Are legal career fairs becoming irrelevant?

The mid-year months of June to August are traditionally popular periods for legal career fairs in Malaysia. During these months, law students are either on a break in between semesters, or on their summer holidays before the start of the new school year.

In recent years, there has been a notable decline in interest in these legal career fairs. Employers who have been participating in these events started noticing a few years ago that the number of attendees was beginning to drop. After some time, we are now seeing employers beginning to lose interest too, and the number of law firms and other employers who are willing to spend on taking up spaces at legal career fairs have reduced dramatically.

The failure of the most recent legal career fair in Kuala Lumpur — the Bar Council’s “Legal Expo” (LEXPO) on 30 July — is a perhaps extreme example of this trend.

This was the second LEXPO, following the inaugural event in 2015, and had a poor response from exhibitors (only six law firms signed up), and an even poorer response from attendees. I understand that throughout the 8-hour event, there was only ever slightly more than a handful of attendees at any given time (the number of representatives of the exhibitors always exceeded the number of attendees), and that the number of attendees was probably between 50-70 in total. This is a far cry from legal career fairs from only 5 years ago, which consistently saw hundreds of attendees crowding around booths usually taken up by at least 10-15 law firms.

It’s possible that LEXPO was a one-off “perfect storm” combination of —

  • poor venue choice (an obscure section of an unpopular shopping mall, far from any of the law schools);
  • terrible timing (term break for local universities, with most students from outside KL having returned to their hometowns; and more importantly, a week before the big CLP professional exams, which means the event automatically excluded a large number of law graduates);
  • last-minute planning (one lawyer commented that she was approached less than a week before the event to be one of the speakers);
  • insufficient publicity (the LEXPO Facebook page started in 2014 has less than 400 likes, @mylexpo on Twitter has 12 tweets and 6 followers, and @mylexpo on Instagram has 10 posts and 6 followers); and
  • lack of a “pull factor” beyond the exhibitors, such as compelling speakers, discussions, or other activities.

LEXPO aside (the ATC Legal Careers Fair next week should pull in a far bigger crowd, seeing as it is being held after the conclusion of the CLP exams and in a law school), the reduced numbers of exhibitors and attendees in such events in recent years means that it is valid to question whether legal career fairs are fast becoming irrelevant to law graduates.

Legal career fair lexpo photo
The post-lunchtime (usually the peak period at such events) scene at LEXPO. Spot the attendee. The individuals in suits are representatives of the law firms.

There are several relevant factors to consider here:

1. Sources of information about law firms.

Career fairs are no longer a crucial source of information and insight about law firms. Many law firms now have very informative websites, including sections on what it’s like to work there. Some even have Facebook pages with frequent updates and photographs.

Office Parrots, which provides an independent source of information, with unbiased reviews on working conditions and interview experiences, as well as lots of useful career-related articles, has made a big impact on the legal industry since its launch in 2015.

2. Alternative methods of meeting and reaching law students and graduates.

For law firms, legal career fairs used to offer an invaluable opportunity to meet and speak to law students and graduates. There are now many alternative methods of achieving this.

The bigger firms go directly to the law schools, with some even flying partners to UK universities and hosting exclusive sessions with Malaysian law students there. Many law firms host similar sessions in local law schools, throwing in incentives like priority for internship spaces or even the opportunity to apply for partial or full scholarships.

Smaller firms make full use of the internet and social media for direct contact with law students, with lots of interaction taking place on Twitter and LinkedIn in particular.

3. Pull factors which attract law students to attend.

Legal career fair organisers need to carefully consider the “pull factors” which will attract law students to attend these events.

In the lead-up to LEXPO, several law students and young lawyers I spoke to mentioned that they were unlikely to attend because the list of participating law firms was very short and uninspiring, and the other speakers/events lined up were not compelling enough to make up for this.

Organisers should speak to law students and hear from them which speakers and topics they would like to hear from and about — at a career fair, it is incongruous to have discussions about the rule of law or constitutional matters.

For law firms, law graduates are also not solely attracted to the firms which handle the biggest deals or cases, and proactively look for employers who can offer them the best all-round experience — I know of one or two law firms who were surprised that their offer of an opportunity to apply for an internship was declined by law students who simply weren’t interested in working there, and so law firms also need to reconsider the incentives they put out there.

Many attendees are also often disappointed to turn up and meet only pupils and junior lawyers (who are most likely there due to the “compulsory attendance” imposed by their employers) who of course only say good things about the firms, and offer no real insight into the profession or a legal career.

I asked a few law students and recent graduates for their views, and some of the more common factors which would attract them to attend a legal career fair include the opportunity to meet key decision-makers in the firm (as opposed to just HR representatives or pupils), the possibility of getting information not available elsewhere, and the chance to meet well-known personalities from the legal industry.

Discussions on career advice from thought leaders and well-respected lawyers are also a major draw.

It’s obvious that legal career fairs aren’t quite irrelevant yet. These events are still very well-attended in other jurisdictions, such as those hosted in UK law schools. But it’s clear that law students are no longer automatically compelled to attend these events, and as we recently saw with LEXPO, proper thought and effort has to be expended in order to organise a successful legal career fair.

For now, there are still a number of law firms who have the budget to keep spending on the booth rentals and other costs involved, but if attendance numbers continue to drop, then there’s no doubt that even the richest law firms will decide that their marketing dollars are better spent elsewhere.

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