Many new lawyers are finding job search a real trial

Veronica Walther
MinnPost photo by Joey Peters
New lawyer Veronica Walther faces a tough job market, a pile of student debt and limited job prospects outside her field.

Editor’s note: This is one of four articles by MinnPost interns spotlighting diverse Faces of the Economy.

In a better economy, expecting to find work right out of law school is enough of a challenge.

“You really have to be in the top half of your class in some schools and even the top quarter in most schools to be able to be assured a job in a good economy,” said David Biggs, 39, who graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School last May and hasn’t found a job. “But in this bad economy, it’s anybody’s guess.”

Firms aren’t hiring like they used to. In New York, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the nation’s highest-grossing firm, expects a 50 percent drop for 2010 summer hiring, according to Bloomberg News. Legal recruiting is so low that Columbia Law School recently recommended its students attend the undergraduate career fair.
Closer to home this year, Faegre and Benson has cut attorneys, with Dorsey and Whitney reducing staff and Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly imposing salary freezes.

Rejections piling up
Veronica Walther, 25, hoped she could end up at the firm where she worked while a law school student at the University of Minnesota. Instead, Elaraj and Associates, a personal injury firm in Uptown that works with many Latino clients, cut her job a month and a half before graduation. After taking the bar in late July, Walther, now a licensed attorney in Minnesota, says she’s been sending out up to 15 applications a week.

“Pretty much every day I apply for jobs, sit and wait until I get a rejection letter,” she said.

One of her closest bets came earlier in the year, when she applied for a government job in St. Paul as a human rights specialist. It required a law degree and fluency in Spanish. With her bilingual skills, she thought she had a good chance to at least get an interview but later found out she ranked eighth as a candidate, she said.

It’s not that Walther’s unqualified. Besides doing hands-on work at Elaraj and Associates for two years, she’s worked on three immigration cases in a clinic class at the U and served as student director of the school’s International Moot Court.

But in a market that includes scores of experienced, unemployed attorneys, competition for Walther and many other new lawyers is huge. She estimates one St. Paul job she went for received 20 to 30 qualified applicants.

“There are many other attorneys that have been working for years that have gotten laid off,” she said. “They’re hungry enough to take entry-level jobs at entry-level pay rates. It’s just kind of hard to compete with that.”

Changing legal market’s bleak “Layoff Tracker,” which tallies the number of lawyers and staff laid off at large firms nationwide, shows a much different legal job market from when Walther first entered law school. It has recorded nearly 14,000 legal pink slips since 2008. In 2009 alone, there have been nearly 12,000, over a third of them attorneys.

During her first two years, the law school’s career center encouraged her to narrow her list of firms she’d like to work for, she said.

“Now they’re saying, ‘Whatever job you can find, take it,’ ” she said. “The last time I went in there, they said not many people have jobs, which is very depressing to hear from your career counselors.”

The situation is forcing Walther to apply for part-time, non-legal jobs because she can’t afford to live in the Twin Cities any longer without one, she said. This month, she’ll have to start paying back her student loans, which total about $150,000, although she’s hoping to defer payments for the time being, she said.

Her law degree actually can work against her finding a part-time job, because she’s overqualified for many of the openings. “A couple of places have told me that since I have a law degree, they knew I wouldn’t stay there long,” Walther said.

Her law degree also hasn’t helped her find lower-level legal work. She’s applied for jobs as an assistant, secretary and paralegal at law firms, all to no avail. Firms don’t want law grads in those positions because they might demand more work and more pay, she said.

“I’m at the point where I’m down to the last month of rent,” she said. “I don’t have the cash to pay for another month.” Her father had to help pay for October.

She recently got a job offer in an industry that’s perhaps more gloomy than the downturn itself: for $14 an hour, handling remaining bills and expenses from the recently deceased and working with their families to resolve financial issues.

Walther’s not yet sure whether she’s going to take the job and whether it will cover her costs.

 “I have to sit down and see if it’s worth it,” she said. “If I could get a really low-paying public-interest job, that wouldn’t bother me, but when it’s a low-paying job that I don’t want to do, that’s frustrating.”

Meanwhile, David Biggs, who worked in the IT industry for 13 years before entering law school, only has been able to find work in his former field. He does web maintenance for a University law professor 14 hours a week. He’s moving this month to Wisconsin, where he’s now a licensed attorney, but doesn’t expect to find work before January at best, he said.

The National Association for Legal Professionals predicts that the bad legal market could last for “a number of years.”

“I feel bad for [recent law grads] like me,” Biggs said, “but I feel really bad for the people graduating this spring. It’s going to be worse for them.”

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