Law school grads facing market that's still tough


Many potential law students discouraged by sobering stats 

By Gary Gosselin
Dolan Media Newswires
February’s pass rate for the Bar exam matched last July’s 65 percent, indicating a lower pass rate is the norm in Michigan now.
And those that passed also can expect a continued lower hire rate as a glut of graduates fill a market that continues a five-year downward trend.
“When I was in law school 20 years ago, seems like law schools were the first gatekeepers to the profession, not only in quantity but quality. But now, it’s more of a commercial business model getting as many people in the desks to keep the business going,” said Troy attorney Mark F. Masters. “(Law schools) are increasing the cost of tuition and debt and increasing the supply; they are depressing the salaries.”
They are not only depressing salaries, but opportunities to find employment in the legal field as well, he said.
“I think the economic market in Michigan is better, but I don’t know if the market for law grads is better,” said Grand Rapids attorney Gary A. Chamberlin.
He discussed the discouragement of many potential law students, noting studies that show law school applications are down by about one-third in the last year. “It will pick up in a couple years,” when there are fewer graduates entering the market, he said.
“I see more people getting hired and I hear about more people seeing more postings online,” said Elizabeth C. Jolliffe, who runs a legal coaching service in Ann Arbor. “From both in-house and private firms, and I see and hear that from other people, too.”
And that’s for both new lawyers and for those with some experience, she added: “From what I see and hear, I think the market is picking up.”
Concerns about a number of issues that affect hiring were cited in the fifth annual Altman Weil Law Firms in Transition Survey of law firm leaders.
Some of the findings: Firm leaders are concerned that the demand for legal work is flat or shrinking in many practices; they’re feeling pricing pressure from clients; they are concerned about the competitive forces of commoditization and the emergence of lower-priced, nontraditional service providers; and law firm leaders are coming to grips with the idea that aggressive growth in lawyer headcount may no longer make sense.
An Altman Weil observation about firm growth bodes better for those looking for a lateral move and not so much for new hires.
“In many firms, a more nuanced approach to smart strategic growth is replacing its full-throttle pursuit in prior years,” according to the survey. “Associate classes are smaller; contract and part-time lawyers have become viable alternatives, providing firms as-needed capacity; and, there are fewer seats at the table for owners.
“Selectively acquiring laterals and groups who come with their own ready-made books of business is the preferred growth strategy post-recession. Firms are beginning to think about ‘trading up’ to improve profitability, rather than ‘bulking up’ to drive gross revenues.”
Some advice
If you’re looking for a job, don’t be shy, Masters said, as the longer someone goes without work, the worse the perception is, by some.
“Call in every networking favor; aunt, uncle, friend you know,” he said. “We typically hire law clerks and rarely hire new lawyers (from outside) If you clerked somewhere, you need to actively talk to them (and get them to endorse you).”
“The only time we interview(someone) who didn’t clerk here is when they were recommended by somebody we know. It gets you a foot in the door,” Masters noted. “Right now, if you’re waiting on bar results and don’t have a job, it’s better to get any job in the law rather than none.”
That includes pro bono work, contract work and especially volunteering at local organizations and bar associations. If you have a passion for a cause or for an area of the law, Masters said, find something related to that -  even if it doesn’t pay - and work in that area.
“If this is what you want to do, you need to do, it, regardless of what the job is; don’t pass up a job, even if you think it’s beneath you. You need to get experience,” he said.
That goes for seasoned attorneys as well as newcomers, Masters said.
“Networking is key, no matter what you do as a lawyer,” said Timothy A. Dinan, a Grosse Pointe Park lawyer who has done bar exam appeals for about 20 years. “They don’t emphasize it enough. Law school has not necessarily been in the business of teaching you to expand yourself and be a business person; they think it’s hard enough to teach the academics of being a lawyer.”
With the economy slowly recovering, many businesses and firms are hesitant to jump in and hire full-time lawyers, with the added expense of benefits and the need to keep them busy. So they are more and more considering contract work.
“First, I would say, don’t give up, and number two, contract work is always an option,”  Chamberlin said. “I hear it’s not always satisfying work, but it will pay debts, and it’s something to do.”
According to the Altman Weil survey, “Any past stigma associated with contract lawyers clearly is gone. Large majorities of firms are using part-time and contract lawyers in 2013.”
Hang a shingle?
Almost 40 percent of firms report outsourcing some nonlawyer functions, up from 15.7 percent in 2010 and 7.7 percent of the firms surveyed outsource legal work. That number jumps to 19.7 percent in large law firms.
“And even though it’s tough, hanging out your own shingle is an option. It’s difficult, but everyone I’ve known (who’s done it) have really loved it,” Chamberlin noted. “If you’re not employed for a substantial period of time, the longer you’re out, the more grads are coming out that are being considered.
It’s like a sports analogy — someone is always on the bench, waiting.”
Having a LinkedIn site is a necessity, said Jolliffe, as is networking in any way possible.
“When not applying for jobs, they should be building a name, marketing or doing something to build their skills, using their time to position and distinguish themselves, because they have to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other people in the same position,” said Jolliffe, who noted that’s good advice whether you just passed the bar or have been practicing for 10 years.
“They have to ask, ‘Why would someone reading this resume and cover letter hire me?’” she said. “If it doesn’t stand out to them, they have to do something to stand out, show what makes them a good fit, and that’s why the contacts and relationships are so important for them.”
She said she often works with younger lawyers looking for work and seasoned lawyers looking to better their careers. If she has personal experience with them, in a bar capacity, a volunteer capacity or doing something in the community, she’s more comfortable lending her name and reputation to their search.
“If I have experience with them, I’m willing to say that about them and willing to tell someone what I think about them,” Jolliffe said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to say they’re a great lawyer, but I can say they were good at this or demonstrated themselves to be a young confident leader, they were on time organized, etc.”
Dinan had advice for those in school and even those with a little time on their hands (jobless): get out there, get your hands dirty and do something - anything.
“I work with people trying to build their practice up; I think the real problem is people aren’t planning on getting out and practicing,” he said. “You have to think nine months to a year ahead and say ‘I’m doing what I need (to do) to be where I’m going.’”
Dinan said to look at those who worked though law school, clerking, selling insurance, working at a bar association or just working to pay the bills. They are the ones who built a resume, are keeping busy and are making connections, he said, and that’s the philosophy others have to follow - keep moving.
What’s ahead?
“If you’re looking for a busy practice area, PIP (personal injury protection benefits) is exploding Wayne County, more than half is PIP,” Masters said.
There is always a spot at the table for someone with experience in litigation, said Chamberlin, adding, “They will always be someone who’s considered.”
International law is gaining popularity every year, he said, and with the baby boomers getting old, that is an area ripe for practice.
“Anything related to the aging population would be a good career path for the next 20-30 years,” Chamberlin said. “Health care and elder law, especially on this (west) side of the state, with our hospitals and research.
“Generally, with Michigan’s economy picking up, finally there is need for help in manufacturing, but that is more related to litigation and not manufacturer-specific,” he added. “And let’s not lose sight of the fact that a law degree is a versatile degree and a good training path for those who don’t want a traditional law career, too — government service, business, industry …”
The bottom line, according to Joliffe, is that if you’re not working, for whatever reason, you should be working full time at getting a job. Sending resumes and watching soaps isn’t going to cut it, she said.
Get out and be productive, network and let your peers know you are someone who can get things done.
Then they may ask you to help them get things done — as a member of their law firm.