For hundreds of law firm associates who have been dismissed during the past six months, jobs are scarce and competition for openings is fierce.
“I’ve done everything right my whole life, and now there are zero opportunities,” said “Matthew,” one of several associates looking for work who agreed to talk about his job search experience as long as his real name was not used.
The out-of-work lawyers say they’re trying to refocus their résumés on experience that still counts in today’s marketplace and away from fields that are out of favor. They’re also now considering job options that pay less than they had hoped, require a geographic move or take them away from career paths they envisioned.
From Morrison & Foerster to Katten Muchin Rosenman to Dewey & LeBoeuf, major law firms and smaller ones have cut associates in offices across the country as work for certain practice groups has slowed, particularly in the real estate and corporate finance areas.
Although some firms say associate dismissals were a direct result of the economic downturn, others point to poor performance reviews even as they acknowledge that a drop in client demand contributed to slashing associate ranks.
The associates face a dismal job market, say legal recruiters, who are talking with many of the young lawyers even though there’s little help they can provide in light of the lack of demand for associates. Prospects are dim, partly because the associates only have skills and experience in the depressed practice areas that aren’t generating new jobs, the recruiters said. The associates also have not advanced enough in their careers to be eligible for in-house positions, they said.
‘We like you, but . . . ‘
Associates are coming to understand firsthand how challenging the market is through discussions with potential employers. “Everyone would say the same thing: ‘We really like you, but we just don’t have a need right now — that may change tomorrow, but it may not,’ ” said Brett Middendorf, who as a third-year associate found himself in the job market last September after Chicago-based Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon told him in June that he would have to leave the firm.
Matthew, who attended one of the top 10 U.S. law schools and was a second-year associate at a large Chicago-based firm when he lost his transactional real estate position in December, has sent out more than 200 résumés and contacted 100 legal acquaintances with no success, he said.
“The transactional skills I have, nobody wants,” said Matthew, who is 29.
Similarly, “Kimberly” has skills as a litigator, honed in working for financial service companies that have dropped in value with the decline of the banking industry. She was a seventh-year associate in the Charlotte, N.C., office of Dewey & LeBoeuf before the firm closed that office at the end of the year following the demise of the city’s Wachovia Corp., which was sold to Wells Fargo & Co. “It’s very difficult for anyone looking in the legal field and, particularly anyone in the legal field who is servicing the financial industry,” she said.
To make matters worse, the extensive, nationwide associate cuts have flooded the market with such lawyers, leaving them to compete with each other for jobs.
“If I have an opportunity, I’m not going to blab and tell everybody I know,” said Matthew, who has noticed some out-of-work lawyer friends being more distant.
A key stigma for the associates is that they have little experience in generating new business because they weren’t required to attract business in their worker-bee roles at the firms. They are not the rainmakers that every firm is seeking, recruiters said. Middendorf, who has landed a new law firm position, altered his interviewing techniques during the course of his search to take that firm view into account.
“I changed the focus of my interview to talk almost exclusively about my ability to bring in business,” Middendorf said.
The flip side of less experience is that associates have the opportunity to recast their limited background in a way that suits today’s market, perhaps emphasizing skills that have the potential to meet demand for bankruptcy, intellectual property or employment law attorneys, recruiters said. “People are realizing that as a junior-level attorney, they can reposition themselves,” said Carolyn Brenner, a legal recruiter at Lateral Link in Palo Alto, Calif.
“Kelly,” who lost her job as a second-year associate at Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein in Charlotte last month, recently added the litigation experience she had as a summer associate to her résumé to show skills beyond her banking and finance work at the firm.
Associates are also opening themselves up to a broader range of career paths than they may have considered in the past. Middendorf, 31, was hired at an insurance defense law firm in December after a former colleague at Wildman recommended him to lawyers at the smaller Brenner Ford Monroe & Scott in Chicago. He hoped to get a job in employment law and had never considered tort work, but now loves his new specialty, he said.
“I’m learning a lot more because I’m expected to do more,” Middendorf said. “This has become an opportunity to make for myself the kind of life I want to have in the future.”
To consider the job, Middendorf also had to accept making a lot less money with the prospect of earning more if his contacts in the insurance industry help him bring new business to the firm, he said.
Associates are also considering jobs outside the traditional legal field and in parts of the country that would require a move. Matthew, who gave up his Chicago apartment to reduce costs, is rotating among friends’ homes and has spent time in Miami and Washington looking for work. He even considered taking a high school teaching position or a nonlegal job with a startup restaurant chain in Miami.
Likewise, Kelly, 27, has been interviewing for nonlegal jobs and government posts, she said. “Since I know my chances of finding a job I love are probably slim right now, I am pretty much looking at whatever I do next as something temporary — maybe a year or two until the market starts to recover” she said.
Kimberly, 33, is looking for work principally outside of Charlotte and is willing to pursue a law firm job, an in-house post or other opportunities, she said.
“I’m open to considering things I otherwise would not,” she said.
While some of the associates said they would still eschew contract legal work, Courtney Goldstein, Major, Lindsey & Africa’s practice manager for associates, said that may be a mistake.
There’s no résumé taboo for such work in such a difficult economy, and any type of legal work, including pro bono, will keep an attorney’s legal skills fresh while allowing all-important networking opportunities, she said.