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The Smarties Aren't Rushing to Law School

Vivia Chen

July 14, 2010

Teach_for_america It's madness. It's loopy. How else to explain the spike in law school applications--a 7 percent surge, according to The National Law Journal? Hello--didn't anyone hear about those 22,000 legal jobs that got wiped out last year? Why is everyone and their mother trying to get into law school--any law school?

So who's not rushing to law school? Ironically, some of the nation's most sought-after college graduates are spurning law school, even highly coveted ones--at least for now.

A few days ago, I queried what's harder: getting a job in a big-name law firm or a seat at a prestigious kindergarten in Manhattan? Though I'd put my money in the kiddie pool, it turns out there's another prize that might even beat out admission to a swanky private school--and that's a junior position at Teach for America.

The New York Times reports that the nonprofit education group received over 46,000 applications for 4,500 spots to teach at some of the nation's most troubled schools. (Hat tip to ABA Blog.) The article is full of anecdotes of students at highly selective colleges who got dinged by Teach for America. But what was really interesting is that many of the students in the article said that they'd rather teach than go directly to law school, including some who had gotten into places like Harvard Law School.

But before you get all misty-eyed about the altruism of America's youth, consider this: A stint with Teach for America is an instant resume enhancer. That it's now become so competitive to get into the program can only add to the glow of those who have made the cut.

Corporate America can't seem to get enough of these elite do-gooders. I can't tell you how many times partners at major firms tell me that their favorite interviewees are Teach for America alumni. Partners talk about them in glowing terms, citing their leadership skills, work ethic, and all-around wonderfulness.

If you think about it, the profile of a Teach for America alum is what every big firm would want--someone who went to the right school, worked for a couple of years in a challenging environment, and then had the good sense to get back on the corporate track. They are what big-firm lawyers like to fancy themselves to be: smart and thoughtful, but practical enough to keep their billables up.

It might be too cynical to suggest that Teach for America has become a magnet for those with legal or corporate ambitions, but big law firms certainly seem smitten with the credential.

In general, law firms love, love candidates who worked in the real world before law school. Hiring partners tell me they find them more mature and responsible, and just so much more interesting than your average poli-sci major who just graduated from Penn or Amherst. Imagine that.

But what type of prior work is law firm resume-worthy? If you spent a year as an UPS delivery person, a cocktail waitress, or a salesclerk at WalMart--is that so unworthy? Does everything you do have to have resume value? Well, I think you know the answer to that.

What kind of prior working experience do you think firms adore? And which ones do they abhor?

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Courtesy of Teach for America.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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