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August 11, 2010

Those law school summertime blues

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/those_law_school_summertime_blues_20100811/

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As I mentioned Friday, last week concluded my summer at Bet Tzedek. This week I am spending each weekday camped out at the Hotel Angeleno, where On-Campus Interviews are being held with a big law firms (oddly off campus). OCI is an interesting time—stressful, indeed, but I rather enjoy the barrage of 20-minute interviews. I only wish the conversations could last longer, and that a little less rode on them.

Finding work as a lawyer in 2010 is not as tough as being a journalist now, or even five years ago, but the economic downturn certainly reversed the fortunes of the meaty middle of law students at top schools who for a few years there were basically guaranteed a job at a big law firm. With it came big money, long hours and invaluable legal experience. By comparison, I’m interviewing with firms this week who are considering somewhere between 50 and 100 additional candidates for two or three summer spots. Summer spots that turn into first jobs when law school ends.

None of this is news to me. In 2007, the Wall Street Journal ran an excellent article on the waning value of just having any J.D. That article focused on both the high numbers of attorneys and the over-saturation of the legal education market. Still, the top schools were, and largely remain, strong indicators of a promising legal career. You just might need a little longer to take off.

Employment prospects remain dim, though not as ugly as they were last year. (Making the NBA is still more of a long shot.) There are indications the tide is turning. For now, what we know is that the legal profession is rebounding—but how quickly?

Writing earlier this summer in The Jewish Journal, Idan Ivri, a fellow double Bruin licensed to practice in California, told some very familiar tales.

The gist of his article: Three 6 Mafia was right. Ivri writes:

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.

Why was this a Jewish story? Well ...—insert Jewish lawyer joke here. or just watch this video via Heeb, embedded after the jump.

Anyway, for all my friends participating in OCI now and over the coming weeks across the country, good luck and godspeed. Just save a job for me. Preferably not at the firm mentioned in the following video clip. I don’t think I’m, uh, qualified for that job.

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