Get ready for a changing new lawyer landscape

Issue June 2014 By Damian Turco

The legal job market for new law school graduates has been so bad for so long that most potential employers now consider it the norm. Well, guess what? Things will be changing one year from now. The demand for legal work has not substantially increased. The number of available positions has not skyrocketed. The demand side of the equation is not likely to be significantly altered over the next year. However, due to significant declines in law school enrollment over the past few years, the supply will finally start to thin.

Let's look at the numbers, which are readily available due to the American Bar Association's requirement of law school reporting. Let's first go back to 2010. We were in the thick of the national financial crisis when many Americans decided to pursue law school. They may have made wise decisions, but they were not alone. In fact, in 2010 we had the largest first-year law school enrollment ever at 52,488. From that point forward, the job market worsened while new lawyers continued to flood the market. The dismal job market for new lawyers translated to law school being less desirable and enrollment continued to plummet. In 2013, the ABA reported that first-year law school enrollment fell 24 percent from the 2010 figure, to its lowest levels since 1975.

As the story unfolded, we talked about how law schools would adapt, how new lawyers would be unable to find work and how law firms would have a never-before-seen selection of potential candidates. While it would be a bit too speculative of me to opine on how law schools will adapt, predicting how the latter two stories will play out is straightforward. There will be less lawyers competing for the same jobs and the employers will have fewer candidates from which to choose.

We are a year away from seeing a big drop off in new lawyers. This will be a much bigger story a year from now. We may be ahead of the curve on this issue, but we are not early. As practitioners, we sometimes move ahead by accurately predicting the future and developing a corresponding competitive advantage. For the employers, this is the last year you'll have such an expansive selection of potential candidates. It will shrink quickly year over year. Colleagues will be remarking on how difficult it is to find a good candidate.

The laws of supply and demand are simple. When there is greater demand, you pay more money for the resource. When there is less selection, you have to make more sacrifices between the vision of your ideal candidate and the applicants with which you're presented. If you are debating whether to take on a bright new lawyer now versus later, consider these facts in making your decision. If now is not the right time for your practice to take on someone new, consider taking action to shore up this risk. Develop a formal internship program now and start developing your future employees. It is well established that income is not the determining factor in whether an employee stays with a firm. Set clear expectations, communicate clearly, listen and mentor, and you will have an edge on securing that intern as a promising new associate next year.

For the law student and new members of the bar, these numbers are good news. Job seeking will logically get easier in the next few years. That's easier, not easy. You will still need to excel at all the objective criteria that sets new lawyers apart from the pack. Do your best to get great grades. Get involved in associations, like the MBA or student groups. For new lawyers, get involved and get whatever relevant experience you can. For students and new lawyers alike, go to events and build your professional network. When the numbers of new lawyers thin out, you'll have a great edge if you stay busy and grow your knowledge and professional network in the meantime.

Damian Turco owns Mass Injury Firm PC, a Boston-based personal injury law firm, representing the victims of negligence across Massachusetts. Damian is the vice chair of the MBA's Law Practice Management Section Council and is a regular presenter at MBA CLE courses.