In this episode, we talk with our 2020 fellow, Jack Robbins, about the impact of COVID on his experience last semester at Harvard Law, how he hopes his sports analytics and other work with data will give him extra tools in his legal career, and what law students are thinking about when they consider a career in Big Law.
Jack returned to Harvard Law School this week as a 2L, where he is involved in property and finance research.
For most of the summer, he pulse-surveyed and interviewed fellow law students about their current perspectives on Big Law careers and the recruiting process in general. The survey will continue into the fall and the results will be compiled and shared in a full insights report. To receive updates on the full insights report from this pulse survey, sign up for updates.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a clear impact on Jack and fellow law students last spring, and sparked many debates on campus about how inequalities were addressed.
"It simultaneously feels like it was yesterday, but also five years ago at the same time. I remember it was particularly annoying because Harvard specifically had this whole thing where we were actually one of the first schools to have positive tests on campus. So, they tried to evict all of the on campus students, like two days after, with two-days’ notice. So there were both a protests and a health issues. And then on top of that, I also tested positive for the virus, like two days into this. So it was a whirlwind of uncertainty and problems, we had to figure out how to get through it. [...] When we switched to the credit/no credit grading, it didn't matter that I was out of class for two weeks or so. So that was at least helpful to me."
This isn't Jack's first time working with an organization innovating a new, data-driven product. In undergrad, Jack and a classmate actually started a sports analytics company, but he ultimately ended up opting for law school.
"We were coming up with a better way to calculate the value of NBA draft picks. And we then had the idea [to] take the analytics that we were doing and sell them to media companies. [Some of the] most read articles on like ESPN and similar sites are when they give out NBA draft grades. People love that type of content. So we wanted to figure out a way to take a lot of the flaws that people were using and come up with much more mathematical way and then try to market it to those companies.
All the code and the stuff that we wrote worked out really well. I think the tough part was, and this is the tough part with any startup, was we weren't a hundred percent sure if we wanted to make this our life or we wanted to make this like a project that we did sold and kind of got out of. And I think both of us started this our senior year in like the spring we worked on it during the summer. And then it got around to the point where I was thinking about going to law school in the fall, or maybe deferring law school and doing this. And my friend was also thinking about working for an artificial intelligence startup. So, we both decided that we kind of chose the more careerist path instead of the "riskier" path.
I had the [law school] admission in my back pocket. And I guess the initial hope was that we would be able to really form the company, get a buyer and kind of get out before either of us had to enter the workforce. That was kind of the plan as silly as that may sound. And as with many startups, I don't think even if you're trying to do a smaller idea, it's never going to be as quick or as easy to execute as you think. To me, I felt like the stuff that I was working on with a startup was kind of a tool set or a tool in a toolbox, but I didn't want it to become my life. And I thought with a law degree, I would have a much more interdisciplinary focus where I could kind of use the tools I was using in the startup, but it wasn't going to be the only thing I was doing. I wasn't sure exactly how I'd make a career out of that even if it went really well. Where, in the law school side, I felt like it would be much easier to make a career if I did really well."
This summer Jack has been surveying law students about their interest and perceptions of Big Law, as well as their thoughts on the OCI and other recruiting processes.
The pulse survey will continue through September, but Jack shares some highlights and surprises from his interviews and preliminary data:
On law student plans concerning careers in Big Law:
"I would say the first thing that surprised me was that students seem to be a lot more reluctant to enter Big Law for long periods of time. What I mean by that is that large numbers of students say they want to go into Big Law, but if you ask them, "How long do you plan on staying?" The vast majority of them say durations that are much shorter than firms might expect or want their associates to stay. We can talk about what's actually driving that, but it's interesting to me that it seems universally agreed upon that everyone wants to go into Big Law at the beginning, but then most people have a timeline that's really, really short. And what that means for the industry."
On the lack of transparency around Big Law firm cultures:
"I think what's also interesting is that it's also kind of an information problem on the firm side. For example, we ask students, "Okay, if we give you two similarly ranked firms, let's say on Vault list, how confident do you feel that you could differentiate between those two firms in terms of culture?” Students felt that they had no idea how to differentiate between firms in terms of culture. And that was even true for law students who already had like the older classes. So these were students who already had summer experiences that Big Law positions already had offers and presumably should have a lot more information. So I think from the firm side, I think they need to do a better job at marketing and better job at presenting the information so that students have that information to make their decisions.
On the importance of value alignment, pro bono opportunities, and corporate responsibility on the part of the employer, for rising legal talent:
"I wasn't sure how much people would be valuing ethics and culture in terms of what they're looking for in Big Law [employers]. But when we asked students, What are some of the most important factors for both choosing a firm, or choosing Big Law generally?, that was overwhelmingly the strongest response that we got."
On frustration with the on-campus recruiting system:
"Students are pretty fed up with the OCI process generally. And I think that, that was interesting was that presumably the high ranking schools kind of benefit a lot from the current model, I would argue. And many felt that the OCI process was biased, or the OCI process was confusing. And I think to me, it was interesting to see a lot of students who presumably benefit from the system still feel that the system was not as working as well as it could have.
Suggestions for what to do about the OCI process were allover the place. Some students had minor things about career services or the way they actually structure the interview program, I know you mentioned earlier when people were debating about going pass/fail or credit/no credit for COVID, it also led to a discussion about the importance of grades generally for both recruiting and clerkships and things of that nature, because it was interesting for people to make all of these comments about inequality, all of these comments about different levels of access that were happening because of COVID. And people were able to make those connections and say that all of those things also apply in normal semesters and that could be problematic as well."