3Ls Do the Grim Math on Job MarketGrads to vie with the newly laid off
The nation's law schools will spit out about 43,000 graduates next month, with roughly half of those lawyer-hopefuls expecting to take jobs in private practice. They will be entering an employment market that already is swarming with thousands of laid-off associates who are in about as much demand as a five-year lease on a full-size Hummer. The upshot is a massive pile-up of attorneys looking for work in an environment that is pitting would-be attorneys against more experienced competitors.
The National Law Journal
2009-04-17 12:00:00 AM
The nation's 200 accredited law schools will spit out about 43,000 graduates next month, with roughly half of those lawyer-hopefuls expecting to take jobs in private practice.
They will be entering an employment market that already is swarming with thousands of laid-off associates who are in about as much demand as a five-year lease on a full-size Hummer.
The upshot is a massive pile-up of attorneys looking for work in an environment that is pitting would-be attorneys against more experienced competitors.
"Given that a lot of people who have been laid off were younger associates, there's a lot of uncertainty," said Shilpi Agarwal, a third-year student at Columbia Law School. "People are pretty nervous across the board."
Agarwal, who will start clerking in federal district court in Houston after graduation, has accepted a job following her clerkship at one of the nation's largest law firms. Like many others, it has deferred start dates for new associates until December. Agarwal was relieved that she chose to clerk for at least a year, given the circumstances, she said.
Among the 43,518 law students who graduated in 2008, about 21,000 took jobs at private law firms, according to the latest information available from the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement. About the same number of people are expected to graduate this year.
A BIG QUESTION MARK
Historically, nearly two-thirds of law school graduates have jobs lined up before they get their diplomas, said James Leipold, executive director of NALP.
But a big question mark hovers above the class of 2009. Many, like Agarwal, have accepted positions at firms that have delayed associate start dates for six months or even a year. Others accepted offers only to have them rescinded. But many more third-year students, especially at non-elite schools, are uncertain about where they'll go.
Moreover, they fear that those with more experience may snag the scant few jobs that are available now and the other slots that will open up once the economy brightens.
"Everything kind of sucks," said William Leef, a third-year student at Seton Hall University School of Law.
Leef worked in the Hackensack, N.J., office of an 80-attorney law firm after his first year of law school. He went back to the firm after his second year and had anticipated a full-time job following graduation. The firm notified him in December that he would not get an offer.
He already has accepted that he likely won't get a job until after he takes the bar exam this summer, and he's wary about the competition he'll face from licensed attorneys who already have experience as associates but have been laid off.
Leef said that the best argument he could make to a potential employer for hiring a recent graduate rather than an associate with experience is that those fresh from law school have a clean slate.
"I guess you could say that they can mold you into their style of work," he said.
Leef had envisioned working in a health care practice at a private law firm, which was what prompted him to attend Seton Hall, which has a strong health law program, he said. But now? "I'm looking for anything and everything," he said.
Although experienced associates have the upper hand from the perspective of graduating students, those who are already in the trenches have their own share of anxiety.
Jessie Pinkrah lost her job when Thacher Proffitt & Wood moved to dissolve last year. A 2008 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she had four months of experience before she was let go.
"I don't fit into the 'experienced attorney' category, but with the class of 2009 entering the playing field, I'm not considered a recent law graduate, either," Pinkrah said. "It's just more competition for jobs that we had very little chance of getting to begin with."
In general, experience outweighs the blank slate, said the editor of Hiring Partner Office, an anonymously written blog created by the hiring partner of a large firm.
"But if we are talking just a few months, I am not sure that is going to make or break things," said the blogger.
In the past 12 months, major U.S. law firms have sent packing about 4,000 attorneys, according to LawShucks.com, a law firm layoff tracker. And for every 100 disclosed layoffs, an equal number of unreported layoffs occur, said a hiring partner at a major law firm.
If accurate, it means that about 8,000 attorneys, the majority from the junior associate ranks, or about 38 percent of the usual 21,000 graduates who take private firm jobs each year, will be fighting for any available spots. Whatever the math, it is clear that there are far more people looking for work than positions available.
The odds that job-hunters face may be daunting, but a panicked applicant is a turnoff to employers, said Dana Morris, assistant dean for career development at University of Maryland School of Law.
"No one wants to hire someone who's desperate," Morris said. "They need to take the time to stop and take a deep breath." Morris said third-year law students "absolutely" are concerned about the competition they face from laid-off attorneys scrambling for jobs, and she advises them "to look beyond the hype out there," she said.
Morris is urging students who had their hopes set on a big-city, big-firm practice to consider smaller shops in secondary markets.
Although a candidate with experience generally is more attractive to law firms than those without, Leipold of NALP said that sweeping conclusions about who is better positioned are difficult to draw.
"The two groups of people are competing with each other, but [within each] there are different groups of people with different skills sets," he said, adding, "Law firms hire in a stratified way."