Showing the way : Bars’ career services critical during tough times

Volume 28 Number 1

By

More than a year after passing the bar exam, Los Angeles attorney Kenneth Tsang is still looking for a job. But according to the National Association for Law Placement Inc. (NALP), so are nearly 4,000 of last year’s law school grads across the nation.

The total law school graduating class of 2002 was more than 35,500. Add to that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ finding that 11,000 attorneys lost their jobs last year, and the number of job-seeking attorneys made 2002 a very competitive marketplace.

The year 2003 seems to be yielding an even tougher market. Law firms, historically insulated from times of economic downturn, are finding themselves vulnerable to the current economy. Firm mergers, defections, and collapses are rocking the legal world, spewing hundreds and hundreds of attorneys into the unemployment arena. Two such examples within the past year are Hill & Barlow in Boston, which dissolved in December, and Chicago firm Altheimer & Gray, which at press time had postponed a vote to dissolve, but was said to be winding down its business.

While many of those who are prominent or carry a significant book of business are being snapped up by other firms, “Huge numbers of lawyers are being dislocated,” says Kay Hodge, a member of the National Conference of Bar Presidents’ Executive Council. “Right now we’re seeing a national phenomenon. It is very difficult for a law firm to continue to be profitable, and bar associations should be concerned for those lawyers.”

Bars step in

Tsang graduated from his San Diego law school feeling “very gung ho,” he says. “The sky’s the limit.” Now the 40-year-old former real estate agent who had hoped for success in his second career admits, “My bubble has burst.” In addition to the difficulty he is having finding a job, he is equally distressed by the lower salaries being offered to new attorneys during the economic pinch. Getting by in Los Angeles on little more than $48,000 a year is going to be tough, he says, especially in light of the student loans of which he is currently deferring payment.

Tsang does the usual daily job search. He scans the paper, does online searches, and sends out résumés with regularity. He consults with his career advisor at his law school. But Tsang finds renewed motivation by making the grueling trek through Los Angeles traffic to attend the monthly career seminar series offered by the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

Launched in June 2002, the bar’s Career Network Forum offers monthly presentations and round table discussions focusing on career opportunities and strategies for change. “I know too many attorneys that have been between gigs in one way or another, and during a period of layoff, attorneys can become disconnected, isolated, and their networks start collapsing,” explains Teresa Schmid, the bar’s director of professional services. “I wanted to create a forum where people could come together.”

Her brainstorming sessions with a Los Angeles-area career coach resulted in a series of seminars facilitated by many notable local career counselors, image consultants, and networking and organizational gurus. June’s seminar, “How to Work a Room,” offered strategies on marketing oneself while networking with others. Offered free of charge to anyone wishing to attend, this successful series attracts a cross section of the legal population, from attorneys with mature skills who want to create new paths, to law students, paralegals, solo practitioners, and some lawyers who are just plain unhappy with being a lawyer. “We’re trying to do outreach,” Schmid explains. “I want them to see from the bar’s perspective the value of community. I want them to experience connectedness.”

The Los Angeles bar isn’t alone. Often the first place an unemployed attorney turns for support, a growing number of state and local bar associations are offering assistance both online and in person, in an effort to not only provide service to their members, but also to protect their own membership base. Many have initiated dues waivers and program discounts to unemployed members, and others are remodeling their programs and career services and are adding to their Web sites.

Launched in September 2000, the ABA Career Counsel Web site, www.abanet.org/careercounsel/, provides a central place to locate bar associations offering such services to their members, in addition to its own wealth of career-related resources including articles and publications on maximizing one’s career, tips and tools for finding the right job, job postings, and links to other career-related resources.

“Compiling resources for ready access by members is less time-intensive than bars may think,” says Kathy Morris, director of the ABA Career Resource Center and long-time career counselor for lawyers. “State and local bars can do a lot to keep their membership involved,” she says, adding that the need to do so is becoming more evident as the attorney career marketplace continues to evolve.

Voluntary bars have another great reason for offering career services, as Hodge points out: “If a member is not economically solid and is watching every penny, the cost of membership may be one of the budget items to cut.”

The Los Angeles bar, the second- largest voluntary bar in the nation, is very aware of that possibility. Schmid has witnessed the fall of many California law firms in the wake of a languishing economy and the decline of the technological corridor of Silicon Valley. She wonders how accurate the labor bureau’s statistic is. “I feel like I’ve got at least 11,000 unemployed attorneys right here in L.A. County,” she says. She knows her help may be critical in keeping those members in the fold.

