May 25, 2010
Economic Downturn Is Giving Law School Students the Summertime Blues
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In the end, Warner found a job with USC’s own Small Business Clinic, which helps law students gain experience by giving legal advice to small businesses that cannot afford market rates. She was one of two students taken from a pool of 50. “I’m thrilled to have a paying and interesting summer job,” Warner said.
But during the time she was searching for summer work — as late as April — Warner contemplated taking out even more loans to support herself over the summer. “Many of my classmates are still searching for summer jobs or have taken volunteer positions,” she said. “A lot of people, if they are from out of state, are going back home and living with their families [for the summer].”
For the class of 2012, the reality that they may not obtain top-dollar jobs has sunk in early. “It’s disheartening to work so hard and it’s still not enough. Who knows what the person who got that summer associate job had that I didn’t?”
Schaefer, co-author of the study on law students, doubts the current exasperation over jobs will last forever. “I think this is more of a short-run blip than a permanent change in career prospects for law grads,” he said. “I think the market is going to come back, but it will take some time. How long is hard to say.” Until then, young attorneys will bear the brunt of it. “These [Big Law] firms seem to be using a LIFO rule: last in, first out.”
Peter Zeughauser, a consultant to major law firms across the country, agrees. He predicts that within one to two years, demand will rise to “pre-Lehman Brothers” levels among those firms that were hiring prudently before the recession. For those who hired huge numbers of new graduates without foreseeing the recession, the recovery could take even longer. In any event, for now, “firms are still being cautious, and hiring classes are going to be small,” Zeughauser said.
But Zeughauser also thinks the recession may have accelerated some long-term changes afoot in the legal industry.
“I think there will be more unbundling of the work that law firms do and more outsourcing to lower-cost vendors for some work — particularly work that entry-level associates have done.” Big Law associates traditionally begin their careers in their first few years by putting in long hours sifting through thousands of pages of documents and evidence. Now such work can often be done more cheaply by outside contractors, including those in other countries, without hiring so many full-time associates here.
Still, Zeughauser is confident about the prospects of the Big Law American firms and, by association, of their employees. “Overall, I think the market for legal services is going to be robust as the world recovers from the recession,” Zeughauser said, “[and] three-quarters of the world’s largest law firms are indigenous U.S. firms.”
Failing that, there is always solo practice. “That may not be the silver spoon that going to Latham & Watkins or Cravath or Morrison Foerster or Paul Weiss or other [Big Law] firms may offer,” Zeughauser said, “but there clearly is demand for legal services to be delivered by bright young lawyers.”
For soon-to-be young lawyers like USC Law’s Wasser, the question of whether law school was the right choice still looms large in his thoughts. “It’s a constant debate I have with myself,” Wasser said. But he remains optimistic. “I don’t know if it’s a fool’s hope, [but] it seems highly unlikely that someone with my background would be unemployed.”