Post-law job market looks stable

Jan. 21, 2010, 12:06 a.m.

No line of work has survived the recession unaffected, even the high-paying, once-booming legal industry. However, Stanford Law School (SLS) administrators remain confident in the employment prospects for their students — who are themselves generally positive about the job market.

“Law Shucks,” a blog that tracks the legal industry, estimates that major law firms laid off over 4,000 lawyers in 2009. But Law School Dean Larry Kramer said that while the job market is “tighter” now than it has been, new lawyers will still find it welcoming.

“The same bubble existed in the legal market as in the rest of the economy,” Kramer said. “Students graduating this year and maybe next year have to deal with the fallout from that. But I don’t foresee any long-term significant changes in professional prospects for being a lawyer.”

In terms of finding employment, new graduates from SLS have been insulated from the effects of the recession so far, according to statistics provided by the school.

The class of 2008 was the first class to experience the recession right out of law school. Nine months after graduating, only four members of the 176-person class were unemployed. Though that represents a drop from the 100 percent success rate of the classes of 2006 and 2007, the decline is miniscule.

The employment numbers for the most recent class, the class of 2009, will be compiled this February. Though the Law School expects most of that class to be employed, there may be fewer graduates than usual moving on to the largest law firms.

“Last year there were a lot of deferrals,” Kramer said, referring to the practice of firms offering jobs starting at a future date rather than immediate employment.

SLS is combating the economic downturn in several ways, including putting students in touch with more firms than during previous recruitment cycles. Students with deferred offers are being encouraged to explore internships and clerkships in between graduation and the start date at their future law firm.

The school is also tailoring its career services advice specifically to each class according to its vision of how the job market will recover.

“Our Office of Career Services staff is providing customized job search support for all three classes (2010, 2011, 2012),” SLS Associate Director of Media Relations Judith Romero wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “That means, for example, meeting 1-[on]-1 with every student to develop a unique job search strategy.”

Current law students appear unruffled, if not particularly upbeat, about their job prospects.

“It’s not a great situation to be graduating into,” said third-year student Mike Scanlon. “But there’s nothing you can do about it so you just hope for the best.”

“I know our class will suffer a lot more than the year ahead [of us,]” said another third-year, Mike Powers. “There are a lot fewer offers. It appears though that some firms are pulling out and starting to open hiring again.”

“Of course, some firms are still laying off,” he added.

Kramer predicted a comprehensive economic recovery for the legal industry by next year and second-year students were more sanguine about their opportunities.

“People my year feel like we’ve been prepared from the beginning and we’ve been bracing ourselves,” said second-year student Jennifer Clark. “It might be tough but I’m glad I’m at Stanford. I can imagine that it’s been tougher for students from some other schools.”

To some new lawyers, the supposed hardships of a down job market and deferrals are even seen as blessings in disguise.

Allison Hunter ’04 graduated from the University of Chicago Law School last June. Her law firm offered her a deferral, which she accepted, and she is spending the year working with the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the San Francisco Bar Association. The program provides low-income individuals with legal and social services.

Hunter said the opportunity has made her deferral more than worth it.

“I think it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Hunter said. “It was a chance to get more hands-on experience. It was a great opportunity to try different things that I couldn’t do at the law firm.”

Hunter said the effects of the recession may end up diverting the career paths of young lawyers away from the big law firms.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens, because I think what may happen is that many attorneys will get a taste of the pro-bono career and decide to stay with it,” Hunter said.

Romero echoed that viewpoint. Though no one likes a recession, she said the decline in opportunities at big firms could encourage more creative and rewarding job choices.

“We’ve been encouraging students to think very broadly about their careers, especially about their first job out of law school,” she wrote. “Students should take the time to determine their true professional passion and follow a career path that most directly leads them to that goal.”

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