By L.J. Jackson
L.J. Jackson is a freelance writer and attorney who specializes in law and business reporting. She is based in Chicago.
It’s not news that for grads leaving law school, competition for entry-level positions is stiff and jobs are difficult to come by. But this doesn’t mean they are impossible to find—it just means applying a little more time and creativity to your search. With that in mind, it’s important for freshly minted attorneys and students to understand legal trends in this country and be open-minded to the possibility of overseas opportunities.
Predictions for 2012 and beyond
While it’s true that demand for junior associates has waned, particularly at big firms, the outlook is getting better. Barbara Kott, managing director of Major, Lindsey and Africa’s Associate Practice Group in Northern California, says firms were committed to growing their summer classes this year—an indication of a rebound.
“Almost all large firms have increased the number of summer associates they’re planning to hire in 2012 compared to last year and the year before,” says Kott, who handles legal recruiting for firms of all sizes. “The firms are putting in the time to recruit at law schools, and it’s clear they’re still viewing developing future associates as an important part of their business practice.”
Rahul Kapoor, firm-wide hiring partner for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, agrees with Kott’s assessment. His firm increased summer associate intake in 2011 by 100 percent over the previous year—from zero to 61. In 2010, Morgan, Lewis made an economic decision not to have a summer program because of the uncertain legal climate. Instead, it offered the class of 2009 an opportunity to work for a pro bono legal service provider, at a paid salary of $60,000, with the understanding they would be hired back when openings at the firm became available.
Morgan, Lewis plans to hire even more summer associates for 2012. Hiring is still down from pre-recession years, but Kapoor says the firm has reached the right balance.
“Most hiring partners I talk to say their class size has shrunk to meet the level of demand,” Kapoor says. “The overall market—it’s easy to forget how bad things were a couple of years ago. But we have a cautiously optimistic view. We’ll have a summer program next year that we’re planning for, and we’re talking about associates who would join us in fall 2013—well over two years in advance.”
That’s good news for graduates with expectations of employment at top firms. But even these positions are highly competitive. This means those who are finding jobs aren’t necessarily the graduates who are smartest in their class—it’s the ones who work the hardest and smartest at their job search.
“For every 100 attorneys employed, there’s less than one job available,” says Dion Lim, president and COO of SimplyHired.com, a job search aggregation engine. “On average, if there’s a lawyer job in our database, it gets 30.5 views. That’s seven times higher than the average job in our database. That tells you there are tons of lawyers looking.”
The numbers are even starker for those with one to two years of experience, according to SimplyHired.com’s “new grad filter.” This means new lawyers scouring the web for openings need to keep an open mind as to what type of work they’re willing to do. For example, SimplyHired’s data shows the employment outlook for paralegals and legal assistants is slightly better than for lawyers, with 28.8 clicks per job posted, on average.
While the data compiled by SimplyHired.com shows the availability of posted positions, there are employment opportunities that aren’t advertised online that the site can’t track. And that’s where job seekers need to tap whatever contacts they can.
“You should really network—it’s all about relationships,” Lim says. “Not just in law, but every area of your job search. You might find jobs that aren’t even advertised.”
Growing legal fields
But even before reaching out, make sure you’re familiar with which legal fields have room for growth. Practice areas that offer solid opportunity include technology, immigration, and healthcare law—three sectors that have remained constant and have even expanded in recent years. Kott says she’s seeing a resurgence in the corporate transactional area—mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, IPOs, and private equity funds. And demand in the intellectual property arena has remained strong.
“The tech area is still sort of reigning supreme right now,” Kott says. “There’s a lot of intellectual property litigation—primarily patent litigation. Patent prosecution is a very hot area. Comparatively, general commercial litigation is a lot slower than I’ve seen it in years. There’s not a lot there.”
Another option is getting the experience you need on your own, then seeking a position at a firm after gaining two to three years of valuable, real-world practice. Beyond the traditional fields, could there be an outlying legal sector you can exploit to your advantage? For example, Joshua Cohen, a 2007 graduate of Quinnipiac School of Law, developed a practice niche working with parents and graduates who are struggling with student loan debt problems.
“It’s great to be doing something that no one else is doing,” Cohen says. “But it was an evolution. Semi-accidental. I never had an idea that it would even be needed.”
Cohen gained the knowledge needed to tackle his new specialization by working in the financial aid office while in college and at a debt-collection firm during law school. Now his Hartford, Connecticut-based solo practice is overwhelmed with clients, and Cohen is holding seminars for other grads who want to enter the field. He also has advice for those seeking to strike out on their own and find a viable niche.
“Don’t be too proud to network,” Cohen says. “Some of the cases I have I took because I needed the money. You can’t afford to be picky about clients. And find a mentor attorney—you can turn to them for guidance, and maybe they’ll throw some cases your way.”
Like Cohen’s experience, an economic downturn can open up opportunities in practice areas that may lag in boom times—such as bankruptcy. Consumers who can’t find jobs and can’t pay the bills are keeping attorneys busy with Chapter 7 filings, as are businesses seeking to reorganize. And with the housing collapse still affecting thousands, if you have an interest in real estate law, specializing in foreclosures is an in-demand option—particularly in hard-hit states like Florida, Nevada, and Michigan. And it’s not just plaintiff-side work—foreclosure defense is an emerging specialization.