The Chicago Bar Association, too, hosts a popular monthly series of professional development programs designed for lawyers “facing career changes, whether by choice or otherwise,” says Sharon Nolan, the bar’s director of marketing. More popular still, Nolan says, is the Lawyers’ Guide to the Chicago Job Market from the bar’s Young Lawyers Section Career Assistance Committee. The guide provides advice on nearly every aspect of obtaining a job in Chicagoland, from résumé writing and interview tips to salary negotiations. A special section authored by Chicago practitioners outlines particular aspects of specialized practice in Chicago.

Chicago is also seeing firm layoffs. “This market is impacted at all sectors,” says Nancy Thompson, assistant dean at the John Marshall Law School, explaining that government funding cuts have reduced the number of jobs in both the public and private sector. Thompson is also co-chair of the YLS committee that publishes the guide.

Guidance and support

Being and feeling connected is the core value of association membership, many say, and this may never be more fully realized than when one has lost a job. “When the branch breaks under an attorney, they suddenly realize [bars’] worth,” says Nikki Nordenberg, director of career services for the Allegheny County Bar Association, which is in one of the country’s most competitive legal markets. With the highest concentration of attorneys outside the D.C. area, “In Pittsburgh,” she says, “it’s eat what you kill.”

Using her doctorate in counseling psychology, Nordenberg designs and guides a job search program for members of the Allegheny County bar, helping them prioritize and providing the support and structure needed to carry out an effective professional-level job search when “life and ego interfere.” The legal profession already suffers four times more emotional depression than any other, Nordenberg says, and unemployed attorneys tend to have more difficulty sustaining the energy to do an adequate job search.

“They might just sit,” she says. “You’ve got to do the easy things—check the paper, the Web, talk to your law school. Most people want to stop there.” But because only 10 percent of available jobs are ever advertised, Nordenberg says, being active in the association can become a lifeline—though many job seekers hesitate to call on their network. “People will put more money into stamps for mass mailings of their résumés than they will time into building the network that can get them a job,” she observes. “The hard stuff is calling someone and saying, ‘I lost my job.’ ”

Online help abounds

While the best thing anyone can offer to an unemployed attorney is an actual job, the next best thing may be knowing where the jobs are. A growing number of associations, even very small ones, are posting area job announcements on their Web sites—either as a member benefit, or for a fee. The Chicago bar charges $10 per month for each job posting to its Career Passport page, but offers “positions wanted” ads free to unemployed members.

The Los Angeles bar offers postings as a member benefit. As a service of its Career Forum, Schmid also e-mails nearly 100 online discussion group subscribers notice of positions that become available in the Los Angeles market that may not be known elsewhere.

The Connecticut Bar Association cross-posts employment ads to the bar Web site’s Career Center as an adjunct to the monthly Connecticut Lawyer magazine at no extra charge to the advertiser. Classifieds may be posted to the Web independently if the opening is time sensitive, though the cost is the same, starting at $50.

The Iowa State Bar Association does similarly with the Iowa Lawyer, but offers its members two free classified ads per year—a real benefit to unemployed attorneys who wish to advertise their services.

In addition to job postings, many of these Web sites offer a variety of tools to assist job-seeking members, such as résumé postings, career-related articles, law firm profiles, and links to other available resources. Some offer tools such as Chicago’s Career Passport, where members can design their résumé for Web posting. Some, including the Iowa bar, offer e-mail alerts so subscribers get immediate notification of new positions posted to the site.

Already used by 63 state and local bar associations and more than 20 paralegal and legal secretary associations, Legalstaff.com offers associations the opportunity to provide job-seeking members an online service without the need to dedicate staff and additional resources often necessary for Web development. Legalstaff.com provides a career center front on the association’s Web site that matches the look and feel of the association’s site, without the strain to the association’s Web server.

Provided to associations at no charge with a revenue share generated by job advertisers, Legalstaff.com’s Career Center offers job seekers the ability to search an extensive national database of legal jobs, post résumés, and research employers, and also offers e-mail notification of new positions fitting the subscriber’s job criteria. It offers tools and tips for maximizing a job search, and articles written for those in the job market.

Bar associations partnering with Legalstaff.com are also linked to the State and Local Career Resources section of the ABA Career Counsel site. Legalstaff.com recently added to its available features the ABA’s “Tuesday Job Search Answer Board,” a weekly online question-and-answer forum hosted by Kathy Morris. Some associations, such as the Los Angeles bar, partner with Legalstaff.com while also providing their own area job bank.

