New lawyers, law students confront opportunity dearth

Issue October 2010 By Christina P. O'Neill

The outlook for legal jobs last year was so grim that experts in the legal-jobs field are saying that the recruitment business model traditionally relied on by big law firms is a thing of the past. Summer clerkships - if the classes of 2009 and 2010 could get them at all - won't necessarily lead to a job offer. But the bleak job numbers of 2009 have given way to flat demand, or even modest growth, this year.

Times will likely be as trying for the class of 2010 as they are for the class of 2009. But there's an opportunity for newly-minted lawyers to put more serious thought into their career goals -- and become more creative about achieving them - than their counterparts who graduated in plummier times.

Locally, the job placement numbers for Massachusetts law schools for the class of 2009 range all over the map, with some schools reporting 99 percent or above placements (including not only law firms, but also judge clerkships, public service, government and academia); others only report the numbers for the grads whose employment status is known to the school (which can dip into the eighties). While some Massachusetts law schools offer detailed breakdowns of employment by business category and firm size, the school figures do not drill down into the less-visible statistics of how many job placements are for contract work, temporary work or whether grads currently employed are still looking.

Nationally, someone is keeping track of those statistics. The National Association for Law Placement Inc., founded in 1971, keeps an extensive year-by-year database of employment statistics, with a goal of improving career counseling and planning, recruitment and retention, and professional development. Last year, 192 American Bar Association-accredited law schools participated in the annual NALP survey, submitting information on 40,833 graduates, or 92.8 percent of all class of 2009 grads from ABA-accredited schools.

Last year, NALP marked an industry record, but not a record to celebrate. The job offer rate for the class of 2009, following the traditional summer recruitment season, plunged by more than 20 percentage points from the offer rate of 2008, making it the lowest that NALP had measured since the organization began collecting that data in 1993.

With the fall recruiting season for the law school class of 2011 in process as this issue went to press, NALP Executive Director James Leipold says he does not see the job-offer outlook improving significantly. Due to the protracted recruiting and hiring process in the legal profession, the class of 2012 will be the first to experience any market resurgence, he says.
The last major recession affecting the legal profession peaked in 1991. But the law classes that had the lowest
employment rates were not the class of 1991, they were the classes of 1993 and 1994. "This recession is different than that one," he says. "The underlying causes are different, but there's definitely a tail on it."

NALP's figures are nationwide. So Massachusetts' newly minted lawyers, searching for jobs in an economy that has changed dramatically since they entered law school, can take cold comfort in knowing that their compatriots in other parts of the country don't have it any better.

A dream deferred

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the legal sector lost 22,000 jobs between July 2009 and July 2010. While this represents all legal job categories, young attorneys have been hardest hit as law firms push back start dates for the class of 2009 to as late as this coming January. Some firms have withdrawn offers or offered deferral plans, including offers of decreased compensation.

The classes of 2009 and 2010 are less likely to have secured summer clerkships between their second and third year than their predecessors. Clerkships are most often a route to a job offer. But members of the class of 2011, now in their third year, probably couldn't find one. In headier times, if the 2Ls didn't accept the job offers they were given, firms would scout the 3Ls, but that isn't happening in this market - only three percent of law firms said they went back to market to look for 3L students.

The class of 2009, which entered the job market in the middle of last year, saw more than half of its graduates surveyed taking deferred start dates beyond Dec. 1, 2009, for the jobs they did get. Eighty-five percent of schools NALP surveys reported deferred start dates like these. Survey data pegs the number of law associates whose start dates were deferred as ranging between 3,200 and 3,700 nationwide.

Members of the class of 2009 were more likely to be working part time, working in a temporary job, working in a job that does not require a JD, working as a solo practitioner, or working but looking for another job, than their peers in prior years. More information can be found in NALP's Jobs and JDs report.

