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Dealing with the Reality of the Legal Market

March 24, 2009

A couple of months ago, a colleague bemoaned to me that she was sick of people writing about the ails in “the economy.”  Her line of thinking was that the subject was overdone, the worst of times had happened, and there were other subjects to discuss instead. 

So what’s happened in the past few months?  Well, for starters, things have not gotten better; to the contrary, things have gotten worse.  Much worse.  The stock market keeps plunging towards lower depths, companies are getting more bailouts and companies are going out of business.   Locally, in the legal market, firms have been laying people off or sending new associates on furlough.  All problems aren’t magically solved just because there’s a new administration, new people in office or just because there’s a stimulus package. 

 Today, what was once unthinkable has happened: a major law firm of 300 lawyers has announced it is dissolving.  The pending demise of Wolf Block, beset by partner and practice group defections, decreasing work and inability to secure reasonable credit, is a major, major blow to the legal market.  If it can happen to a storied 106 year old firm, it can happen to others.  Many of the lawyers will likely be placed in other big firms.  Some will probably have to join smaller outfits.  Others, such as the scheduled incoming first years or even newer associates, may be left up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

So now what?  Firms have to continue to adjust to the times, cut some expenses and maybe even ponder alternative fee structures to keep clients. 

What do you do if you’ve been laid off (or about to be laid off) or you’re a soon-t0-be law school grad without a job yet?  Well, there’s always hope.  For one, things are cyclical, and the market will pick up – at some point.  It may not be in the next few months, but it will likely happen in the next year or two (cross those fingers!). 

Additionally, there are other options to consider.  I recently attended a panel discussion of attorneys (partners, solo practitioners, public sector staff attorneys, etc.) who have taken less than traditional paths to success.  They had many insightful pieces of advice:

  • The best can still get jobs – Those on the hiring committee (including panelists from big firms) noted that they’re still hiring; the difference is that they’re much more selective.  With the glut of applicants and decreasing positions, the firms have become much more picky in choosing who to hire.  If you significantly stand out, you can still get a job.
  • No need to wear a scarlet “L” - Firms are obviously aware of what’s going on.  They know that there are many talented attorney candidates who have become victims of numbers, unfortunate circumstances, etc.  As such, it is no shame to be a victim of the recent layoffs.  In fact, one member of a hiring committee even noted that it would be worse if the applicant was deceptive and tried to claim that he or she was still technically employed by a firm when it was only in name.   Tell the truth, and the firms understand. 
  • Consider public interest - If it’s financially possible, consider trying to work in the public interest field.  To do so may require identifying a particular organization and “targeting” it by reaching out to its staff attorneys or executive director.  You may need to at first volunteer, but, with any luck, you may be able to catch a break and secure a paid position. 
  • Become a clerk - Clerking, of course, is another great option.  Judges look for clerks every year, so there’s vacancies.  If nothing else, you delay re-entrance into the legal market.  With any luck, things will be much better in a year.

It’s an uncertain world out there.  Firms and lawyers have to be prepared for eventualities and can’t rule out options.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2009 11:50 pm

    Those are very valuable tips!

    Its also a good idea to consider internships with the District Attorneys and Public Defenders Office or even the Federal Prosecutors Office and Federal Public Defenders Office. Its important to try and stay busy during these very tough economic times. When the budget turns around, you may have a leg in the office for a spot.

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