Vol. 40 No. 1
Erin Binns is assistant director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
NALP—The Association for Legal Career Professionals—has been compiling and analyzing placement data for law graduates since 1971 and is the go-to source for employment statistics and trends. So it’s noteworthy when NALP publishes an article called “The Legal Job Market for New Graduates Looks a Like it Did 15 Years Ago (Only Worse).” But evidence that legal employers have constricted hiring isn’t joint-jolting news.
NALP’s most recent Employment Report and Salary Survey results indicate changes in legal hiring. You should pay attention. Use the data provided by NALP and available through your career services offices to assess the prudence of your career goals. Knowing that small firm hiring saw an uptick while big firm hiring remained down and more graduates landed jobs where bar passage wasn’t required can help to define the scope and direction of your job search.
Don’t start and stop your analysis with the numbers. Statistics never tell the entire story. Talk to and learn from recent graduates who managed to cultivate opportunities in a moribund economy. In preparation of this column, I connected with 2009, ’10, and ’11 graduates throughout the country and found stories of successful job searches. Threaded through their tales were recurring themes of tenacity and flexibility.
Take action. Passivity is unacceptable in today’s market. NALP’s comprehensive data for the class of 2010 established that fewer than 15 percent of graduates secured work through job postings. More than 40 percent of all jobs reported were the direct result of candidate-driven actions. Together, referrals and self-initiated contacts dominated all other means of procuring jobs. Also consider the nearly 5 percent of graduates who started their own practices, and it is indisputable that the present job market rewards candidates who take action—candidates who network, cultivate relationships, and send résumés proactively.
Jessica was rewarded for her ingenuity, determination, and calculated risk. She spent her second and third years of school working as a law clerk with a small trust and estates firm only to learn late in her third year the firm couldn’t offer her a full-time position as originally intended. There wasn’t enough work to justify her hire. Jessica saw opportunity. Her ideal job was practicing elder law. Jessica took initiative and developed a business and associate development plan that detailed her strategies for growing an elder law practice at the firm where she was clerking. The plan was embraced by the firm and Jessica is employed and on her way to building a practice.
Expect the unexpected. NALP statistics aren’t needed to confirm what law schools and students already know: Legal recruiting is higgledy-piggledy. This is most evident in the world of BigLaw. Previously, hiring of new associates at large law firms occurred almost exclusively from the ranks of summer classes with little to no hiring of newly minted lawyers in late spring and early summer. Yet in my backyard of , four of the eight large firms interviewed and hired recent graduates last May, June, and July. And two other larger corporate firms hired graduates with one year of experience. None of the graduates had summered at large firms. All of the graduates secured their positions through the aid of networking and referrals rather than through on-campus interview programs and job postings.
Nicole found herself jobless after graduation in May 2011. In collaboration with a career services counselor, she identified alumni in her area of interest and began arranging informational interviews. One of Nicole’s lunch companions recommended she contact his former colleague who was now a partner at a law firm. Nicole was able to arrange a meeting with the recommended partner and an associate. Several days after their meeting, Nicole was called for a formal interview and shortly thereafter offered a full-time, permanent position. A few weeks before her informational meeting, Nicole had submitted her résumé to the firm’s recruiting director and had received a rejection letter.
Nicole’s success is one of a myriad of examples supporting the premise that proactive activities, including networking and informational meetings, are paramount to realizing an offer in a hiring climate that is off-script.
Embrace the crooked path. Your first post-graduate job need not be your forever job. As a graduating lawyer, remain open-minded as to how and where you can build a skill set that complements your long-term goals. Don’t limit yourself by holding out for the “perfect” job. “Ideal” and “perfect” are more likely to be destinations down the road and beyond a detour—or two—rather than immediate upon graduation.
Meghan’s goal was to work in a law firm in her home state practicing health law. After graduation, she accepted that her options were limited, so she expanded her search to other states and employer types. Following the best opportunity, she relocated out of state with a government agency where the work did not require a JD but was related to federal health law matters. As a student, Meghan had nurtured a mentoring relationship with a local health law attorney. This attorney was quick to call Meghan when a position opened with her firm. Meghan has now moved back home and is several months into what she calls her “dream job.” Note, though, that getting to her preferred job required sacrifice. She relocated twice at her own expense in under two years and initially took a job where a JD wasn’t required.
In 2009, (a different) Meghan graduated with the intent of working in tax law. Her only tax-related opportunity was with an accounting firm. After a year of work, she concluded the employer didn’t offer the career she wanted, so Meghan opted to pursue an LL.M. in tax. Meghan is now finished with her studies and working with a law firm doing what she had hoped to do when she exited law school.
The stories of the “Meghan’s” are occurring in variations across the country. Students continue to arrive at good places professionally when they are open to opportunities that weren’t their first consideration. Nathan’s path to an employment, labor, and employee benefits firm in was routed through a judicial clerkship in a rural area of . Michael’s path to a full-time permanent position with a state’s department of public instruction resulted from his willingness to accept “a measly $1,500 stipend” for six weeks of post-graduate work. Amy was “the model for student initiative and persistence” in pursuing and securing a position with the U.S. Department of State, according to her career counselor. Natalie found transactional work in a company’s contract department rather than its legal department.
The legal market isn’t rosy. There are graduates waiting tables and pouring coffee. Having spoken with some of these folks, identifiable trends in their job search activities become evident, too. Many rely exclusively on job postings and/or on-campus interview programs; limit themselves based on location, employer type, and/or practice area; and are indolent toward networking.
The common story for recent graduates with satisfying jobs in hand is different. They had a plan. They assumed responsibility for the course of their professional careers and took decisive steps toward achieving desired results. The outcome of your job search remains largely in your control. Opportunities exist. Are you determined to seek them?