February 19, 2013

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Paul Durham


Fledgling Legal Eagles

New Lawyers Struggling to Find Employment

John Coon

February 19, 2013

Earning a law degree does not immediately translate to a high paying job—that is one of the first lessons Heidi Leithead instills in her law students attending the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University.

 “When I went to law school, there were a lot of people who came into law school feeling that way,” Leithead says. “They were going to come out of law school and all of the sudden they were going to have these great high-paying jobs. And it wasn’t true even then. It was true for a section of the class, but it wasn’t true necessarily for all the graduates. There’s always been a bit of a misconception.”

That particular lesson feels more pertinent now than at any other time in the legal industry.

Oversupply and Diminished Demand

No industry is immune from the impact of a slumping economy—including the legal profession. Recent national employment trends suggest a law degree does not automatically open doors to landing a job and securing a six-figure income with the speed and frequency an average person might expect.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a job growth rate for lawyers of 10 percent through 2020. One problem new law school graduates are discovering, however, is current demand for legal services cannot meet the supply of available lawyers.

A July 2012 study released by NALP (The Association for Legal Career Professionals) revealed that 85.6 percent of 2011 law school graduates obtained employment within a year of graduation. This represented a drop of 6.3 percent compared to the employment rate among 2007 law school graduates.

Among employed law school graduates, only 56.7 percent held a permanent full-time job that required the graduates to pass their state bar exam.

The NALP study also revealed that just 49.5 percent of 2011 law school graduates obtained jobs in law firms, marking a sharp decline from a rate of 55.9 percent of 2009 law school graduates.

A significant percentage of graduates who have already secured employment are actively looking to upgrade to a better job elsewhere. The NALP study found that 24.6 percent of 2011 law school graduates were already seeking to change jobs. This represents a 2 percent increase compared to 2010 graduates.

Leithead has witnessed these trends manifested locally while serving as president of Parr Brown, a Salt Lake City firm. Just at Parr Brown alone, over the past three years a noticeable uptick of resumes and applications have poured in from recent law school graduates located on the East or West Coasts.

The problem with dozens of graduates going for a limited number of jobs is there isn’t enough room to place an acceptable number in the workforce.

“The rules of supply and demand work in law the same way as any place else,” Leithead says. “I suspect we’ll see a reduction in some people going to law school, and some reduction in this idea that if you have a law degree, you will go out and make a lot of money. Those expectations are being lowered.”

Leithead’s predictions are already coming to pass. The Law Students Admissions Council reported applications to law schools nationwide decreased by 13.7 percent in 2012. This decrease comes on the heels of a 10 percent drop in law school applications in 2011.

Flying Solo

Some new lawyers are bypassing the pursuit of positions at established firms once they finish law school. They are instead taking a chance on opening up solo law practices. NALP reported that solo practices accounted for 3 percent of all legal jobs and 6 percent of law firm jobs in 2011. These numbers are almost twice as much as the figures reported for solo practices in 2007 and 2008.

One drawback to such a trend? Brand-new lawyers who hang up their own shingle lack enough experience and training in the particulars of practicing law. They are unable to fully satisfy their clients’ needs because their understanding of the law is incomplete.

Knowing how the law works does not fully compensate for inexperience in practicing it.

“You learn how to be a lawyer in law school,” says Lori Nelson, the current Utah State Bar president. “You don’t learn how to practice law.”

That’s one reason the Utah State Bar is making a concerted effort to help young lawyers learn the ropes through its New Lawyer Training Program. A primary mission of the program is to pair new lawyers with experienced mentors, enabling them to receive one-on-one guidance in the specifics of practicing law.

This is one method of creating a level playing field where solo practitioners can assure their clients the same degree of quality in legal representation they would receive from a lawyer working for a large law firm.

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