Tough sledding for new grads

News flash: The economy sucks, especially for Michigan lawyers right now.

Whether you blame it on the national economic meltdown, the Engler court or just the circle of life, one thing is certain: the people feeling the brunt of it are the new graduates, who have no experience and a mountain of debt.

So what else is new, you ask? Hasn’t every graduating class since the beginning of time faced the same obstacle? Yes and no. Certainly everyone starts at the bottom, but at least there were opportunities. The problem for today’s graduates is that there are so few entry level positions available that if you don’t find your job through on-campus interviews, your employment opportunities are bleak.

And even if you are lucky enough to find a job, the current rate for most entry level jobs is far below even modest expectations. Even those who were able to find employment at big firms through on-campus interviews have found that their starting dates were postponed a year if not cancelled all together.

How bad is it? Several blogs, including Above the Law and S#!@ Law Jobs, are dedicated to highlighting the the worst possible examples of legal job postings. A couple great examples:

From Craigslist [HT: Above the Law]

small personal injury firm seeking a 0-2 year experienced lawyer. No experence in persoanl injury required. The job will not pay as well as some others, but the candiate will get a lot of experience immediatedly. The candidate will attend deposition, court hearing, write briefs, and interact with clients, and experts. If you would like to learn personal injury law, or start a personal injury pratice, this is the position for you.

This downtown Chicago job is listed at a part time job. The pay? $1,000 a month. If it was a full time job, it would pay $6.25 an hour. You can make more at McDonalds (because, you know, the minimum wage is $7.15). Something tells me the job requires full time effort.

And it’s not just private firms. The U.S. Attorney for Western Missouri wants to pay attorneys with experience [ATL, again]:

The United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri is seeking applications from attorneys who are willing to accept temporary positions that, while unpaid, offer attorneys a valuable opportunity to gain exposure to the office while also obtaining litigation and potentially trial experience.

What? Are the college football players? And what’s worse is that they actually want a commitment of six months to a year. “Hey recent graduate! I know those student loan bills are coming, but maybe you can live with your parents a little bit longer and work for us for free!” And the work? Well, it sounds like attorney work.

SAUSAs will research legal issues, draft pleadings and briefs, provide support at hearings and trials, and attend difference court proceedings.

Yikes.

Yet despite the glut of lawyers and the dearth of entry level jobs, law schools are still churning out new lawyers at record numbers, and, unlike before, they’re becoming quite active in marketing and advertising themselves with the promise of a better life/career.

The University of Toledo Law School, for example, offers in-state tuition to many Michigan residents. The Thomas M. Cooley Law School bought the naming rights to the Lansing minor league baseball stadium, and has expanded to Grand Rapids, Rochester and Ann Arbor. Both Cooley and Michigan State University School of Law have billboards throughout the state.

It’s to the point that I can’t see how anyone in good conscience encourage somebody to go to law school anymore. I get asked to talk to someone’s family member or friend on a semi-regular basis about what law school is like. Instead, I end up telling them what the market’s like. And they always go to law school anyway, thinking it won’t happen to them. 

I hope, for their sake, that things improve by the time they get out, and they don’t resort to begging the school for their money back if they choose to just go back to what they were doing before they started law school. But with roughly a thousand new attorneys being licensed each year by the State Bar, it’s unlikely to change.

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Amicus Curiae: Rethinking This Whole Law School Thing

A few summers ago, I met a first year law student and her mother. Her mother asked me if I had any advice for her daughter as she was trying to figure out what kind of law she wanted to practice. Having already been an attorney for six years and seen the legal industry in Michigan begin its decline, I jokingly said, “Quit now, before you owe too much money.”

Her mother was aghast. She pulled me aside a week later when the daughter wasn’t there and went all Gunnery Sgt. Hartman on me, telling me I ripped her daughter’s heart out and stomped on her dreams.1

Anyway, scouring the interwebs for legal trends from across the country has taught me that the legal industry’s downturn is happening everywhere, not just in Michigan. In New York, for instance, BigLaw layoffs are so bad that even the brown-nosers top-performing associates are concerned for their futures.

Even associates who find plenty to do worry that outstanding performance is no longer enough to protect them, said Daniel Lukasik, a Buffalo lawyer who runs an information and outreach Web site called Lawyers With Depression, adding that his traffic is up 25 percent since June, to about 25,000 visitors a month.

Mr. Lukasik recently received a call from a man who said he was a fifth-year associate in Manhattan who complained that he felt expendable even though he was a top performer.

“He said to me, ‘What more do I have to do?’ ” Mr. Lukasik recalled. “ ‘I’m billing a large amount of hours, I’m a team player,’ but he said it’s very possible he might lose his job. And he was a Yale graduate, at a top-20 firm.”

Things are so bad that a Seton Hall law professor thinks that there are only three reasons why anyone should even consider going to law school in this economy.

Yesterday’s New York Times article about the depreciating value of a law degree is presently number one on the Times’ “most emailed” list.  My fervent hope is that the article is being forwarded not just to lawyers, but also to individuals who are considering whether to join a 1L class in 2010.

Because I am visiting at another law school this semester, I don’t have to attend any admissions events this spring.  Yet I’ve been thinking hard about what advice I would give prospective students and this is where I’ve landed:  Only go to law school next year if (1) you have always dreamed of being a lawyer; or (2) you are accepted by a very prestigious institution; or (3) you are offered a full scholarship.

She even goes as far as to advise prospective students that law school may be a baaad idea.

Of course, this year law school applications will be partly driven by the lack of opportunity costs. Graduating college students face generally dismal employment prospects regardless of what field they want to enter.   But I suspect that optimism bias plays just as large a role in student decision-making.   No matter what the economy, some lawyers will be wildly successful.  Many prospective students are inclined to think that they will be part of this group, no matter how daunting the odds against it. On the more rational side of the analysis, it’s also true that law school historically has proven itself a relatively good place to weather out bad economic times.

What is different this time around, however, is that no one is yet sure whether the changes in legal markets and in law firms are permanent, or whether things will eventually return to what we had come to think of as normal.  If you haven’t always wanted to practice law, or if you’re considering a law school that is not one of the best in the nation, or if the law school isn’t offering to pay for you to attend, my advice is to wait to see how this plays out.

Of course, everyone thinks that it’s a great career move no matter what you were planning on going into before, as if it is recession-proof. One in-state law school has even added three law schools in the last few years, pumping even more lawyers into an already crowded job market. But it brings me back to the story of the law student and her mom. The 1L did well in school and graduated, but ended up having to move to another state to work.

1 A little overdramatic? I thought so. But that’s what she said.

Nothing to see here In its never-ending quest to recycle the “Grey’s Anatomy” model into every possible scenario (“What if we remade “Grey’s Anatomy,” but in SPACE!), ABC is debuting “The Deep End” this Thursday. It follows four first year associates at a big law firm in New York as they pursue “potentially actionable relationships” with their bosses their dreams. It’s such a blatant ripoff that I’m surprised they didn’t call it “Black’s Law.” I can’t wait until they figure out how to turn the “Izzy gives her patient-boyfriend a heart attack so that he can move up the heart transplant list” storyline into the legal setting. And by “I can’t wait,” I mean for my wife to tell me about it as I pretend like I’m listening.

Man bites dog No need to count the votes: New York personal injury firm Trolman, Glaser & Lichtman wins the Academy Award for the Best Attorney Commercials Ever Made.

HT: Virginia Lawyers Weekly

And because one Will Ferrell reference deserves another, they get bonus points because one of their partners looks like Ron Burgundy. Click here and go see how good he looks! (FYI, his name is David Corley).