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Economic Downturn Is Giving Law School Students the Summertime Blues

by Idan Ivri, Contributing Writer

May 25, 2010 | 7:04 pm

Danielle Warner, USC (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

Danielle Warner, USC (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

“I was interested in writing,” said Elana Zarotsky, class of 2010 at UCLA School of Law and co-president of its Jewish Law Students Association. “For an English major, there’s not much to do other than law school. It’s a great living, and there are a lot of things you can do with it.”

Zarotsky’s line of thinking has echoed for generations between parents and their children — a lion’s share of Jews among them — and in countless family rooms, college dorms and cubicles across the United States. The legal profession has traditionally been one of the most prudent career paths in America. But what once seemed a secure route to a bright future has hit a bottleneck as job prospects in the industry have become, at best, anemic, since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008. Students saddled with huge debt now face graduation with frighteningly few options, even those coming from the nation’s best law schools.

The Web site Law Shucks determined that “2009 will go down as the worst year ever for law-firm layoffs,” based on its archive of press releases, leaked e-mails and news reports. The data show that 4,633 lawyers were let go last year from the group of high-powered, high-paying national firms loosely known as “Big Law.” And those numbers don’t even include lawyers whose firms dissolved completely, who were the victims of “stealth layoffs” masquerading as firings, or who were laid off by smaller firms. In other words, Law Shucks concluded that, in 2009, “More people were laid off by more firms than had been reported for all previous years combined.”

“Whenever you see layoffs like that, people are going to get very worried about their job future,” said Scott Schaefer, a professor of finance at the University of Utah. Schaefer and Stanford professor Paul Oyer published an academic study in March titled “What Drives Turnover and Layoffs at Large Law Firms?” based in part on the Law Shucks numbers. “Because of [the layoffs], this year’s law grads are facing a very difficult job market,” Schaefer said. “There are a lot of last year’s class, the year before, and even the year before that who are now competing with this year’s graduates.”

Much of that competition is rooted in the pre-recession Big Law salaries of 2007-2008, which peaked at $160,000 per year for beginning attorneys. The dream of earning that salary in one’s 20s or early 30s — and paying off student loans — was enough for many young lawyers to bear the 80-plus-hour weeks and the routine night and weekend work. Now, though, salaries anywhere near that range are exceedingly rare, and many students will simply settle for a job.

Before the recession, law students looking to earn the top salaries had to follow a straight and narrow but somewhat navigable road: The first step was to earn top grades at a good school in the first year. Next, students had to gain some legal experience — through public service or at a firm — during the first summer that, in combination with those excellent grades, would wow Big Law interviewers the following fall. Ideally, that would lead to a lucrative “summer associate” job at a firm the following year. Finally, in the fall of the third year, students would tensely wait for firms to extend offers of full-time employment to their best summer associates.

But today, even the most impressive law students with fantastic grades and advanced degrees are routinely eliminated every step of the way, making it ferociously difficult to stay on the path to Big Law.

“With the way the economy has been going the last couple of years, it’s created an added level of stress for students,” said Matt DeGrushe, dean of career services at USC’s Gould School of Law. In addition to the usual help with job searches and resumes, DeGrushe said students are signing up for a special program that has his staff constantly following up with them to make sure they are following every possible employment lead.

“The one thing we’ve relied on mostly, and I think most law schools will say this, is the one-on-one counseling,” DeGrushe said, “because there really is no easy fix that can be taught in a workshop about what you need to do to find a job in a recession.”

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