The ongoing economic volatility has left many law school graduates scrambling for employment.
Just a few years ago, students at top-tier law schools were confident that their hard work—not to mention their student loans—would eventually pay off . They’d land a job at a big-name firm, pull in $160,000 a year, pay off their debts, and start their journey toward a successful career in law. It was a fait accompli.
Then the housing and credit-card bubbles burst, and the impact came into sharp relief in 2009. The economy took a nosedive, corporations tightened budgets, and white-shoe law firms took a hit.
Now, recent law school graduates are feeling the burn. Hiring has been reduced and recruiting budgets have been slashed. No longer do elite firms line up to interview students, even at top law schools. According to the New York Times, law schools at New York University, Georgetown, and Northwestern have all reported that in just one year, the number of on-campus interviews has dropped between one-third and one-half.1
“The current job market for recent law graduates certainly reflects the ongoing changes in hiring practices in the legal profession,” reports Lori L. Garrett, Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s (MCCA’s) managing director for the southeast region. “Today’s law school graduates are fi nding fewer opportunities to immediately join large firms, and are looking increasingly at smaller firms, government positions, and—in some cases—hanging out their own shingles.”
The Big Push
Even students hired by prestigious law firms are suffering. Deferred employment has become the norm, with thousands of graduates from the class of 2009 facing delays of six months or more. Following a wave of associate salary cuts, Mintz Levin’s Boston office deferred start dates for incoming 2009 associates. At press time, half the 2009 class was scheduled to begin work in April 2010; the remaining hires will not start until January 2011. In its New York office, Proskauer Rose deferred its 2009 incoming associate class to March 2010, and its 2009 summer associates to fall 2011. Initially, Winston & Strawn’s 2009 associates were deferred upon graduation and scheduled to clock in beginning mid-January 2010. Th e dates were then pushed back further, with some beginning a month later and others starting as late as October 2010.
Some, but not all, have received stipends and/or opportunities for fellowships to compensate for their temporary loss of employment. Proskauer Rose, for example, provided stipends of $20,000. For those who voluntarily deferred to a January 2011 start date, a stipend of $60,000 was offered.
Even with the promise of employment on the horizon, many wonder whether a stipend is enough to compensate for a prolonged loss of employment. For graduates waiting to work, a lack of health insurance is a major concern. And with student loans coming due, it seems near impossible to live off what typically amounts to $3,000 a month.
Law schools have attempted to create a safety net to support their recent graduates. For example, Boston College Law School offers assistance to deferred and unemployed graduates. It has a school fellows program,2 a career services partnership program, several research assistantships, and job-search assistance.
The American Bar Association has also stepped up by lobbying Congress for student loan deferment relief, an urgent need for the thousands of graduates with significant debt. According to a 2009 survey by the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, 29% of responding law students expected to graduate with more than $120,000 in debt.3
It’s clear that the market has changed. Rather than pushing against the tide, law school advisors are urging current students to explore alternatives to “Big Law,” dive deep into alumni networks, and begin contacting employers well in advance of hiring dates. “Networking to fi nd opportunities is imperative,” observes Garrett. “A recent law graduate finding a job at this time can be as much about who you know as what you know.”
Law school advisors encourage students to seek opportunities with smaller firms, as well as with firms that are in less-glamorous regions (like Pittsburgh or Fort Lauderdale) or overseas, where competition is softer. Asia is gaining ground as a potential market for recent graduates, according to Evan P. Jowers, a legal recruiter and managing director of the New York and Hong Kong offices of Kinney Recruiting, a leading legal recruiting firm specializing in the placement of attorneys. “I personally have made 13 US associate placements in [Hong Kong]/China during the first 9 weeks of 10. Further . . . our resident HK recruiter has made 2 US associate placements thus far,” he noted on his blog.4 Additionally, Thomas Fitzgerald, managing partner of Winston & Strawn LLP, has stated that “[a]s the world market continues to rebound from last year’s downtown we see Asia, and China particularly, continuing to play an increasingly important role.”5
Dana Morris, assistant dean for career development at University of Maryland Law School, acknowledges that “the recession has deeply impacted larger law firms, direct legal services providers dependent on IOLTA funding [a method of raising money for charitable purposes], and many government agencies in states operating with budget deficits.” Nevertheless, she explains, alternatives have come to the fore. “There are employment sectors that have been less impacted by the economy, such as federal government, the courts and many mid-size and smaller law firms. These firms operate on business models that require less overhead while allowing more-flexible billing, and their hiring is generally more closely tied to current profits, as opposed to anticipated income. Consequently, smaller and mid-size firms can adapt quickly to changes in the marketplace.”
