Charlotte Hinkle knows she is among the lucky ones.
Hinkle is one of 201 students scheduled to receive J.D. degreees from the University of Connecticut School of Law on Sunday, May 20. She previously studied cellular neuroscience as an undergraduate and worked in a hospital before law school. Now she's parlaying all that experience into a job with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Washington, D.C.
There, she'll embark on a career aimed at "bridging the gap" between scientific research and the medications that get released to the public.
"I know the job market isn't great right now," she said. But Hinkle wouldn't change a thing about her decision to go to UConn law school. "For me, it was a wonderful choice."
This is the season for law school commencement ceremonies, a time for graduates to reflect on their decisions and a time to look ahead. Western New England University School of Law, in Springfield, Mass., is slated to hold its 2012 graduation for about 200 J.D. and LL.M. degrees on Saturday, May 19. Yale Law School's ceremonies are scheduled for Monday, May 21. The scheduled speaker at UConn is Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. (See Q&A, page 4.)
At each ceremony and gathering, from the shores of Long Island Sound to the leafy foothills of the Berkshires, law school graduates are being confronted head-on with the tough job market. The reality was pounded home again, when it was announced that the rapidly imploding firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf, which had an office in Hartford until three years ago, announced it would not hire new associates.
Across all spectrums of the Connecticut legal community, those who have jobs have talked about feeling fortunate. UConn Law Dean Jeremy Paul spent some time talking about the job market in a public statement in March, in response to a U.S. News & World Report ranking story. Pointing to two challenges the law school had faced, he noted the number of applications have fallen off and scholarship budgets have been insufficient to recruit "all the bright students we wish to attract."
Another challenge that resulted in a lower-than-expected ranking, he said, was a lack of jobs for all graduates. "The job market for attorneys in our region has been particularly hard hit by the recent recession, and Connecticut has been a bit slower in emerging from the downturn," Paul said.
As a result, he said, 81.1 percent of the 2010 graduates reported having jobs by February 2011, though not all of them in the legal sector.
Hinkle said she was well aware that some of her law school classmates were facing tough prospects with the job market. Her interest in public service and science was a well-thought out plan. "For me, it really worked out well."
'What Comes Next?'
The employment picture was a subtle topic at this month's commencement ceremony for Quinnipiac University School of Law, when law degrees were awarded to 151 graduates. State Supreme Court Justice Lubbie Harper Jr. told the graduates gathered for the ceremony in Hamden that the hard work of law school was just beginning.
"A lucky few of you might have definite plans for the practice of law," Harper told them. "But I suspect that many of you are wondering, what comes next?"
Harper spoke of these times "of economic turmoil," which have touched people in all walks of life. But he considered that context in the most positive way he could.
"As always, but even more so in difficult times, people will turn to the legal system to vindicate their rights and protect their liberties," he said. "And make no mistake, as the past teaches us, the issues of our time will make their way to our courts."
For UConn grad Hinkle, her past truly shaped her future. She's always been interested in science. After earning her undergraduate degree in cellular neuroscience, Hinkle studied and earned her master's degree with a focus on cancer prevention. She found a void between what the research community produced and what information was made available to the public.
"That got me interested in law," she said. "I wanted to bridge that gap."
At UConn, she jumped right in, studying intellectual property law and serving as a member of the Connecticut Law Review and Connecticut Moot Court Board.
Last year, she was a presenter at the World Intellectual Property summit in Geneva, Switzerland.
At first, Hinkle thought she would become a litigator. But her first step will be working for the FDA in the highly selective Presidential Management Fellows Program. The two-year program will allow her to work for other government agencies.
"With the FDA, I'll be working on policy. I can rotate through the different areas of government, and possible get back into direct legal work," she said.
Her first tasks will involve reviewing regulations from lawmakers and checking to make sure they are in line with the FDA perspective. "I'm seeing myself in the bigger picture of public service," she said.