Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Law: Tipping the scales

With fewer law-school applicants amid a flat job market, even top-ranked law schools have been forced to downsize. The number of graduates fell by nearly 7,000, or about 15%, to 39,984 between 2013 and 2015, according to the National Association for Law Placement. But demand is strong in certain specialties, while industry changes are creating new opportunities, says Kelly Podger Smith, an executive at UNC School of Law. Smith, who left the private sector and returned to her alma mater in 2015, compares her work to that of a social worker, but for lawyers. Helping students gain admittance to law school, achieve success while there, then find job opportunities after graduation “is my dream job,” she says. “And I have 600 or so law students that call me Dean Smith. So that’s pretty cool.”


A former litigator and director of professional development at Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan LLP, Smith oversees admissions and career-development at UNC School of Law, which consistently ranks among the top U.S. public law schools.

When did law-school enrollment begin to decline?

It was about 2010 when [the recession] started to impact law-school applications. But even when the number of applicants started to drop off, we remained at our same level of competitiveness in terms of who we were admitting, and our incoming class credentials have remained the same pretty much over the last 10 years.

How is enrollment trending at UNC?

At one point, our largest class was about 250; now we’re at 214, the incoming class for this year. You will read about schools that have [reduced class sizes by] about 100 students. We didn’t think we needed to do that because we get such quality applicants who we know will do well here. That’s part of the whole process -– we want students who will be successful.

How is technology changing job opportunities in the legal sector?

There are changes in the way legal services are being delivered, but a lot of times that creates opportunity as well. In every sector since the recession, jobs have been impacted, whether it’s companies laying people off or law firms stopped hiring. It starts in New York in the global law firms. If they start cutting the number of students they are hiring, it trickles down. The good news is, traditional, private-sector legal employment is trending up.

As technology helps make the delivery of legal services more efficient, it’s also allowing smaller law firms to help more people. There’s a huge sector of people who can’t afford to access our legal system. We’re not quite there yet, but if that’s where the technology is getting us, it creates opportunity. Robots aren’t going to replace lawyers. There’s always going to be a role for lawyers.

Does North Carolina’s growth minimize the impact of a stagnant job market?

The population is growing, so there’s real estate [work], and we have a lot of entrepreneurs, whether coming out of colleges and universities or the Research Triangle Park. North Carolina is pretty fortunate in terms of our diverse legal market. There’s certainly opportunity in North Carolina, but it’s competitive because people from other states want to come into our state. We’re not losing workforce, we’re gaining because people want to live here.

Are UNC law-school graduates finding jobs?

Consistent over the last 10 years, about half of our students go to private law firms, somewhere between 15% and 20% will go to business and industry, and about 15%-20% go into judicial clerkships. Most of those folks then go into private-sector employment. So over three-quarters of our graduates are going into private-sector work. That’s everything from the 500-person law firm to the four-person firm.

Are there any new trends in legal-sector hiring?

We’re seeing more in-house legal departments hiring directly out of law school. It’s still not the traditional path, which is that you go work for a private law firm and then you are hired by the client to go in-house. Some in-house legal departments have made a conscious decision to say, “Let’s grow our in-house team,” rather than relying as heavily on outside counsel. That’s a new trend, and we’re definitely seeing it here in North Carolina.

Are there any specialties where you are seeing increased demand?

Health care, particularly here in North Carolina where we have major, world-class health care systems. Privacy and security work is a growing area and a relatively new one. Here in North Carolina, life sciences, pharma and biotech are growth opportunities.

The intellectual property field is growing here. People with technical backgrounds (in the hard sciences, like mechanical or chemical engineering, and computer science) who go to law school have really promising career prospects. Tech folks want to be able to talk to a lawyer who understands what they’re talking about.

There are a lot of opportunities out there. Things are changing, but it’s changing in ways that’s really creating opportunities. It’s not really taking away, it’s just shifting where the work is.


I love my job, and I want to do everything to help the experience of our law students, prospective students and alumni. But at the same time, I have a 2 ½-year-old daughter, and that’s really important to me, too. So my goal is to continue to be the best I can be in my professional life — and as a mom of a crazy toddler who refuses to wear shoes to school.

Cathy Martin
Cathy Martin
Cathy Martin is the managing editor at Business North Carolina magazine. She can be reached at

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