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
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
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 www.nalp.org/salarydistrib.
Light at the end of the tunnel
There is an indication that the gloom may be lifting. Rick
Kofski of AttorneyJobs.com, 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
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
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
"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."