The New Normal for New Law Graduates: A Career Professional’s Perspective
By Elaine Petrossian
What a Difference a Recession Makes
Just a few years ago, legal employers declared entry-level lawyers as the “lifeblood” of their organizations, bemoaned the “talent wars,” and applauded law schools for practical training that did not exist for their more seasoned attorneys. When times were flush, law students were essential for future law firm survival and succession.
Blaming the Victim
After the Great Recession, the tune changed and a torrent of “bad news” flooded the legal community. Corporate clients lashed out at firms that raised rates to finance escalating salaries and partner payouts. Large law firms laid associates off, rescinded or deferred offers, and suspended student recruiting. Suddenly, law schools were accused of producing “an irrelevant product.” The value of a JD is now debated strictly like any other financial asset in the portfolio, to be priced, purchased, and flipped for the highest (short-term) gain possible.
The “bad news” is bad. Since 2008, the US legal sector has shed jobs at an unprecedented rate, in virtually every segment and region of the legal market. At a time when the cost of a legal education shows no sign of shrinking, legal media and Internet sites bombard us with news, rumors, and rants that question the sanity of anyone who desires a legal career in this climate—or who hires an entry-level graduate for their office.
However, the new normal is not as bleak as the blogosphere may portray it. Entry-level attorneys are finding work. Law students are finding summer internships, especially with smaller firms, solo practitioners, and public service agencies and nonprofits.
Navigating New Terrain
From my vantage point, I see several trends that graduating law students should prepare to navigate as they enter the profession in the new normal.
First, new law graduates should anticipate more legal opportunities in freelance or nontraditional work arrangements (e.g., independent, temporary, time-limited, or part-time positions). Due to their flexibility, solo practitioners and smaller firms have proven to be a major source of new graduate opportunities in this way. For these reasons, we have been reaching out to smaller firms and solos specifically to encourage them to take new graduates on as law clerks or freelance associates. Employers who may be reluctant to commit to permanent or full-time employment arrangements frequently find it helpful to bring a new graduate on for part-time or temporary positions.
Second, new law graduates should plan for the possibility of managing their own practice earlier in their careers. Rather than waiting for others to give them a job, a growing number of graduates are channeling their entrepreneurial spirit into developing their own slate of work. Whether through freelance arrangements, attorney referrals, court appointments, or direct client engagements, the number of junior attorneys running an independent or sole proprietorship is growing significantly. At Villanova, we have offered programs to alumni and students who need to be their own boss and run their own practice. The ABA and other bar associations offer valuable workshops, resources, and support systems for lawyers running an independent practice. With fellowship and mentoring from more experienced lawyers, this can be a viable option for junior lawyers.
Third, mentors and other professional support systems will be more important than ever before. New graduates must dedicate disciplined, enthusiastic effort toward nurturing professional relationships with lawyers and nonlawyers. Professional contacts should be treated as valued colleagues, not merely as solicitation targets. We reinforce this constantly with our students and alumni, and we support their efforts with programs, events, directories, and social networking media site tools. New graduates need to actively seek out mentoring by being “mentor-ready.” Would-be mentors feel more compelled to assist those who show active engagement and eagerness to learn and develop.
Taking the Long View
Finally, unwavering commitment to the long-term goal of building a satisfying legal career will create the conditions that lead to success, despite this (or any) economic downturn. It is absolutely true that “luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” Opportunity comes in many forms and often when we look for ways to help others. Some of the most successful job seekers I have seen during this downturn found excellent opportunities because they rarely missed a chance to help others. Whether through pro bono, professional association service, community service, or offering to help a lawyer or nonlawyer with a project, these individuals kept their skills sharp, their relationships fresh, and their optimism high. Their preparation eventually met with opportunity.
Elaine Petrossian served as Assistant Dean for Career Strategy at Villanova Law from August 2000 through February 2011. She graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law and practiced law in Philadelphia at two major law firms.
© Copyright 2011, American Bar Association.