New attorneys facing tough job market
May 2, 2011
No matter how they plead their cases, young South Sound attorneys have been learning the hard way that even a law degree doesn’t trump a recession.
“Washington has always been a hard market to get into as an attorney,” said Brian Halcomb, Washington State Bar Association Young Lawyers Division liaison. “It’s a challenging time. It may not be a brand new idea that transitioning from law school to practice is a hard one, but certainly the economy has brought that to the surface in visible ways.”
Kari Petrasek, an attorney at Carson Law Group in Everett and president of the YLD, said new and young lawyers have struggled to find jobs for about four years.
“It might be starting to get a little better,” she said. “I’ve heard of a few people that have been able to land jobs in King County. It’s not necessarily what they want to do, but it’s a job.”
While Petrasek said it appears some of the larger firms that cut back or froze hiring may start adding staff again soon, Chris Maharry, an attorney and shareholder at McGavick Graves, said new lawyers should be looking at all viable options.
For example, upon graduating in 2003, he went to work with a solo practitioner to gain litigation experience. In July 2006, Maharry left that position and joined McGavick Graves.
“If young lawyers today aren’t finding the large firms they want to get into ... they shouldn’t be discouraged by that,” said Maharry, who is the YLD Pierce County trustee. “Don’t ever lose sight of the goal.”
Making it on their own
One thing that new lawyers rarely lose track of is the amount of debt they accrued while in school. That means they often don’t have too much time to waste before deciding which job route to take.
While some attorneys who couldn’t land a job at a firm may have decided to wait out the market and enter a different profession, others have branched out on their own.
“When I got out of law school I don’t recall too many of my classmates doing that off the bat,” Maharry said.
In response to the growing trend, law schools and YLD have created seminars and programs that focus on how new attorneys can hang their own shingles.
“I want to make sure if someone is going to go solo that they have an interest in going solo and an interest in running your own business,” said Shawn Lipton, assistant dean of the Center for Professional Development at Seattle University School of Law.
Lipton said he advises students that starting their own firm should not be a “plan B,” but rather a “plan A.”
For attorney Joshua D. Anderson the goal since his freshman year in college has been to own his own business. However, even with years of planning he admits its not always an easy route to choose.
“I did all those things with an eye towards and the goal of opening my own business since I got out,” he said. “As with any business you have your growing pains when you begin...You have to be a little business savy.”
Joshua D. Anderson Attorney at Law PLLC has existed for three years.
Anderson said what has helped is having a nitch in personal injury cases and the fact he works in a small town.
“(I’m) really establishing myself in Bonney Lake,” he said. “When you do a good job for somebody, it’s likely they will tell someone.”
To help lawyers like Anderson who decided to branch out on their own, Halcomb said WSBA is putting together a program that will allow attorneys to take on “low bono” cases — which would pay about half of their usual rate.
“There are plenty of those cases to go around,” said Petrasek, adding that it’s not the most lucrative work, but it will give new lawyers more experience dealing with clients.
Some professionals in the legal field, like Lipton, see future hiring prospects improving.
“This year has really picked up, especially from the year before,” he said. “A lot of small firms, they are a little gun-shy. They may be really busy, but rather than hiring someone full-time, they may hire someone on a six-month contract.”
However, on the public side of the legal system, it appears that job opportunities will remain limited.
Until a few years ago, public agencies like the Washington State Attorney General’s Office had thriving recruitment efforts that actively sought new lawyers looking to commit their careers to public service or to use the office as a jumping off point.
But because of the economy and state budget troubles, fewer positions are available at public agencies.
“The whole economy has had such a chilling effect on the enthusiasm of the candidates and the vibrancy of the recruitment programs we’ve become accustomed to using,” said Linda Nakamura, the AG’s attorney recruitment administrator. “It’s been very subdued and the numbers show that. It’s not a good time to be entering the market.”
In 2005, the AG’s office hired 58 attorneys, 38 of whom had less than five years of experience and 16 who were fresh out of law school. These numbers remained relatively stable until about 2009, when the office only made 12 hires — eight with less than five years of experience and three new attorneys.
Things did pick up slightly in 2010 with 27 hires. But because of the timing, only two were fresh out of law school. Five attorneys have been hired so far this year.
“Until the budget improves, I think it will stay equal to, if not reduced, for our office,” Nakamura said. “As far as the market goes, I’ve heard chatter about activity. Unfortunately, we are not there.”
New attorneys aren’t the only ones struggling. Law schools around the nation also have seen a dip in applications. For example, for the first time in 16 years, Seattle University School of Law has had a slight drop in the number of applications.
“Our enrollment is steady and we expect 320 in our entering class, the same as last year,” said Katherine Hedland Hansen, director of communications for the school. “We are the only law school in the state to offer post-graduate fellowships to students who are committed to social justice.”
Gonzaga University School of Law reported that its number of applications significantly dropped this year compared to the jump it saw in 2010.
“This year people seem more concerned about money so we’ve seen a decrease,” said Susan Lee, the school’s director of admissions.
Money has others in the legal community concerned, because as tuition continues to rise, it results in young lawyers acquiring even more debt.
“Law school prices keep going up. I was shocked to see what tuition was,” Petrasek said.
And it appears that because of the state budget, the University of Washington School of Law may be increasing its prices even more.
“We are considered one of the most affordable law schools,” said Mathiew Le, director of admissions and financial aid at UW. “Even if it does go up by an extraordinary amount, I would still confidently say we would be one of the more affordable ones.”
Since some graduates are entering fields in which they are not practicing law, Petrasek said the American Bar Association would like to see schools be more transparent about which types of jobs graduates accept, rather than just posting the percentage who achieved employment after graduation.
But even with that information at their fingertips, Petrasek said it’s unlikely many people would be discouraged from entering the legal field.
However, representatives from the state’s law schools said they continue to make efforts to accurately portray what recent graduates are doing and what the market is like to prospective students.
“I caution students from the front end. You don’t have to know what the exact practice of law you will do at the end of the day, but you should have an understanding of why you are going,” Le said. “If you don’t have that conversation with yourself ... they will end up with a lot of debt and not be happy.”
Lipton said that despite the tough economy, there are three main things that attorneys can do to be successful. Those include being deliberate in developing a personal profile, getting a “ton” of experience and developing relationships with as many people in the legal community as possible.
“If you do three things well, I don’t care how many attorneys are out there, you will always be a success,” he said.