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In a different time, Michael J. Voynich might have sat back and waited for the offers to come in. He was graduated No. 5 in his Mercer law school class last spring, a ranking that normally would guarantee a host of offers. But this year, Voynich took nothing for granted. He interviewed with 20 law firms that came to campus, spent a lot of time researching the job market, sent resume packages to 25 firms and attended even more interviews. “I knew it would take a little more effort to get the job I wanted,” Voynich said. “You’ve got to work hard, regardless of whether you’re in the top or not, to get the job that you want.” Such diligence paid off for Voynich, who received several offers and recently went to work at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, a firm that did not interview on campus. The job market isn’t so bleak that law school graduates may have to wait tables, but they will have to work harder at selling themselves. “It’s a buyers’ market,” said Patricia D. White, Emory University School of Law interim assistant dean of career services. Students in the classes of 2002 and 2003 “decided to go to law school in a very strong economy, and now the world is different. It’s requiring a lot of flexibility and courage on their part.” Even so, “There are still very interesting legal jobs. You just have to work harder to find them, and it can take longer to find them.” FEW FIRMS RAISE PAY Starting salary data collected by the Daily Report seems to confirm that employers realize new grads will have to court them in this economy. Of 46 firms surveyed in Georgia, only five raised starting salaries this year. The others are standing pat, some for the third straight year. It’s a far cry from 2000, when salaries at some firms rose a whopping 25 percent, with some of the big firms breaking $100,000. But there they have stayed. When the dot-com boom became the dot-bomb bust, firms put the brakes on salary escalation. And with the economy sputtering along, few firms have seen a need to start another bidding war. Alston & Bird hit $100,000 in 2000, as did Arnall Golden Gregory, Hunton & Williams, King & Spalding and other firms. And, as those firms seat new associates in 2003, the pay remains the same as 2000. Firms make no apologies. “We’re not getting any feedback that we’re not competitive on salary,” said R. Douglas Wright, hiring partner for entry-level associates in the Atlanta office of Holland & Knight, which chose not to raise starting salaries. “Our starting salaries are set nationally, basically by our recruiting committee,” Wright said. The amount, which remains steady at $100,000 for Atlanta associates, is “based on an overview of the local economies and the local market for entry-level lawyers.” “We’re obviously optimistic about the economy, and our hiring is as normal as it can be,” he added. Alston & Bird’s new associates will continue to be offered a base pay of $100,000. Hiring partner Jonathan W. Lowe said, “We see no reason in today’s marketplace to provide for an increase in order to remain competitive in our Atlanta office. The economy that we’ve lived with for the last two or three years at some point even affects law firms, especially in the transactional area. That reality is reflected in our having just welcomed a class of new associates that’s slightly smaller than last year’s class.” This year’s first-year class in all of Alston & Bird’s offices — in Atlanta, Washington, New York, Charlotte, N.C., and Raleigh, N.C. — is about 15 percent smaller than the 2002 class, he added. On the other hand, hard times create prosperity for some firms. Among employers surveyed, the largest raise — $5,000 — went to associates starting with the Atlanta labor boutique of Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp & Wilson. Not only is the firm raising starting associates’ salaries to $90,000, but it’s also increasing staff. The firm usually hires two attorneys annually, but it recently hired two law students as associates to begin next year, and it expects to make two more lateral hires, said Elarbee Thompson hiring partner R. Read Gignilliat. “Bad economies” often require companies to lay off workers, and that, “oddly enough, can actually increase our business,” he said. Unfortunately for new grads, few firms are following the lead of Elarbee Thompson. MORE COMPETITION FOR JOBS New grads here also face more competition because the Atlanta area has a relatively healthy economy compared to many other cities. Despite unemployment of 5 percent in Georgia (compared to 6.2 percent nationally), Atlanta in July led large U.S. cities in job creation over the preceding 12 months, with a net gain of about 47,500 jobs, according to Victoria Dinkins, an economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “We are recovering nicely,” said Michael L. Wald, a regional economist with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “As bad as things may look here, compared with New York, they look pretty good,” he said. However, such relative prosperity has drawn experienced attorneys here from other states, resulting in more competition. Vickie M. Brown, Georgia State University College of Law director of career