August 12, 2008
The Game of Rank: Maryland Law School Grads
By Caryn Tamber
In the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, all the children are above average. In law school, not so much.
Only a handful of people can be at the top of the class. They're the ones you'll find bustling around in their interview-day best for on-campus recruiting this fall. After graduation, they'll get the coveted $145,000-a-year jobs, the plum appellate clerkships, or almost any other job they want.
But what about the rest of the class: the good students who fall short of the top 10 percent or 20 percent, the average students and those who finish at the bottom?
Many report that they are having trouble finding jobs upon graduation. Some feel as if they were lured to law school by the promise of big-money careers, but abandoned when they failed to become academic stars.
They tell stories about failing to find permanent work one, two or even three years after graduating. They talk about entry-level associate jobs being few and far between. When one does pop up, everyone they know applies for it.
One man spoke about doing mindless contract work, ever-aware that he can be fired at any moment.
"I never expected myself to be in this position," said the contract lawyer, a 2005 University of Maryland graduate who finished in the bottom half of his class. He has been doing contract work while seeking permanent employment.
"I thought that once you get a J.D., you're pretty much set, and that is not even close to the reality."
Crucial first year
Law students with good grades have always found it easiest to get jobs, but in recent years, law school performance has become an even greater predictor of job search success.
Richard H. Sander, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, said that employers used to focus on where job candidates went to law school. Now, grades are as important or more important, said Sander, who writes about legal education and the job market.
The better the school, the lower down in the class firms will look for potential hires, he said. For a top 10 school, a firm might consider the entire top half of the class. At a low-ranked school like the University of Baltimore, only the top 5 percent might be eligible.
Big firms recruit summer associates on campus in the fall of students' second year, and those summer associates make up the bulk of a firm's hiring class the fall after graduation. If you don't do well relative to your classmates in your first year, you likely won't have the option of heading to a large firm after you graduate.
This is an ego blow for people who have always succeeded, like Veronica Clark, a rising third-year student at Baltimore.
Clark had a rough first year. She did better her second year, but not as well as she was used to doing in school. She said she entered law school planning for a career in public service and never wanted to go the big firm route. But, she said, "I always wanted to be in the position to get it if I did."
Clark worked as a law clerk for the public defender's office this summer and hopes to be hired there when she graduates next year. She said too many students go in believing they will be able to pursue any law career they want.
"If you're going to law school to get the six-figure income ... you're barking up the wrong tree, because 90 percent of you will not get that," she said.
Big dreams, big debt
Data released last month by the National Association for Law Placement shows that the median starting salary for the class of 2007 was $65,750, but few graduates actually made that amount.
Instead, one large cluster -- roughly one-fourth of the class -- made between $140,000 and $165,000, while an even larger group made between $35,000 and $65,000. (Collectively, 42 percent of new lawyers' salaries fell in the $40,000 to $60,000 range, NALP said.)
And the income spread among young lawyers has increased. As recently as 1999, a chart of newcomers' salaries fell into a normal bell curve, NALP said. With its high peaks at either side and the jagged curve in the middle, the most recent chart looks more like a bite mark.
Sander said he suspects that law schools push students to dream big in order to justify the tens of thousands in tuition they charge. Considering what most law students actually make when they graduate, law school tuition and fees are "unreasonable," he said.
A 2005 Maryland Law graduate who recently went through a job search said law students don't feel as apprehensive as they should about taking out loans to make it through school.
"I think you always think, 'But I'll have a law degree' as you sign those loans," said the man, who graduated in the middle third of his class.
After working at a small firm and practicing as a solo, he had stopped looking for a job when an opportunity arose at a midsized firm.
He said that if he were given the chance to do it all over again, he would still take out the loans and go to law school, but he would have studied a little harder. He said law schools let students rack up debt "without telling you that you will never be able to pay this back at your current GPA."
Dana Morris, assistant dean for career development at Maryland Law, was traveling last week and could not be reached by phone, but she wrote in an e-mail that the school can provide students with information on legal salaries and that salary information is available online.
Loan repayment is a challenge for all students, regardless of GPA, and the school tries to help with scholarships, a public- service debt repayment plan and debt management education, she wrote.
Onus on the student
Sander, the UCLA professor, said law schools devote disproportionate attention and resources to preparing students for big-firm recruiting. When the students enter the job market, they are "shocked and dismayed," he said.
Schools don't know how to help those who don't qualify to go to a big firm or who aren't interested, said a 2007 Maryland graduate who has spent the last year clerking for a circuit court judge. She recently landed a job with a midsized litigation firm but is frustrated with how long it took and with the lack of support from Maryland.
"It's very easy for them to have the top 10 percent and 20 percent hired and they really don't know how to handle the rest of the class," she said.
Morris said there is only so much the school can do.
"Legal hiring, aside from 'big firm' recruitment, is an unpredictable and highly labor-intensive process for all students," she wrote. "Many employers, such as smaller firms or state government agencies, aren't positioned to devote a lot of resources to recruitment or they only hire as needs arise. So the onus is on job candidates to seek out possible employment."
The school tries to serve all of its students, she wrote. On- campus recruiting is geared toward the top students; for the rest of the class, the school encourages participation in "numerous national and regional job fairs providing access to myriad interview opportunities."
The school also has "hundreds of job listings from smaller and midsized firms, government and other legal employers," Morris wrote.
The 2007 graduate said Maryland encouraged graduates who did not have jobs to take clerkships with circuit and district court judges. That's a short-sighted solution because clerkships only last a year, she said.
