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Pity the law students who started school in 1999. They had big expectations, as major law firms engaged in a bidding war for talent and signed top grads with no experience for six-figure salaries. Three years later, law graduates are emerging into a depressed economy, with law firm budgets tight and hiring levels reduced. These young lawyers are finding that the reality of current legal economics is raining on their field of dreams. Some of the best rookies are still being offered salaries in the range of $100,000, but that benchmark hasn’t risen in three years, according to managing partners at major South Florida firms. For students below the highest rank and outside the biggest cities, starting pay averages less than half that much, say law school placement counselors. The slow economy has meant big changes for placement officers at Florida law schools and for recruiters at law firms around the state. Law schools increasingly are pointing grads toward government work, smaller law firms and legal practice areas they might not have considered before. “The period of the large starting salaries and aggressive hiring began to slow down even before the recession began,” says Gary Vause, dean of the Stetson University law school in Gulfport, Fla. But economic adversity also brings opportunity, he says, pointing to growth in the legal fields of bankruptcy, litigation, alternative dispute resolution, employment, technology, health care and energy. He says job prospects remain strong in those areas. About 2,500 new lawyers are expected to hit the marble floors in search of jobs in Florida this year, says Kathryn Ressel, executive director of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners in Tallahassee. Those who pass the bar exam this year enter a market in which top-tier law firms have been laying off lawyers and cutting expenses. That’s the result not just of a generally bad business year worsened by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but also because of the rising associate pay trend which took off in 1999. SOME STILL PAYING To be sure, not all firms admit that atmospherics of recruiting associates has changed. Managing partner John Sumberg, of the 75-lawyer Bilzin Sumberg Dunn Baena Price & Axelrod in Miami, says his firm has been in “expansion mode” for six months. It has hired seven new lateral associates and three new lateral partners, and plans to hire about four first-year associates this year. The firm remains among the handful in the city that hire talented rookies at $100,000 a year. “It just goes to basic law firm economics,” Sumberg says. “If you have a good program for client selection and extension and you’re doing high-level work, the economics work and the associate pay level isn’t a problem.” Sumberg feels no market pressure, however, to raise the starting salary for first-year associates above that six-figure mark. He detects a shift in the attitude of applicants who in the past might have pushed for more, better, faster. “I think associates are aware they are less in the driver’s seat,” he says. “There are more talented people out there looking for fewer spots,” agrees Rick Giusto, a principal shareholder and chairman of the recruiting and associate committees at Greenberg Traurig in Miami. At his firm, the first-year starting salary plus signing bonus averages $107,000. Bowman Brown, chairman of the executive committee at Shutts & Bowen in Miami, says that South Florida law firms are more carefully assessing how many new lawyers they really need to hire. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to train beginners, with no guarantee they’ll make the grade or stay for the long haul, he says. “At that price, it’s a dubious bet,” he says. He says he and other law firm leaders feel “a lot of remorse” over all the hiring they did during the late boom period — and over the higher salaries they agreed to pay. RECRUITERS CHANGE TACTICS Still, law firms that offer first-years $100,000 represent just 1 percent of the firms out there, says Joan McDonald Beck, director of career services at St. Thomas University’s law school in Miami. The rest of the universe of law firms also are more cautious in hiring these days, she says. School placement counselors are adjusting their strategy and advice to graduates accordingly. St. Thomas now encourages grads to apply to smaller and mid-size firms or to look for staff positions in government or corporations. This year, she says, her students “don’t expect things to be handed to them.” Beck estimates that small-firm salaries in South Florida this year range from $40,000 to $80,000, up from last year’s $35,000 to $65,000 range. As for government work, a job in a county prosecutor or public defender’s office pays about $35,000 a year, Beck notes. A federal judicial clerkship pays about $38,500. Janet Mosseri, director of career development at Nova Southeastern University’s law school in Ft. Lauderdale, also sees many students going to small or mid-sized firms, where starting salaries average about $44,000. To help them find jobs, Nova is bringing in speakers to discuss areas of the law the students might not have considered, such as insurance defense and alternate dispute resolution. But the job outlook isn’t so bad. The University of Florida law school in Gainesville recently reported that 94 percent of students in the class of 2001 found jobs within nine months of graduation, up from 90 percent the year before. Laura Traynham, UF’s assistant placement director, says employers’ caution may cause that percentage to drop this year. So the placement staff is stepping up its effort. The school sent out 6,000 invitations for law firm representatives to attend its upcoming fall campus interview program, nearly double the usual number. Stetson officials say their employment rate for 2001 grads stands at nearly 96 percent. The starting salary at large law firms in the Tampa Bay area ranges from $60,000 to $70,000, says Cathy Fitch, director of career services. Merger and acquisition work is starting to come back, banking and financial workouts are strong, and litigation is going gangbusters, she says. About 100 law firms went to the University of Miami campus this past fall to recruit, up from 45 when Marcy Cox started there in 1997. Cox, the UM school’s assistant dean for career planning, says the percentage of small and mid-sized firms that are recruiting on campus is growing, partly because her staff has been courting such firms. LOCATION, LOCATION UM is seeking out job opportunities for its graduates not just in South Florida but wherever jobs exist. In the past, the school focused on government jobs with state attorney and public defender offices and the state attorney general. Now it’s reaching out to a variety of federal agencies, including the FBI, CIA, the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission. “There are students interested in going elsewhere, but if the job is just at their feet here in South Florida, they don’t make the effort,” Cox says. “So we try to expose them to opportunities that exist outside of Miami and Florida.” While there may be more nail-biting than usual this year among law firms, placement officers and graduates, there are jobs. And for top-ranking graduates, there are still six-figure salaries. Says UM’s Cox: “It’s not dismal at all.”

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