For today’s young attorneys-to-be, life after law school never seemed so uncertain. When they started out as first-years, the promise of a six-figure salary and a position at a top firm seemed to be just a bar exam away. Now, recent grads are more likely to encounter hiring freezes and a fiercely competitive job market, where even seasoned lawyers struggle to stay employed.
Many of those lucky enough to secure offers accepted them with deferred start dates—and a bit of trepidation. They’ve witnessed their equally talented classmates walk away from summer internships that, in better times, would have led to full-time employment.
And the headlines bring troubling news almost daily. Last year, the number of unemployed lawyers reached a ten-year high.1 To stay busy, many attorneys have decided to volunteer or to pursue pro bono opportunities until things pick up. But experts fear that things will get worse before they get better.
Tarek Audi knows this first-hand. Th e third-year Boston College Law student has spent the past year feverishly looking for a full-time position. In October, he received an offer from a Philadelphia firm after interning in Saudi Arabia for the summer. With a job waiting for him after graduation, Audi, 24, was free to focus on fi nishing up his last year and preparing for the bar exam. But less than two months after being hired, the firm withdrew the offer, claiming it was overstaffed, which left Audi scrambling to find a job elsewhere.
The situation had an immediate impact on Audi. “I didn’t go to class, I stopped studying, and pretty much looked for a job full time. My grades fell, because I was up until four or five in the morning looking for openings. I applied to about 1,100 firms, but all the job opportunities were taken. It was pretty nightmarish. I’d line up cities that I was interested in, and look up every firm there. I’d call to find out if they were still accepting applications, and I’d say about 90 percent of the firms were not hiring. Almost half of them didn’t answer or return my calls. Or they’d say, ‘Go ahead and send your resume, and we’ll keep it on file.’”
Waiting Out a Waning Job Climate
Audi is representative of a growing number of young attorneys who find themselves in employment limbo. They’re desperate to earn a living to sustain themselves and to repay student loans that, in some cases, reach hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the market is particularly tough, and job prospects are weak. It’s the age-old concept of supply outweighing demand, and it’s causing Audi and other future lawyers to rethink their career plans.
Once set on landing a position in a major city, Audi has decided to head back home to Texas to work with a firm that specializes in immigration law. “I’m happy and I’m nervous,” he shares. “Basically, I’ll be running my own practice within a firm. I’m nervous about not having anyone teach me, but it’s a relief knowing I have something. Most of the people in my class don’t have jobs. It’s tough, because a lot of minority law school grads don’t come from well-to-do families. I got a scholarship based on need. I’m coming out of school with a lot of debt, but I [took on that obligation] under the impression that I’d have opportunities.”
A few years ago, he might have. But with the worst job market the country has seen in decades, there are no assurances for anyone in the labor force. The national unemployment rate is 9.7%, the highest it’s been since 1983.2 Within the legal profession, new and mid-level attorneys in particular are feeling the pain. According to the ABA Journal, the median number of job offers made at law firms with more than 700 attorneys dropped from 30 for the class of 2009 to 18.5 for the class of 2010.3 And those who took deferments expect to get a fraction of that once-standard $160,000 starting salary.
Recent law school grad Brenda Pacouloute is among those unable to secure a full-time position. After graduating from Washington University in 2008, the Lloyd M. Johnson Scholarship recipient headed back home to Miami. She’s been actively looking for a job ever since, and has been taking on whatever part-time work she can get.
Lately, that has meant helping others in the wake of tragedy. “I’m of Haitian descent, and Miami is the epicenter of Haitian culture,” Pacouloute explains. “After the earthquake, I started getting about 100 calls a week from people who need help filling out temporary stay documentation and from people looking to adopt. There is a real boom here. I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’m learning as I go, and I can get the clientele. I speak the language, I look like them, and people in the community know my family.”
Like so many of her peers, Pacouloute has been motivated by the rapidly changing legal landscape to diversify her area of expertise, and to find others who can help her achieve success. “I’m a hustler,” she declares. “I’m thinking about my other talents and where I see myself five or ten years from now. I don’t think I want to be in front of a judge. I want to work toward teaching at a university. A JD doesn’t have to constrain you. There are other things you can do. I found an attorney to be my mentor. She’s someone I can go to with questions, and she’s helping me figure out my career path. She helps me figure out things like how much I should charge for my services. I’d advise other young lawyers to connect with anyone within their reach. Mentorship is key.”
Making Critical Connections
Pacouloute has the right idea, shares Floyd Mills, North American regional diversity director at Baker & McKenzie. At a time when jobs are scarce, he explains, the best way for young attorneys to stay relevant and to find opportunities is by reaching out to their contacts.
“Networking is especially important in an economic downturn,” asserts Mills. “One never knows when an opportunity will present itself. An in-person dialogue at a networking event can create an opportunity to discuss your career aspirations and skills with others from the industry. An attorney I met at a networking event that we hosted in our office told me that he had found his current job in exactly that manner. He spoke with someone about his desire to change his job, and it just happened that the person he was talking to was able to assist him in landing something new. Job boards and e-mails may be an efficient way to share news of an active or passive job search, but meeting people in person provides the opportunity to share one’s story and so much more of one’s self.”
Genhi Givings Bailey, senior manager of diversity and inclusion at DLA Piper LLP, agrees, adding that displaced young attorneys looking to get a foot in the door should make it a point to attend professional events and to reach out to former professors and employers.
“I encourage anyone trying to get a job at a big firm to differentiate themselves based on their ability to demonstrate creative thinking and relationship-building.” — Stephen Venuto
“Who you know is really important,” Givings Bailey advises. “That’s always going to be important. Networking might not pay off immediately, but it could lead to something down the line. I always tell people who are trying to further propel themselves to start in the most obvious places. Go to presentations at law schools, at alumni associations, and state bar associations. They cost you nothing, and they’re friendly environments. They also provide great places to start testing out your networking skills. The relationshipbuilding piece is really critical. It can mean the difference between landing a job and being looked over.”
Standing Out Among the Competition
Although they have fewer positions to fill, law firms will continue adding to their rosters in 2010, observes Stephen Venuto, on-campus hiring partner for Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Most firms are just being more conscious about it.
Recent grads looking for work have to offer more than just top grades from top-tier universities. With such an abundance of talent on the market, standing out on paper and in person is essential. “Every firm is hiring less this year than last year,” Venuto maintains. “I encourage anyone trying to get a job at a big firm to differentiate themselves based on their ability to demonstrate creative thinking and relationshipbuilding. It’s sort of cliché—but true—that fi rms are now hiring young attorneys who can one day become partners. Th ey’re not bringing in people solely to do the due diligence. That’s an important part [of a young attorney’s development], but firms are looking to bring in folks who can bring in business as they get to the senior level in their careers.”
As they wait for the economy to pick up, young attorneys undoubtedly have a tough road ahead. Like Pacouloute and Audi, many are juggling contract assignments, considering opening their own firms, and wondering what to do next. This is a time when thick skin is essential—something Pacouloute is learning along the way.
“One thing this recession showed me was how much strength I have,” Pacouloute concludes. “You have to be fearless. You may fall down, but you have to persevere.” DB
Chana Garcia is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger based in New York City.
3 Debra Cassens Weiss, Some Deferred Start Dates May Become Withdrawn Job Offers, A.B.A. J., May 12, 2009, available online at www.abajournal.com/news/article/warning_possible_associate_pile-up_ahead_and_some_will_crash_and_burn (visited March 15, 2010).
From the May/June 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®