Starting salaries, however, didn't change much between 2008 and 2009. NALP notes that it measures salaries on an adjusted-mean basis that takes into account the gap between salaries at large firms, small firms and non-law-firm employment. A full report can be found at

Light at the end of the tunnel

There is an indication that the gloom may be lifting. Rick Kofski of, a job site exclusively for attorneys, noted a 23 percent drop in job postings in 2009, but a steady uptrend this year, with the first half of 2010 seeing a gain of 29 percent in job postings, with the corporate sector leading the recovery.

Kofski also reports that half the respondents to a midyear Altman Weil survey said they planned to add attorneys this year. Many markets were moving up to flat or positive growth at the end of last year, including Boston. Growth sectors include real estate restructuring work, health care, employment law, technology transactions and patent prosecution work.

"There is not a single legal employment market for new law school graduates," NALP's Leipold said in a statement this past July in announcing the report on employment and salaries for the class of 2009. "Instead, there are many micro job markets that vary greatly by geography, sector, and size of the employer. Each of these markets varies as to starting salary, the timing of hiring, and the profile of the graduates who find work in them. Just as an average starting salary cannot describe the likelihood of a particular starting salary for any one law school graduate, there is no single set of statistics that can predict employment opportunities for a single graduate. Consumers of legal education and those who study the legal employment market need to consider the broad array of factors that influence the initial employment outcomes for new lawyers."

Try it, you might like it

You get out of any experience what you put into it. If you don't allow the exigencies of the short term to cloud your long-term focus, you will do better in the long run.

Kate Neville Esq., principal of Neville Career Consulting LLC, in Washington, D.C., urges the newly minted with uncertain futures to investigate their options, because big law firms may never be the job engine they once were. "Try to practice for a couple of years. Go ahead and take the bar even if you don't think you're going to practice. Some people go to law school and hate it, but end up loving practice. Try it even if you think that's not why you went to law school."

Meanwhile, when law firms start getting busy again, "they will compete for talent. They will want young lawyers with experience to handle the deals. Where will those lawyers come from if they are not being groomed?" she says.

In an illustration of how the business model for large firms is changing, Neville warns against the two-tier trap of hiring that segments one set of hires on a high-level, sophisticated work track that may lead to partnership, and another as staff attorneys to do routine work. Additionally, firms are using contract attorneys at hourly rates reduced from $75 to $25, significantly less than those of the recent past - raising questions on how the new grads will pay down their student debt.

New graduates "have to cast a broad net," she says. They need to get good work experience, possibly at a much lower salary than they were expecting; they may have to re-negotiate student loan payments; they may have to work with smaller firms or work solo - or even pro bono - in order to get the experience they need.

Law school alums should seek out the career centers of not only their law schools, but of their colleges and high schools, says Gina Walcott, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL), an independent, private corporation which offers free and confidential counseling and support services to attorneys.

"The people I've come across have had just as much luck with college alumni offices [as with law schools], because colleges want to keep alums happy," Walcott says. "Ask for and get the alumni directory. Find out which [alums] are practicing law. … Don't stop at the obvious."

The psychological toll on new lawyers who have worked hard all the way through school, only to hit the shoals of a recession, can be daunting. Contrary to some impressions, LCL does not report to the Board of Bar Overseers. In addition to one-on-one counseling, LCL offers support groups on request, provided that a sufficient number of people request it. LCL works hand-in-hand with - but does not share information with - the Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP), which provides management and marketing advice.

"Fundamentally, the whole thing is just so challenging to the ego," notes Stephen Seckler, president of Seckler Legal Coaching, based in Greater Boston. "If your profession is your measure of success, and now nobody wants to hire you, it's damaging to your ego." He and Walcott urge those who feel like retreating from the world to instead do the opposite - seek involvement in bar association committees, pro bono work and nonprofit committees. Lawyers' ability to organize and analyze information and present it to others is a valuable, portable skill.

"There's the comfort of knowing that you're far from alone in that situation," Walcott says. "A number of [support group] participants have said, 'I thought I was the only one that felt that way.' Make that first call to contacts you haven't talked to in two years . . . Get back out there. It instantly makes you feel better."