services, knows firsthand that other states’ graduates are eyeing Georgia. She said she’s seen a big increase in “requests for reciprocity,” in which graduates of other schools ask for access to Georgia State’s job listings. The direction of the job market depends on whom you ask. Kay Stanley, president of Paces Personnel Inc., has seen a steady growth since January in hiring legal support staff. She said this often foreshadows increased hiring of attorneys. Her company even plans to hire more legal recruiters to handle the increased business. “When people stop hiring, it hits us first,” Stanley said. “But we’re the first people to feel it come back.” A survey from another legal placement firm backs her up, though such firms have a vested interest in optimism. A poll of 200 attorneys at U.S. and Canadian law firms by The Affiliates recently showed 56 percent reporting an increase in business, and 52 percent said they expect to hire more staff this year. Kara Cassio, division director of the Atlanta office of The Affiliates, said she hopes the economy “is on the rise.” Even so, the market in Atlanta still seems tight. “You do have more people looking for jobs, and you do have employers being pickier,” she said. Cassio also sees an influx of out-of-state job seekers to Atlanta. JOB SEARCHES STRETCHING Placement offices at the state’s law schools indicate that, while there is no crisis, it’s taking graduates longer to find jobs this year. At the University of Georgia, when the economy booms, approximately 80 percent of the class is either holding job offers, employed or enrolled in extended educational programs by graduation. But this year, only 73.5 percent had a position lined up at graduation in May, said Beth S. Kirch, director of legal career services at the university. By mid-September, about 77 percent of graduates were placed. The Class of 2003 “has definitely caught a good bit of the recession,” she said. The statistics are much the same at other state law schools. The percentage of those with job offers at graduation also is usually near 80 percent at Emory University School of Law, according to White, the interim assistant dean of career services. But only 72 percent of the Class of 2003 had offers by graduation. “It was better than we had feared,” said White, who added that employers felt “they could afford to wait.” At Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law, 58.8 percent of the class of 2003 had jobs — or more schooling — lined up by graduation. That’s about 5 percent below a non-recession year, said Rachael B. Schell, the director of career services. Georgia State University has no data on law students who had jobs by graduation. JOB-HUNTING SKILLS NEEDED In such a market, new grads learn that they may not get a job just by touting their newly minted degree and a respectable transcript. Job-hunting skills become much more important. “The passive approach for most people doesn’t work in a market like this unless you’re at the very, very top (of your class),” said White. Yet even those with top academic rankings can benefit from researching the market and networking to ensure they get the job they like. “Not everybody can be in the top 10; somebody has to be at the bottom,” said White. “With our pool of students, those who are [at] the bottom are people who’ve done extremely well in their academic careers” prior to law school. While they may not have caught on to writing a good law exam, they still can shine when they argue in the courtroom and in day-to-day practice, especially if they don’t “internalize” their academic slump in law school, White said. Undaunted by a low ranking, one Emory student capitalized on her work experience and work ethic by mailing resumes to 400 firms. Then “she followed up with phone calls,” White said. Firms took notice. “They called her in because they loved her work experience and how spunky she was and how much she persevered,” White said. “She’s going to wind up with a job far above where her GPA would have put her, and she’s going to be great at it.” BE PERSISTENT, FOCUSED Law graduates “need to be persistent, to be focused, to network like crazy and they need to organize and have structure in that process,” said Lee Ann Bellon, president of Bellon & Associates Inc., a legal recruiting firm. Recent graduates are “in competition with the more experienced attorneys who may have either been let go or who are not busy.” Also noting the “tight market” is Jane H. Allen, president of Counsel on Call Inc., which places experienced attorneys in contract and permanent positions. Allen said she is surprised at what may be another indicator of the difficult market — recent resumes from top students interested in contract work. Usually, contract work is pursued by experienced attorneys. Linda Sloan, president of Hughes & Sloan Inc., another recruiting firm, said, for the first time, about 20 percent of her firm’s contract attorneys are recent graduates. “There are a lot of qualified people having trouble finding positions,” she said. “I think that it was a real tough year this year and last year for law school graduates.” Anne Berryman is a free-lance writer based in Athens, Ga.

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