"They get their check-mark that you're hired within six months of graduation, but you're in temporary employment and they know that in a year you'll be looking for a job," she said.
When the clerkships end, graduates are often no better off than they were the year before. They have a year of experience, but most employers advertising for associates want three to five, she said.
Plus, she said, most employers who advertise for entry-level lawyers want them to start immediately. She said she has been stunned at the number of firms that have suggested she blow off the rest of her clerkship.
Morris said clerkships are a good way for students to start their legal career. Some employers who will not hire a brand-new law graduate will hire someone who has clerked, she said.
But the down economy is making it tougher for clerks to find permanent jobs, said James Buck, who just finished a clerkship with Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Mickey J. Norman.
His job search did work out -- he started last week as an associate with Rollins, Smalkin, Richards & Mackie LLC -- but it was a tough road.
Buck, a 2007 Baltimore graduate, said that while he was looking for work, he obsessively monitored job postings with the school and The Daily Record, but that "it's just incredibly dry out there." Every clerk in the circuit courthouse was or is having trouble finding a permanent job, he said.
He said a friend interviewed at a small firm that had advertised a position for only two days. When he got there, the interviewer pointed to a stack of 80 resumes he had gotten, Buck said.
"I have some desperate friends right now," Buck said.
Legal recruiters recommend that recent graduates having trouble finding jobs consider contract work. That involves signing up with one or more legal staffing agencies to do what amounts to legal temping; generally, it's document review for a firm that's working on a big project.
Jack Hopper of the Austin office of Ajilon Legal, a Saddle Brook, N.Y.-based legal placement firm, said young lawyers sometimes turn up their noses at such work because they worry it will look bad on their resumes. He tells them that at least it will get them experience.
"It looks better that you were engaged in some kind of substantive legal work versus you got out of law school in 2007 and you don't have anything on your resume for a year," Hopper said.
"Last time I checked, making some money is better than making no money," he added.
Contract work is particularly lucrative these days, said Shelly Abrams, executive director of the Baltimore office of recruiter Special Counsel. Firms don't want to hire associates because they are uncertain whether they will have enough work for them. In the meantime, when a project does come up, they hire contract lawyers, she said.
The 2005 Maryland graduate who has been working contract jobs said he is signed up with six different legal temp agencies. The money isn't too bad -- $25 to $30 an hour, with more for overtime -- but the work consists mainly of sorting documents.
"Sometimes I was making $52 an hour for doing something a high school student could do, literally," he said.
One agency sometimes calls late at night asking if he can work a job the next morning. He would go in and find dozens of other contract lawyers, an indicator that there are a lot of unemployed and underemployed attorneys out there, he said.
"The fact that you can walk into a room and everyone is doing this means that the job market sucks," he said.
He said that when there isn't enough work to occupy all the contract lawyers on a project, a supervisor will let some go. He has been told that the hour coming up will be his last on the job; once, he was told that he could stay for dinner but they didn't need him after that. He took a cookie as severance.
It's a start
Some career placement professionals say young lawyers should be less choosy about their entry-level jobs.
Robin Bohnenstengel, associate director for career development at UB Law, said they should remember that a starting salary is just that; failing to get a big-firm job won't doom them to a lifetime of low pay.
Abrams of Special Counsel said young lawyers need to think about whether the job they want is the kind they can reasonably expect to get.
"Your expectations of your first job as far as your salary and the office ... it's all really good experience, and because of the market and because of the competition, you need to sort of make sure your expectations are in line with how you did in school," Abrams said.
She also suggested that graduates look at jobs where a law degree is helpful but not required, such as those in risk management or contract management. She also said public defender offices tend to have jobs available because many lawyers are uneasy about doing the work.
Sander, the UCLA professor, said that while federal and state government jobs tend to be highly competitive, local government employers, such as municipal law departments, may be good places to look.
Morris, of the career development office at Maryland, said students who place anywhere but in the top 10 percent of their class need to distinguish themselves by developing research, writing and advocacy skills through opportunities like clinical programs and clerkships. They also need to "take advantage of every opportunity to get in front of employers," such as networking with alumni, taking MICPEL courses or joining the Maryland State Bar Association as student members.
"They have to sell employers on the fact that they can do the work that attorneys do," Morris said in a phone message.
Some students and graduates said that their job search was helped by clerkships or paralegal jobs they held during law school. For example, a 2008 graduate of the University of Baltimore's evening program worked full time as a paralegal at two large firms, one after the other, during school. She acknowledges that she was near the bottom of her class and that she would have had "zero chance" of landing a summer associate job at one of those firms.
However, one of the firms has implied that it would hire her as a lawyer; she was told to call when she finds out if she passed the bar, she said. The lawyers there know she is trustworthy and bright, she said.
Bohnenstengel said Baltimore tells students without good grades that they should gain on-the-job experience while they are in law school.
The paralegal who just graduated said she wishes the school had done more to match students with full-time paralegal jobs.
"You know a fourth of your class are evening students and you tell them to do full-time jobs in the legal industry, and you're not helping them with paralegal positions," she said.
Time to retool?
Sander said the problem of unemployed law graduates and those not making enough to pay back their loans will only be solved if law schools make drastic changes. He said they must retool their placement offices so they don't focus so much on large firms. They must also reduce enrollment, he said.
Something has to be done, said the 2007 Maryland graduate who is finishing up her clerkship.
"It's one thing not to have a job," she said. "It's another thing not to have a job when you have $100,000 in loans to pay back."
Originally published by Caryn Tamber.
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