New grads face significant hurdles when looking for lawyer jobs. Demanding, selective and competitive are just a few ways to describe the current job market. Saturation is one big culprit. Research indicates that at the national level, the supply of new lawyers greatly outpaces the number of job openings, and that only 55 percent of the class of 2012 have full-time lawyer jobs. And then there’s personal fulfillment: How do you know which of the many legal careers is right for you?
Here’s some advice for navigating today’s tough job market and finding a satisfying legal career.
Going the traditional law-firm route
For those seeking to join a law firm after graduation, find out what specialties are hot before graduating and leaping into the job market. Almost half of lawyers polled in a recent Robert Half Legal survey predicted that litigation will experience the most growth in the first half of 2014 and the practice area is expected to remain active in the months ahead. The specific areas of litigation with the most opportunities, according to the respondents, are insurance defense (46 percent), commercial litigation (37 percent) and employment law (28 percent).
Law offices expect attorneys to take more notice of the financial side of the industry and to chime in on strategy and future initiatives. Gain some business experience by taking extra classes, looking into mentorship programs or interning at a local company. Having this background will also enable you to better serve corporate clients.
Legal careers outside of law firms
Working at a large law firm is the typical route for new grads, but alternative legal careers abound, including government, nonprofit, corporate law and mediation. Some lawyers don’t even practice law. You could go into academia (especially if you have a solid record of publishing scholarly legal articles), court administration or law-journal publishing, to name a few.
- Working as in-house counsel is a good option for grads looking to combine legal expertise and business know-how. Before hitting the corporate job market, it’s helpful to gain some experience in transactional law, regulatory law and compliance issues. In the automotive and technology sectors, foreign languages and international experience are sought-after soft skills.
- If you have an interest in policy or regulations, all levels and branches of government need law professionals to litigate civil and criminal cases, counsel lawmakers, draft statutes and regulations, enforce regulatory compliance and more. The federal government has programs for student internships and entry-level hiring programs for recent grads. The Department of Justice offers a career path that starts in law school. States and municipalities also have a need for legal counsel.
- International relations may ignite your passion, or perhaps you want to invest your energies in an important cause. Semi-governmental organizations such as the United Nations and nonprofits like Amnesty International and The Nature Conservancy often list lawyer jobs. Legal job responsibilities at these organizations include client representation, lobbying or policy work.
- Are you diplomatic, judicious and ethical? You might be a good candidate for the growing field of mediation. Increasingly, disputing parties seek resolutions and settlements outside of the courtroom to save on costs and avoid lengthy waits for trial dates. To go this route, first learn the rules and standards of conduct. Then attend training sessions and seminars and join professional organizations such as the American Arbitration Association in order to network.
Sample legal careers
If you aren’t sure what you want to do with your J.D., do some soul-searching before diving into a job search. To help you decide, seek a one- or two-year judicial clerkship, intern for a summer or do pro bono work. Contract legal work also is a good way to discover what you like and don’t like in lawyer jobs, all the while collecting a legal salary to pay the rent and start whittling down that student loan.
The collaboration between law and IT strengthens as legal software evolves. If you can take advantage of training and professional development, focus on e-discovery — an in-demand skill born of the upswing in litigation.
To find the average salary of first-year associates and in-house counsel with three or fewer years of experience, check out the Robert Half Legal 2014 Salary Guide. Despite a tough market for newly minted attorneys, you can find plum lawyer jobs, especially if you cast your net wide and in nontraditional places.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.