Other potential fields to consider:
With layoffs and downsizing, opportunities in labor and employment law abound. Disgruntled former employees may be looking for better severance or plan on suing.
An increasing number of entrepreneurs giving up on the job search to branch out on their own means there is a need for specialized business law advice targeting small startups.
The Obama administration and local governments continue to push a “green” agenda, with tax breaks for businesses and individuals. Lawyers who specialize in energy and environmental issues are in demand to tackle these issues.
Of course, it’s difficult to predict which legal areas will have the most sustainability in the long term, so be sure not to pigeonhole your skill set. The more knowledge you acquire in a variety of legal fields could prove an asset down the line.
Seeking savings wherever they can, an increasing number of firms are outsourcing assignments normally performed by first- and second-year associates to legal process outsourcing firms, also known as LPOs. These LPOs, mostly in India, but often with a stateside presence, specialize in document review, contract drafting, patent applications, litigation support, due diligence, and legal research, among other services.
Many firms are eager to save tens of thousands of dollars by hiring an overseas attorney at a fraction of the cost of a first-year graduate. But the growth of LPOs has also opened up opportunities for American law school grads as well, albeit at a cheaper rate. Some of these companies are looking for local sales professionals with law degrees, or even attorneys to perform work from local offices. For the adventurous, taking advantage of the outsourcing trend could mean moving to a foreign country and making a salary that approximates $30,000 to $40,000 in the United States. But the cost of living is cheaper, it’s a chance to gain some experience, and it’s an employment opportunity that might not be available locally.
“It’s realistic to apply to some of these LPO firms,” says Brandi Moore of IndiaThink, a cross-cultural consulting firm specializing in outsourcing. “You have to make a personal choice if you’re going to move to India and try to figure it out once you get there, but there certainly are a lot of opportunities there right now.”
Pangea 3, a legal outsourcing firm, is actively seeking résumés, according to its website. The company says it’s “currently seeking talented, energetic law interns and attorneys of all levels of experience to work for new and ongoing litigation projects for our international clients,” primarily for its Mumbai office. Applicants are encouraged to send a résumé via e-mail.
“If you end up having the opportunity to go to India, it’s a phenomenal time of growth there,” Moore notes. “If you’re leaving law school and looking for a job, the legal field in India has the fastest vertical growth anywhere. They’re just going to need more and more people because businesses will continue increasing their use of these services.”
If you are understandably reluctant to move as far away as Mumbai, it’s still helpful to remain flexible as to how far you are willing to move to increase your employment opportunities. Certain parts of the country are better off than others. If you happen to live in an area where jobs are scarce and in high demand, picking up and moving to another part of the country may be one of the wisest decisions you can make.
Law grads must often go where the jobs are. This means finding, and possibly relocating to, cities with the healthiest employment markets. SimplyHired.com reports the toughest metro areas for employment are the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Detroit. All have a negative search ratio of open jobs to job seekers.
Conversely, Washington, D.C. is considered one of the best places to look for work in general. Other cities that offer better employment prospects include the San Francisco Bay area, West Palm Beach, Oklahoma City, and Boston.
“The Bay area has been one of the busier areas,” says Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Barbara Kott. “New York will always be a major legal hub, and I think Chicago is quite strong as well.”
Kott notes that wherever you are located, having qualifications and talents beyond a law degree will undoubtedly place you ahead of the pack. For example, Mandarin speakers are in strong demand by American firms and corporations eager to tap into the Asian market.
“Anything that has to do with Asia is very hot right now,” Kott says. “Also, technical undergraduate degrees, such as electrical engineering or computer science, are very sought after in the intellectual property area.”
You may not be fluent in Chinese or have a degree in mechanical engineering, but upgrading your résumé with continuing education can still make a difference. Make sure to enhance your skill set and marketability by availing yourself of career services training opportunities, pro bono work, temporary legal work, and any other employment that could prove valuable.
Outsourcing: More Information for Job Seekers
Shelly Dalrymple, senior vice president of global litigation support and Phil Goodin, vice president of litigation services from UnitedLex, a legal outsourcing firm with offices in the United States, United Kingdom, Israel, and India, describe some of the opportunities available to job seekers.
What are the opportunities for recent American law school grads? For example, do you hire only for positions in the United States or if an adventurous grad wanted to move to India and try to get a job, would they be able to possibly work in an office there?
UnitedLex hires for positions in both their domestic locations and in India. Many candidates are able to work out of a domestic office and, after building sufficient experience, work in India as a liaison between the US and India operations. There are also “fresher” (just out of law school) positions in India for talented legal researchers and writers.
Can you give examples of any American law grads who are working overseas for you—i.e., their level of experience and what type of work they’re doing? Also how many are working at positions here in the United States?
In the last several months, we have had several very junior and mid-level lawyers for various periods of time working in both our litigation support and contracts management departments, and have senior (more than 15 years) lawyers in operational and executive positions—a few of whom actually live in and work out of Delhi, and some of whom travel and work between India and their bases in the United States.
Do you see openings expanding in the United States for law school grads as your business expands, or would jobs primarily be offshore?
We expect to continue to hire law school grads for a variety of legal, technical, and project management positions. Our objective is to provide a clear career path for all law graduates it hires that best suits their skill sets and career objectives.
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Vol. 40 No. 3