to law school and the overwhelming majority have at least two years of experience. In addition, through our unique program of interviewing law school applicants, we can better learn how and to what extent their post-college experience has made them more mature and more ready for the challenges of law school.

But we are not alone in these endeavors. The present trend in law schools is toward preferring, sometimes strongly preferring, prelaw school work experience. This trend makes very good sense for law schools and, more to the point, makes very good sense to legal employers. The evidence we have seen with our law school, which has had this policy in place for more than a decade, is that employers greatly prefer more mature graduates and, as they look at ways to measure maturity, they are pleased to see law graduates somewhat older and with salient experience before law school.

There are other ways to encourage our law students to develop the kind of life and work experience that law firms appreciate and which the new legal economy demands. Certainly live-client clinical experiences help students gain valuable experience and opportunities for relevant international travel before and during law school are good for developing exposure to diverse communities and cultures.

Yet, there is, in the end, no real substitute for time and experience. Therefore, evaluating law school applicants with a close eye toward what they have done beyond their key academic accomplishments and test scores is an essential piece of the admissions puzzle.

Maturity matters. And law schools must listen when legal employers tell us that life and work experience is tangibly relevant to their business.

Likewise, aspiring law students should consider carefully how best to invest in the time after college, so to facilitate their important work as law students, to stand out in the crowd of smart applicants and to garner the experiences and lessons that being out in the real world brings. Both law schools and the legal profession will be better for it.