Increasingly, new graduates are considering positions with government and nonprofit agencies. Public-interest job fairs held at law schools are seeing record attendance. The Social Security Administration reports that applications for lawyer positions and clerkships have more than doubled this year, from 800 to 2,000.6
Put simply, large firms no longer represent the “be-all, end-all” of preferred employment options for newly minted lawyers.
Law school advisors such as Morris also place emphasis on practice areas and growth sectors that do well in a recessionary environment, including bankruptcy, intellectual property, litigation, labor and employment, government-regulated industries (e.g., health care, securities, environment, telecommunications), government relations/lobbying, legislative and public policy, family law, and estate planning.
Above all, Morris shares, students should not panic. With a focus on a long-term approach, a broadened job search, and skillful networking, graduates can build a strong career. Even short-term legal work or pro-bono experience sharpens skills and builds marketability while still paying the bills. “The first job you land out of law school is probably not the job from which you’ll retire,” she advises. “Therefore, be flexible; don’t get fixated on finding the perfect job in the perfect location.”
Indeed, many graduates have learned to be creative as they await their ultimate employment. When Haris Khan graduated from Boston University School of Law in May 2009, he was set to begin work at DLA Piper US LLP shortly after he passed the bar exam. One month later, he was informed that he wouldn’t begin until January 2011. Upon weighing his options, Khan took advantage of DLA Piper’s Pro Bono Fellowship opportunity; he receives a stipend from the firm while he works at a nonprofit organization. Khan chose to work at MCCA, and now reports to MCCA’s general counsel, Brandon Fitzgerald, as an attorney fellow.
Rather than wallowing in anxiety about his future, Khan views the situation as a blessing in disguise. “The current environment created [the fellowship],” he observes. “It is an amazing experience to see first-hand the legal and business issues involved at the general counsel level. I am very fortunate to gain in-house experience this early in my career.”
While some of Khan’s friends and fellow graduates have found alternative employment, others are still searching for full-time employment nearly a year after graduating. “A few have put their Big Law dreams on hold,” he relates. “They’re going to work for smaller firms in secondary legal markets. Others are working for the federal government or nonprofits. Those that still have not found employment, despite their continued efforts, are working on a contract basis or in other temporary capacities.”
It’s evident that graduates who are open to alternative and non-traditional arrangements are more likely to find work. It may not be the type of employment they dreamed of while sitting in the darkpaneled classrooms of an Ivy League law school, but drastic times often call for drastic measures.
Is this the future that the next class of law students should anticipate? Time will tell. “If the economy continues to improve, many of us agree that the Class of 2012 will probably benefit from a stronger job market than students graduating in 2010 and 2011,” predicts Morris. “We’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel—but it is a very long tunnel, and law schools have to prepare students for that reality.” DB
Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance writer based near New York City.
1 Gerri Shih, Downturn Dims Prospects Even at Top Law Schools, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 25, 2009, available online at www.nytimes.com/2009/08/26/ business/26lawyers.html?_r=4&ref=business (visited 3/16/2010).
2 The school’s Eagle Scholar Fellowship “is designed for graduates who are interested in a career in law teaching or in writing as a component of their career in practice.” It gives participants the resources and mentoring necessary to complete a law review article of publishable quality. Post-graduate students are also given the option of auditing one or two additional courses at the law school free of charge. See BC Law Announces New Fellowship Program, Apr. 29, 200909, available online at www.bc.edu/schools/law/newsevents/2009-archive/43009.html (visited 3/16/2010).
4 Evan P. Jowers, Breakdown of Kinney’s Impressive Early ’10 Run of US Associate Placements in HK / China (blog post), Mar. 8, 2010, available online at www.kinneyrecruiting.com/kinney-blog (visited 3/16/2010).
5 Debra Mao, Winston & Strawn Opens in Beijing, Shanghai, Hires GE, BLOOMBERG. COM, Nov. 18, 2009, available online at www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=amiCVt4imUQc (visited 3/16/2010).
6 Shih, supra note 1.
From the May/June 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®