Nation - South Dakota Recent law graduates find difficulty landing jobs A significant number of graduates are starting their own practice

By John Hult

The Argus Leader

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) -- A few months ago, lawyer Katie Johnson had to ask her boss at the Macy's men's department for time off to defend her clients.

The 2009 graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Law passed the bar last year and began taking clients on her own in November after sending out 100 resumes and finishing five job interviews but getting no job offers.

She's since opened an office in Beresford and quit Macy's, but she still needs supplemental income to pay the bills.

"A lot of people have this misconception that because I'm a lawyer, I make a lot of money, which is not true -- I'm still going month to month," Johnson said. "At this point, I still work at the golf course in Beresford on the weekends."

More than 10 percent of the graduates in the law school's class of 2009 remained unemployed as of February, or nine out of 73. A significant number of them also had to start their own practice.

Johnson is one of a handful of new lawyers from the class of 2009 who started their own law practice, many of them after a months-long, frustrating job search. The job market for lawyers, especially in larger cities, has been rough in recent years as the economy became sluggish.

"There are people who've looked outside the law just to keep their loans current," said Chase Adams, a 2009 graduate who set up shop in Sturgis last fall. "I heard of folks who are working at Walmart."

According to USD Law's annual post-graduation employment survey, four of their 2009 classmates had set up a private practice in South Dakota as of Feb. 15, the cutoff day for the survey. One graduate set up shop in Nebraska; another started a firm in Minnesota.

In 2008, the survey showed two graduates in private practice. For 2007, the number was zero.

Associate Dean Angela Ericson said a possible reason for the change is that Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson has encouraged graduates to set up shop in smaller towns, and many of the lawyers in private practice have started there.

"There has been a lot of discussion and a focus on underserved areas -- that may be a reason for some of it," Ericson said.

Still, private practice can be difficult to establish, with lawyers such as Johnson taking cases piecemeal and putting their names on county lists of available public defense lawyers.

With 74 lawyers available to serve as public defenders in Minnehaha County, smaller counties are more likely to use new lawyers to defend clients who can't afford representation. The small-town strategy has worked well for some. That's why Johnson set up shop in Beresford.

"In the smaller towns, they have a harder time keeping attorneys," she said.

Adams went to law school with designs on a future in Sturgis, the West River community he called home before law school.

"The jobs started getting tight just about the time we graduated," Adams said.

Jobs in Sioux Falls can be particularly difficult to find. Ryan Weise began at Fuller & Sabers in March. He didn't want to live in a small town, but after no callbacks from firms in Watertown, Brookings, Aberdeen and Sioux Falls, he was almost ready to start his own firm.

"Things were kind of at a standstill," Weise said. "I was days away from forming my own LLC and hanging my own shingle."

Minnehaha County Public Defender Traci Smith had no shortage of resumes for the two open lawyer positions her office has filled since August, but she saw the names of USD lawyers in her stack of applicants for other jobs, too.

"Even when I was interviewing for legal secretary, I was seeing resumes from lawyers," she said.

There usually is more turnover at a public defender's office than at the Minnehaha County state's attorney's office, but both have jobs that are coveted because they are recession-proof -- the caseload doesn't drop because clients can't afford to hire them.

Published: Wed, Jun 16, 2010