August 1, 2011

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Out of Reach

New Legal Graduates Face a Competitive Job Market

Jeff Vanek

August 1, 2011

Cautious Optimism
“The legal market as a whole has had some real challenges in legal employment in the last 24 months,” says Gary Buckland, vice president and specialty service leader of Kelly Law Registry. Even so, Buckland has begun to see a slow increase in legal jobs. “There has been an increase in project work for attorneys, which is a strong indicator of growth. If this trend continues, law firms won’t just hire for project work—eventually they will hire permanent positions.”

At Parsons Behle & Latimer, Utah’s largest law firm, Vice President Hal Pos has observed signs that the economy is beginning to turn around. At a recent meeting of law firm managers, “there was cautious optimism,” about the economy, says Pos. His own firm has been planning for strategic growth, hoping to build its construction, renewable energy, and oil and gas practice areas. This means they will soon need to hire additional attorneys.

Hiram Chodosh, dean of the S. J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, says, “The last two years have been some of the worst in terms of available legal jobs. It has been a hyper-competitive market, not like it was three or four years ago before the economy crashed. Utah law graduates compete with law graduates from markets like California, where the economy has really suffered. There have been a higher number of students who have entered the job market without permanent or optimal employment.”

Even so, he says it looks like things are beginning to turn around in the legal market.

The vast majority of graduates this year are employed and most are doing legal work, says Anneliese Booher, director of the professional development office at the U’s law school. She has seen a small but noticeable increase in law graduates going into law-related fields, like the FBI or government. She has also noticed an upward blip in hiring and hopes it continues. “There has been a small flurry of hires in some areas, like intellectual property for example.”

At the J. Rueben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, Beth Hansen, director of career services, also believes that things are starting to get better in the legal market. She has also begun to see a slight increase in available legal jobs, with an increase in graduates taking work in nontraditional legal fields like business, education and government work.

“A legal degree is a good degree; it provides very valuable training. One doesn’t have to be a practicing lawyer to have meaningful employment,” she says.

The need for legal services is still tremendous, according to Chodosh. “The traditional way of thinking about legal jobs when coming out of law school is that there are two types of jobs: public service (the justice department, public defender’s office, prosecutor’s office) or a big law firm. There is actually a much broader choice of legal and legal-related careers. The focus has been on the large law firm business model. It is a skewed view of the options for employment for those coming out of law school. Even of those who practice law, 63 percent are solo practitioners.”

Chodosh says the demand for legal services is still strong—it’s just that not everyone can afford the fees. Legal issues affect people’s everyday lives in a number of ways, he says, pointing to housing, small business matters, divorce, adoption, wills and trusts, traffic violations, immigration and even criminal matters. Wealthy people and large corporations can pay top dollar for legal services, and the very poor can obtain legal aid.

“What the legal profession hasn’t figured out is a way to price their legal services so they are affordable for most people,” says Chodosh.

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