Law students are adapting to a changing job market

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPSDPHELPS@STARTRIBUNE.COM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2009 - 7:28 PM

Layoffs, lost clients, fewer billable hours: It's a new world for grads, but jobs still exist.

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Kellie Bigham is a second-year law student at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. A mentor helped her find her part-time job with a small family-law practice.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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As a law student, Kellie Bigham knows she has to be creative to find a job in an economy where law firms are conducting some serious belt-tightening.

"You have to set yourself apart from others," said Bigham, a second-year student at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. She has a part-time job with a family-law practitioner and is interviewing for a clerkship this summer at a legal aid clinic that helps low-income and disadvantaged Minnesotans.

A year from now, Bigham, 24, will be looking for her first job as a professional. She knows the stakes are high.

"We're all a little concerned because of the loan issue," Bigham said. "We've all taken out some pretty hefty loans, and they have to be paid back."

Those loans, according to law school administrators, can run $80,000 to $100,000 per student over the course of a three-year program. Paying them back was less daunting when law firms were freely hiring and new hires at the largest Minnesota firms could start at $120,000 a year.

But after years of graduating students into a world where they could walk into six-figure employment agreements, law schools today are helping their students readjust expectations in an environment suddenly fraught with layoffs, lost clients and fewer billable hours.

"The bad news is that this is a very difficult legal employment market. But there are still job opportunities," said Don Lewis, the new dean of the Hamline University School of Law. "The job dislocations are at the extremes -- at large firms and in government legal services. But there is a big middle out there," Lewis said. "Midsize to smaller firms may actually end up thriving in this economy because they can better manage resources and charge lower rates."

But in recent months, bad economic news seeped through the Minnesota legal community. Layoffs hit prominent firms like Faegre & Ben-son. Pay freezes were imposed at Dorsey & Whitney for associates and administrative staff. Oppenheimer Wolff & Don-nelly avoided layoffs but announced that new hires would start full-time work next January instead of the fall. Help-wanted advertising in Bench & Bar, the monthly publication of the Minnesota Bar Association, is down 50 percent.

Nationally, market prospects for new lawyers are bleak if not bleaker than in Minnesota. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Latham & Watkins LLP, the nation's second-largest grossing firm, laid off 190 lawyers and planned to cut 250 support staff.

Firms can't cut back too much

A survey by the National Association for Law Placement found that legal recruiting in 2008 was the weakest in four years. Summer offers to second-year law students, which traditionally led to job offers after their graduation, dropped by a third.

Nonetheless, firms can't cut back too harshly on new hires because they need new blood and fresh faces to continue their body of work, job-placement experts say.

"Firms have a very measured approach. They've cut the number of new hires and that's prudent," said Alan Haynes, director of career development at the University of Minnesota. "But if you cut back too much, you're going to have a problem two, three years down the road."

At the law schools in Minnesota, students are encouraged to network with lawyers, volunteer for legal projects, attend bar association events and find a mentor.

"We can't create jobs, but we can teach students how to find them," said Lewis. "We pound into them the networking aspect of the job search. Fifty to 60 percent are found from initiated contact."

In Bigham's case, a mentor helped her find her part-time job with a small family-law practice. "I'm also willing to put in volunteer time," Bigham said.

While the largest law firms in the state pay a starting lawyer $120,000 a year or so, many of the midsize and smaller firms offer starting salaries in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $70,000, a starting income that some believe is more realistic in this economy. In addition, students are encouraged to look outside of the Twin Cities, where the pay might be less but the experience will be broader in terms of duties and responsibilities.

The Minneapolis office of Zelle Hofmann usually hires one or two summer associates a year. "We look at them for the long term. We only hire as many as we need," said Eric Caugh, the firm's hiring partner.

Surprisingly, with layoffs taking place at the region's larger firms, established associates and partners are vying with law school students for the plum entry-level jobs. "We're seeing a lot more résumés from high-quality candidates," Caugh said.

Julie Schaefer, president of the You Manage Law newsletter, said going solo also is gaining steam. "You can set your own hours, be your own boss and pay only your own overhead," she said.

It stands to reason that the tough job market for 2009 law school graduates would put a damper on law school applications. But that's not the case at the University of Minnesota.

Applications to begin law school next fall are up 20 percent, said admissions director Julie Tigges.

"Traditionally, this industry is countercyclical. When the economy goes down, admissions go up," Tigges said. "People don't have jobs, so they go back to school."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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