August 1, 2011

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Out of Reach

New Legal Graduates Face a Competitive Job Market

Jeff Vanek

August 1, 2011

Hardly an industry or business has escaped the negative consequences of the economic downturn of the last few years. The legal profession is no exception. With the downturn there has been a decrease in available legal jobs, especially for newly graduating law students. Utah’s two law schools are producing an annual batch of eager new graduates, but not enough firms are looking to grow their ranks.

“We have two law schools in the state pumping out law graduates, and there isn’t enough growth in the economy to keep those attorneys employed. The economy hasn’t been able to keep up with the supply,” says Matthew Driggs, of Driggs, Bills & Day, a seven-attorney firm.

But the issue isn’t a lack of demand for legal services. “There is lots of work,” he says. “Making a living is the hard part. Finding clients who can pay for the legal work is the challenge.”

While law firms wait for the economy to pick up, new graduates are forced to find alternative ways to sharpen their skills and stay in the game.

One program helping new attorneys gain valuable experience is the Attorney Volunteers in Court Program. Started by the Litigation Section of the Utah State Bar, its purpose is to help address the issue of underemployed attorneys, many of whom are new to the profession. The program recruits attorneys to volunteer with the state courts. Even though the attorneys are not paid, the program helps them develop new skills and gain legal work experience until they can find permanent employment. The court system benefits through much-needed assistance at a time when the courts have experienced reduced funding and increased caseloads.

Some newly minted attorneys are making do with a patchwork of project work and volunteer work to gain experience and network with practicing attorneys.

An Uphill Battle
Daniel Young is an associate with Plant, Christensen and Kanell. His story is a good illustration of what new lawyers often have to go through to find employment. Young graduated from law school at the University of Utah in 2009. At the time, he had been clerking with a small boutique law firm doing intellectual property litigation. Unfortunately, it was right when the economy started to go downhill, and he wasn’t offered a position with the firm.

Young’s wife was expecting their first child and, desperate for work, he leveraged his experience studying abroad in Japan to get temporary work translating documents for the Japanese Bar here in Utah.

He also contacted local attorneys to see if they had any legal research or writing he could do for them on a project basis. All the while, he networked and met with other attorneys. He says that most everyone was very gracious and willing to talk with him—but there were no offers of employment.

Young visited the law school’s placement office and applied for everything and anything he thought he might remotely be qualified for.

In addition, he applied for a scholarship from the Dean’s Fellowship Program, a law school program that pays a stipend to newly graduated students so they can approach potential employers and work for them for free during the period of the stipend. This allows firms or organizations that might not otherwise hire an attorney to do so at no cost to them. Young was able to work in the IP department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a few months because of the scholarship, giving him additional legal experience and training.

“I also got involved with a nonprofit organization,” says Young. “I was singing in a community choir, the Salt Lake Choral Artists, and they had elections for the board of directors—so I ran and was elected. I thought I may be able to help because I did the Nonprofit Clinic program while in law school and thought it would be a good way to get my name out in the community and build my resume.”

Young told everyone he met that he was looking for a job. “I did a lot of talking with people, networking. My dad played in a softball league and told many of his friends on the team. It was my dad who ran into an attorney friend who worked at Plant, Christensen and Kanell while playing softball and mentioned that I was looking for a legal job. They didn’t however, have a position at the time.”

A few months later, though, Young got a call from the firm and was asked to come in for an interview. After that interview, a couple of months passed before he was called back for a second interview, at which time he was hired. “It was in the summer when my father mentioned to his friend that I was looking for a legal position, and it wasn’t until April of 2010 that I was hired.”

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