It ain't easy being a new law graduate


(Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I’m in the process of writing a magazine article about the difficulties faced by new law graduates. The theme that I agreed to write about was that kids these days have it tough–tougher than we old fogies ever did.

As I sat down to write the article, I wondered whether the premise was true. Do Millennials really have it so bad? I mean, after all, when I graduated from law school in 1995, the job market wasn’t exactly booming. And, let me tell you, it wasn’t all roses and peonies for me. I owed over $30,000 in student loans, with monthly payments of $600. And it took 9 long months for me to get the job that I wanted–as an assistant public defender in Monroe County in Rochester, New York. In the interim, I Iived in an apartment with 3 other people, interned at the PD’s office for free, and toiled away as a waitress at the Olive Garden. Talk about swallowing your pride.

In retrospect, it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun, but it was worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing. And, I’m sure many of the more “seasoned” attorneys reading this post have similar stories. We all paid our dues, so why should new law school graduates be any different? Millennials aren’t special, are they? 

So, as contemplated writing the article, I began to worry, since I wasn’t sure I was sold on the premise. But I decided I’d keep an open mind and maybe, just maybe, I’d see the light.

In the meantime, I decided to get to work on the article and figured my first step was to start by locating a few young lawyers who’d struck out on their own. I emailed them, they agreed to help me, and I sent off email interviews so that I could learn more about their plight. And then, I waited.

While waiting for their replies, I came across two interesting articles in my RSS feed reader. The first was from the ABA Journal: “Boston Law Firm Got 32 Applicants for Attorney Job Paying $10,000 a Year, Partner Says.” For me, the title said it all. Apparently a slew of recent graduates were so desperate for experience that they figured a legal job for pennies on the dollar was better than no job at all.

And then, I stumbled across this Philadelphia Business Journal blog post: “What lawyers would tell their children about going into law.” In it, the author explained that the results of a survey of law firm managers showed that the majority of those interviewed believed that many of the changes in the competitive environment of law firms that we’re now seeing are permanent–changes which included “smaller entry-level classes, less need to leverage partners with large groups of associates, more contract lawyers and outsourcing, fewer equity partners and holding the line on associate pay.”

In other words, many of the changes that the responding managing partners believed were altering the legal landscape are the very same ones that I’ve discussed in recent posts on this blog.

So how do these changes affect recent law grads? Brace yourselves. It’s not pretty:

Altman Weil principal Eric Seeger, co-author of the report, said one of the big takeaways from the survey for him was that “law students are screwed.”

Talk about depressing. Even more depressing were the results of the “bonus” question from the survey: “Considering all the changes and challenges the legal profession is facing, would you advise your son or daughter to attend law school in 2012?”

The response? Only 36.2% said yes, 38.6% answered no, and 25.2% were undecided. Not a good sign for recent law school graduates. Not a good sign at all.

As I pondered the significance of the findings of that survey, I received a reply email from one of my interviewees:

See the attached document with my answers to your questions. Let me know if you have any follow-up questions or need me to clarify anything.

I think that the legal job market is in such a state of flux that we (as new attorneys) need to be very flexible – try to “make lemonade out of lemons.”

His unsolicited comment caused me wonder if he’d been snooping on my blog reading habits. Either that, or perhaps there was something to this hypothesis that today’s law graduates are facing different challenges than we had in the past. Was there something to this theory? Is the legal profession at a crossroads due to the confluence of economic, technological, and institutional change? And if so, does this development place recent law grads in a unique position compared to law all law school graduates who preceded them?

Truth be told, I’m not completely sold on that idea–yet. Because, just like recent grads, many of us old dinosaur lawyers graduated with debt. And many of us toiled away for years at low pay. We all paid our dues. It wasn’t easy for us, so why should it be easy for them?

Even so, I’m starting to think that perhaps their plight might be different–for reasons completely outside of their control. But, I haven’t quite made up my mind. I’ve yet to read all of the interviewees replies, so perhaps their responses will enlighten me. You never know. Maybe I’ll actually learn something from these fledgling lawyers about the future of our profession. Imagine that.

-Nicole Black

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