May 25, 2010
Economic Downturn Is Giving Law School Students the Summertime Blues
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The 2010 Graduates’ Narrow Escape
From the beginning of law school at UCLA, Zarotsky had no illusions about her goals. “A lot of law students go into law school idealistic about what kind of law they want to do,” she said, “but once the loans start building up and reality sinks in, I think they start to change their mind.
“For a public school, you don’t expect [UCLA] to cost $35,000 per year,” Zarotsky said. “They’ve increased our tuition every year, and that’s on top of the fact that half of us don’t have jobs. It’s crazy.” Although she said her $115,000 in student loan debt is “not bad” compared to that of many other students, Zarotsky knew she wanted her first step out of school to be at a big firm.
Zarotsky’s class of 2010 may have been the last before the lean years fully set in at Big Law. When she secured a summer associate position at a prominent Los Angeles firm during her fall 2008 interviews, “They didn’t really know [yet] how bad things were going to be,” and hired seven students. The following year, that same firm hired only two summer associates. “That’s five potential UCLA law students who now have to find another summer job,” Zarotsky said. “If all the firms are doing that, and they are, it really hurts the second-year law students.”
By the end of summer 2009, it was clear to Zarotsky that her firm was having difficulty offering full-time positions after graduation, even for its best summer associates. “They had just done layoffs right before we got there,” she recalled. “So it was a little tense showing up and having the lawyers working there [see] their friend just got laid off, and here are new people waltzing in.”
The firm ended up offering a few of its 2010 summer associates jobs contingent on a six-month deferral after graduation, starting them full-time in January 2011. Others, including Zarotsky, were asked to take an 18-month deferral and start in January 2012. In the interim, Zarotsky says she is lucky to have found a job as a law clerk for a judge. “Otherwise, I don’t know what I’d be doing for a year and a half. Starbucks or something.”
Unwelcome Surprises for Class of 2011
Generally speaking, the more recently the student entered law school, the tougher it has been to find jobs. While some in the class of 2010, like Zarotsky, formed good relationships with firms before the downturn hit, most of the classes of 2011 and 2012 did not make it in time.
“When I applied [to law school], the financial crisis hadn’t hit yet,” said Bryan Wasser, a second-year USC law student. “It still seemed that the environment was ripe with opportunity in 2007. After putting so much time and effort into the LSATs and applications, I had sort of made my bed, and I had to lie in it.”
Wasser, president of USC School of Law’s Jewish Law Students Association, is a prime example of a top-notch second-year student hurt by the economy. He had already earned a master’s degree in accounting and had four years of experience as an auditor with Deloitte & Touche before starting law school. Still, despite his financial experience and USC’s excellent reputation, firms would not hire him for either his first or second summer.
Part of the difficulty was that in his first year, Wasser did not earn the near-perfect grades that so many big firms demand. Then the economy went into freefall. “When I started reading about how job prospects were scarce and that more emphasis was going to be put on GPAs, I was worried,” Wasser said. During his first year, Wasser and other first-year students would compare their backgrounds and job prospects. “They said, ‘You were already a CPA, you had a job, and now you’ve come here seeking a new career and you might be stuck without one.’”