By Lynn W. Harwell
With the declarations that we are in the worst financial crisis and economic downturn since the Great Depression, many U.S. workers have been hit hard. Though economic slowdowns can prove catastrophic for some industries, the legal profession generally weathers the storm. When corporate work is down, litigation or bankruptcy work thrives (or vice versa). But with the recent dissolution announcements of major San Francisco-based law firms such as Heller Ehrman and Thelen, the impact of the economy and ongoing credit crunch is being felt by even the top-tier law firms.
Highly credentialed lawyers are learning that the profession of law is now the business of law, and that they along with their law firms are feeling the pinch.
One of the major problems is that no one knows how bad it will get or what is going to happen next. So a large number of law firms have put a hold on lateral and incoming associate hiring until there is a better ability to assess the market. Both law firms and in-house counsel positions have become scarce, particularly for junior attorneys at the bottom of the pyramid structure. Basically, there are too many mouths to feed. In years past, many law firms’ strategies were to grow into mega-firms with hundreds of attorneys – now these same firms are looking to reduce redundancies (i.e. layoffs).
Heller’s dissolution announcement and subsequent layoffs caught many attorneys off-guard and sent them scrambling to find other jobs. For the first time, many attorneys had the rug suddenly pulled from underneath their highly credentialed shoes and were in the throws of finding a job like so many others. With first-year associate starting salaries of $150K-plus, finding a position with comparable pay wasn’t as easy as it used to be, as other firms looked to reign in their costs.
So amid all the doom and gloom, are there still avenues for recent JDs to find a job? Here are a few steps for junior attorneys to approach finding a job in this down market.
Be RealisticGone are the days of having multiple offers from law firms for everyone in the top half of the class. If you get a job offer – take it. Also, for law students who may already have secured full-time employment post-graduation, stay in contact with the employer to determine if your job is still secure. Showing continued interest and persistence proves your desire without bothering busy professionals. You may be alerted to issues early enough to take action. Also be willing to make concessions if necessary (that signing bonus can be foregone if that means saving your job).
Refocus and Be FlexibleNow may be the time to redefine one’s career focus. Job seekers typically focus on three aspects for their ideal job – geography, industry and function. Ideally, you can get two out of your three preferences, but these days just getting one of them is realistic. Traditionally, markets such as New York and San Francisco are instant draws for most new attorneys. But given the slowdown for these markets in particularly practice groups, many attorneys focused on a particularly over-exposed practice group should consider other nearby secondary markets.
Compared with experienced attorneys who have built their expertise in specific practice areas, younger attorneys may have the ability to move more rapidly toward another practice group or change their specific focus (i.e. from capital markets to corporate restructuring). So attorneys should work on updating their resumes to provide a full and detailed account of their representative matters and accomplishments. Firms now have the leverage to be extremely picky, so you have to provide information to garner their attention.
Another potential avenue is to look toward smaller regional and boutique firms. Though these firms are similarly trimming costs, they have new business development and recruiting opportunities as many corporate clients look to reduce their outside counsel legal fees. These smaller firms provide great opportunities for attorneys, as they too want to find highly credentialed lawyers who may not have known about them or given then a second look coming out of law school. These smaller firms are ripe to pick up great, interesting work. Also, law students who are willing to delay their entry into the large law firm legal market can venture into other paths, such as various fellowship programs, clerkships, NGOs and government positions. They won’t pay six-figure salaries, but they do provide valuable experience that firms will be interested in later when the economy rebounds.
Network, Network, Network|This is one of the key aspects of any job search. Though most attorneys may not have actively networked at this point in their career (which is one lesson lawyers can learn from their business counterparts), they do already have an established network. It’s important for attorneys to utilize their networks and reach out to all of their contacts – alumni through law and undergraduate school, prior jobs/affiliations, professors, recruiters, family, etc. Though law students have in the past relied almost exclusively on their schools’ career services office, it’s a good idea to talk to others in the outside world as well regarding their career development. Ask practicing professionals how they landed perhaps not their first but their second or third jobs to garner ideas and contacts who you may not have considered previously.
Join the various alumni and professional networks – the Internet has provided much easier access to make connections. Though unsolicited resumes may not lead to positive results (in fact, expect lots of rejections), attorneys may be surprised that a “warm” call through one’s contacts (known as the strength of weak ties) can lead to opportunities and result in better odds of getting a foot in the door. When some opportunities come about, employers want to make efficient decisions, so being in the know can help an attorney move very quickly. Make finding a job your primary job – leaving no stone unturned can lead you to finding and getting a job offer.
Though finding a job in this climate won’t be a cakewalk, with perseverance, a positive attitude and flexibility, junior attorneys can find employment.
Lynn W. Harwell has a JD/MBA from Harvard University and is currently a director with Lateral Link Group (laterallink.us) in its San Francisco office.