Effort pays off

However they help, many bars find aiding unemployed attorneys is an investment in the future. As needed assistance is provided to bar members in times that may be deemed as crisis, a deeper bond is formed. Loyalty to the bar grows. Morris observes from her many years of career counseling that, “Everyone is, at times, in need of counsel and support, and at other times are the givers.

“Shortly, the unemployed lawyers will be able to give back through the bar and enhance the strength of professional connections through the bar.” BL


[Side bar]

Midyear speakers urge bars to offer career help

“There are two types of lawyers,” Kathy Morris told members of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, the National Association of Bar Executives, and the National Conference of Bar Foundations. “Lawyers who have been let go from their jobs, and lawyers who fear they may be let go.”

That may sound grim, but Morris, director of the ABA Career Resource Center, was at the groups’ Midyear Meeting in Seattle to help bars find ways to reach out to lawyers during tough economic times.

As law firms across the country tighten their belts, the impact isn’t limited to those who are let go, said Kristina Moris, principal of the human resources consulting practice at the Seattle-based Washington Firm. Those left behind often suffer from “survivor syndrome,” in which workers feel increased stress and fear—not to mention an increased workload if they pick up projects from those who left—and tend to “hunker down” and isolate themselves. This carries “not only a personal cost, but a cost to the firm,” Moris explained, because lawyers in this situation lack the energy needed to mentor younger lawyers or to reach out in other ways.

Meanwhile, more law students are graduating and trying to enter the workforce and, for the many who were not in the top tier of a top law school, this means joining the already “thousands and thousands and thousands who weren’t able to find a job or are underemployed,” said Rebecca Nerison, a psychologist with the Washington State Bar Association’s lawyer assistance program.

A place for bar associations

Where do bar associations come in? Because many recent grads, particularly these days, end their job search by opening their own firm, services for solo and small firms are critical. Nerison said she tells job-seeking lawyers, “Even though you don’t think you’re going to end up running a small business, you very well might end up doing that.” And, said Moris, “Law schools don’t teach people how to find jobs,” which means there’s also a real opportunity for bar associations in offering career guidance and support.

The Washington bar combines its LAP, law office management program, and professional responsibility functions under one umbrella, Lawyer Services, making it a convenient one-stop shop for advice and help. Lawyers often don’t trust “garden-variety career counselors,” Nerison said; instead, they respond well to this grouping of bar services that meets their special needs.

Becoming a career resource

Besides setting up an online career center, Morris said a bar association can establish itself as the source for law-related career help in its area by printing how-to information on job search and job performance skills, offering career help by phone or e-mail, and setting up a career desk at bar meetings or other legal community events, staffed by lawyer volunteers who can offer résumé help on-site.

It’s important, too, to help lawyers and law students remember that there may be great opportunities for them outside the traditional practice of law—which can be a tough sell because leaving the profession “carries a real stigma of shame,” according to Moris. Besides being a place that offers career help for job-seeking lawyers and law students, the bar association can be a place where area employers—not just law firms, but also those from other fields in which law training is an asset, such as real estate—can come to find good candidates.

Helping someone see all their options is a “really meaningful service,” Moris noted. But won’t encouraging members to consider other careers mean losing a lot of those members? Not necessarily, she said. Networking with people who have transitioned to other careers will help some unemployed lawyers start down a new path, she explained, but will help others approach their existing job search with fresh vigor. Studies show that helping people honestly take stock when they’re considering leaving their chosen field can actually help renew their commitment to it, she said.

If such intensive career counseling goes beyond the scope of what the bar can offer, Nerison said, it might be possible to link with a counselor or group of counselors in the area who are willing to give a price break for clients who come to them through the bar.

Critical support

Because the best kind of support is often peer support, Hodge suggested that bars get together a group of unemployed lawyers so they can help each other. And for those who end up choosing other career paths, Nerison recommended keeping them in the bar by establishing a committee for nonpracticing lawyers, as some have done.

During this difficult time, Moris said, it’s especially important that everyone in the legal profession be educated about the signs of depression, addiction, and other problems related to mental health. After all, Hodge agreed, behind the headlines about a large firm closing might be any number of lawyers who “may have never practiced in any other environment than the firm that has just imploded”—and it may well be the bar that can help pick up the pieces.

—By Marilyn Cavicchia

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