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Chaos and your career: Welcome to 2020

From pandemics to protests, 2020 has jumbled personal lives and career paths, and it’s nowhere near over.

The good news, despite all the chaos swirling around us, is that lawyers will continue to be needed. Simply based upon the news of the day, odds are that legal work in the areas of health care, bankruptcy, restructuring, data privacy and cyber security, high-level compliance, law and technology, diversity and inclusion, and labor and employment law should be on the rise.

But even with an increased workload, no one can guarantee an uptick in the number of legal jobs, where those jobs will turn out to be, or even when new hiring might occur. What does that mean for you? Here’s what we know.

First survey results OK

Throughout the summer, the National Association for Law Placement has been releasing the results of several short “pulse” surveys about the impacts of COVID-19 on U.S. legal employers, law schools, and law students. The surveys, first conducted in May, were designed to quantify the rapidly evolving changes in the legal profession and the industry as a result of the pandemic. Of course, timing is everything, and there’s still a third survey with more data yet to be released. But here are the highlights of the first two.

All in all, the results of the first survey weren’t too devastating. According to the employers surveyed:

  • 86 percent of summer programs were going forward, albeit for shorter time periods and with virtual components.
  • 11 percent of offices reported furloughs or layoffs.
  • A majority of firms that canceled their summer programs were still making full-time offers to at least some of the 2Ls who would have been summer associates.

As for the law schools surveyed:

  • On-campus interview dates were going forward for about 51 percent of the schools.
  • The majority planned to push OCI dates into early 2021.
  • 95 percent of schools reported that they’d offered their students additional opportunities to obtain practical skills.

Second survey is worrisome

The results from the second survey, however, show growing uncertainty among employers. While the vast majority of summer programs proceeded in some fashion, most were shorter than planned (with salaries prorated accordingly) and were held fully or partially remote. In addition:

  • At least 50 percent of offices with class of 2020 first-year associates hadn’t yet established start dates as of late July; of those that had, 69 percent pushed start dates back to January 2021, with a stipend or cash payment as part of the deferral package.
  • 62 percent of offices reported implementing salary reductions or delays, sometimes both, in partnership draws since March of this year.

Law schools’ stats also reflect tougher times:

  • 49 percent of schools reported some class of 2020 graduates having had post-graduate employment offers rescinded, with the majority of those recissions happening in private practice and with the southeast region of the country being hardest hit.
  • 69 percent of schools that offer post-graduate funding reported that 2020 funding was flat compared with 2019, while nearly 49 percent of all law schools invested in new or increased technology for virtual counseling, interviews, and meetings.
  • 50 percent of law school career services offices have reported budget cuts or anticipated cuts, with 14 percent already experiencing staff furloughs or layoffs since March.

Despite the information from the NALP surveys and numerous bar association workshops about how to function in a COVID-19 world, there’s still much that’s unsettled. Medical recommendations are constantly changing. The stock market is like a bouncing ball. Businesses prefer certainty, and there is none. Add an election year into the mix and predictions go out the window.

The staggering amount of what’s currently unknown, plus a lack of knowledge about the future, makes conducting a job hunt seem especially overwhelming.

Search for opportunities

As with every other difficult job market, there are always better and worse choices to make.

Putting your head in the sand, saying “woe is me,” and doing nothing is the worst choice. That would make you into a victim and, what’s even more devastating, wouldn’t allow you to create a narrative to tell about yourself when an interview does pop up.

So be proactive. Find out what your law school needs help with and offer to assist. Seek out research opportunities with preferred professors. Involve yourself with the needs of a pro bono or other clinic. Create an independent study opportunity. Pick up a side certification in a hot topic area, such as diversity, engagement, and inclusion.

Offer to help in career services so you’ll be the first to learn about new postings as they arrive. If your law school is part of a larger campus, check out positions elsewhere in the university. Just because the school’s legal department isn’t an option doesn’t mean there aren’t things to learn and skills to develop. Quasi-legal issues, as well as opportunities to grow your substantive, strategic, and communication skills, can present themselves in the university’s human resources, development, student services, housing, food services, communications, athletic, and other departments.

Even working at a job that has nothing to do with the law is preferable to hiding out. If you have an interest in real estate, working within that industry—in any capacity—will give you a window into what the legal issues might look like for your own future reference. Nonprofit organizations can always use volunteers, and having an inside view of how that world operates is invaluable if you do try to negotiate a legal role.

Any experience can provide life skills, maturity, and a demonstrable work ethic. They’ll also typically offer an amazing array of people with whom you’ll come into contact who can provide you with networking opportunities to help expand your search and marketability.

Don’t give up on remote

While many of these opportunities would normally be located on campus, be creative in exploring how you can work from your home base. One of the positives coming off this pandemic is the realization that we can all do a lot more remotely than we thought.

Nothing is off the table if you can make the case for pulling it off long distance. Many schools are talking about offering a combination of virtual and in-person classes for this academic year; if virtual works for classwork, it can work for employment projects, too.

Remote positions also offer wider geographic panoramas. You’re no longer limited to on-campus positions.

Sister campuses, other statewide schools, and even cross-country opportunities may now be available for consideration.

One caveat: Remote work is easier to get when you’re already a known commodity. If you have to introduce yourself over the internet, just be sure to literally put your best self forward. Shower and dress appropriately for every online interaction, even just networking connections. Keep your background clean and professional— no one wants to see your unwashed breakfast dishes in the sink or your pile of unread magazines scattered on the floor.

Keep distractions to a minimum. As cute as your puppy is, she shouldn’t jump on the business call with you. And be as tech savvy as possible. You can’t convince someone you can do a great job from a remote location if you’re unable to keep them on a remote call for 15 minutes without incident.

The unexpected upside

For years, I’ve consulted with lawyers about the wide array of things they can do with their law degree. Considering quasi-legal or nonlegal experiences, including remote working situations, opens a whole new range of possibilities for landing a satisfying, integrated combination of work that fits your personality, passion, and values. For some, a traditional life in the law could never have afforded that luxury.

Finding an alternative career that stands on the shoulders of your law degree doesn’t require that you first practice law and then leave it. The surprise impact of 2020 might be that you find a better career fit from the outset, even if it was something you never expected.

Cheryl Rich Heisler Cheryl Rich Heisler, President/Founder of LAWTERNATIVES, offers individualized career consulting to lawyers and law students on exploring careers inside, outside & around traditional legal options. Her own career paths include big law, brand management, professional speaking/writing and mixology! Heisler currently sits on the ABA Career Center Board and writes for both Student Lawyer and Experience Magazine.