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Fresh law school graduates are hard to come by, say those in hiring positions

McLean County Law and Justice Center
The McLean County Law and Justice Center in downtown Bloomington.

By now, the story is one that has been on repeat since the latter days of the COVID-19 pandemic: workers, especially those who would fill entry-level positions, have been hard for employers to come by.

Stories on this topic often center on the challenges of a lack of front-facing workers — like those in retail or food service. But those industries aren't the only ones forced to reckon with a challenging hiring market.The legal profession, too, is facing its own labor challenges.

McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp said he remembers the days of working under his predecessor,Jason Chambers, who "was always vocal about having 2-12 resumes on-hand" and "any time we had an opening, people lined up waiting for him."

These days, that's not the case.

"We've never seen, to this extent, just not having applicants," Knapp said in an interview. "We're going to job fairs, driving 4 1/2 hours one-way to a job fair at Southern Illinois University, only to have, maybe, five kids go through the entire job fair because there are so few graduates. And all the ones there already have jobs."

Don Knapp and Jason Chambers
WGLT file
McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp, left, with his predecessor, Jason Chambers.

At the time of the interview, Knapp said his office was down three people; 27 are needed to be at full staffing levels.

"I could potentially see a time where we've got to make some hard charging decisions, just based on staffing levels in the office. We're not there yet — we're a long way from there," 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 2017-18 — the classes which would likely be currently job searching — was 37,320 and 38,390, respectively.

"These are some of the smallest classes that we've seen," said Rebecca Ray, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Law.

"It's really, I think, that narrow applicant pool and enrollment that's driving the smaller number of attorneys looking for jobs. New-ish attorneys are coming from those classes where there just weren't very many people applying to law school, and not many people going to law school, nationally, for the past few years."

Targeting new graduates

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

His office isn't short-staffed, 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 them with a new hire that will work for the county full-time.

"There's just been, when we're trying to outfit some of these courtrooms will full-time employees, I haven't found suitable applicants or the volume I would have hoped for or expected," he said.

Locally, the McLean County Board recently approved a temporary contract with Adam Casson, a Pontiac-based attorney, to "ease the burden" for other public defenders as two people were sought for hire.

In the documentation submitted for board review, public defender Ron Lewis said at the time the vacancies were those of attorneys who would handle major traffic or DUI cases — a "high-volume division."

"I believe the six-month time frame (of the contract) will allow us to extend our search to potential applicants who are graduating and taking the upcoming bar exam,"he wrote.

In fact, it was bar-related issues that complicated the hiring process for those vacancies — and that's part of a larger trend with people who have recently sat for the test.

Data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners showed Illinois' overall bar passage rate for the most recent exam in February was less than half — just 43% of overall test takers passing it.

"I think that has a lot to do with why we're not seeing as many applicants for these jobs, especially young applicants or or people who are less experienced... individuals that have not worked professionally as attorneys," Bach said. "That is that is a real deal-breaker for our profession. If you go into private practice, like if you went to a law firm, they may be able to find a spot for you that isn't technically considered 'practicing law.' But here (in the public sector) with our limitations and resources and actual space, it's not really feasible to hire someone who didn't pass the bar and pay them to do work, because we wouldn't be able to effectively use them in order to justify the amount of compensation they'd receive."

Illinois has no limit on the amount of times a person can take the bar exam, so not passing it once is not, in itself, a deal-breaker for the profession forever; people take the test more than once so often that the National Conference of Bar Examiners categorizes those test-takers separately.

Seeing the cycle

UIUC College of Law's Ray said the legal market could get better for those hiring — with the caveat that it will take a few years.

"We did see a pretty dramatic increase in applications last year," she said. "This year's applications — again, this is nationally — are down from last year, but they're still up 5% from 2020. The classes that enrolled last fall, and the class that will enroll this coming fall, are going to be larger than what we were graduating in 2020, 2019 and 2018."

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

"This sort of dramatic bump that most law schools saw last year was kind of not unexpected," she said. "I thought we'd have an extreme one way or the other: Either people would just 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."

Still, even if the pool does get a little larger, downstate law offices will have to contend with an issue they've been dealing with for years: Coaxing new or young lawyers to take work in Illinois outside of Chicago.

"I think a little bit of (the challenge) is being downstate — younger lawyers want to go to more urban areas, where there is the perception that there's so much more to do. Whether that's reality or not, I don't know, but that's certainly 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 is among those participating.

Of public defenders, Bach said he "almost" wished there was a different term used to describe them, given the negative connotation that some people have with the office. Perhaps with a different description, more gravitas could be placed on the office's charge.

"I think, at least here in Peoria, and I think the same of McLean County, (we've and they) do excellent jobs," he said. "I'm hopeful that in a broader scheme or view that continuing to increase incentives to come into the public sector — like public loan forgiveness, and some measures like that will draw younger people, or people who have debt from their education, into the work that we do, because it's extraordinarily valuable."

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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