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Law school grads confront challenging job market

New federal bankruptcy laws, backlash from tort reform, swelling law school enrollment and Hurricane Katrina have converged to dilute career opportunities for the class of 2006 law graduates, putting the job market on par with the challenging one in the early 1990s.

Nationwide, only 73% of the class of 2005 law school grads obtained a job for which bar passage was required. Three months after graduation, 11% remained unemployed, according to the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP).

“Backlash from tort reform has finally hit the state,” said Joyce Whittington, director of career services at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “A number of the larger firms are laying off second- and third-year associates and those associates are now back on the job market seeking employment.”

As a result of Congress mandating major changes to the federal bankruptcy laws last October, a number of attorneys who were doing primarily bankruptcy work were dismissed, and several firms specializing in bankruptcy law have closed their doors, said Whittington.

“Hurricane Katrina generated a number of problems the likes of which this state has never seen,” she said. “Firms are gone, are not reopening, and are moving north. It’s generated a whole new set of problems that attorneys are having to deal with, initially including clients that couldn’t find their attorneys and attorneys that couldn’t find their clients.”

Deborah Foley of the Mississippi College School of Law said large firms have cut back on the number of offers they are making and the newly graduated are competing with those that have already passed one or more bars and have a couple of years experience under their belts.

“It makes for a competitive market,” she said. “I’m confident the demand for legal services on the Gulf Coast will come roaring back, but we aren’t there yet.”

Class of 2005 law school grads from Ole Miss that could not secure traditional employment have opted for a variety of creative or unusual jobs, including franchise investor, e-commerce business, claims administrator, real estate broker and “a professional dancer … yes, indeed … she loves dancing and you can only do that so long,” said Whittington. “(I told her) right now, you can be a dancer that just happens to be an attorney and later you can be an attorney who likes to dance.” Another grad took a church position as an associate children’s pastor, which has “always been his first love,” she added. “Again, he can practice later. Besides, he’s going to be one of those attorneys that does a great deal of pro bono work anyway.”

The booming oil and gas market is presenting alternative career opportunities, Foley pointed out.

“A number of recent grads, as well as upcoming graduates, are working as land men,” she said. “In-house counsel opportunities with insurance companies, banks, hospitals and real estate brokerages are also being taken advantage of. Financial institutions such as Northwestern Mutual welcome the opportunity to hire those with a JD (jurisprudence degree). A good number of our students, however, gravitate towards the smaller law firm setting, which hasn’t been as adversely affected by tort reform, or plan to hang their own shingle and operate as sole practitioners. Some of our graduates who opened their own office last year have already built up substantial practices. We’ve also seen increased interest in the JAG positions of the military services.”

Angie Artman, recruiting coordinator for Watkins Ludlam Winter & Stennis, P.A., in Jackson, said the law firm has a recruiting program targeted to hiring law students for internships after their first and second years of law school.

“We generally make permanent hires from that program, but we are also interested in hiring attorneys with years of experience who can come in and supplement the excellent attorneys we have here now,” she said. “While needs for beginning associates may vary from year to year, we are continually looking to hire the best and the brightest to build our law firm’s future and provide excellent service to our clients. Our growth historically and in the immediate future appears measured and steady, without the fluctuations experienced in the national market, and to a lesser extent, in the local market.”

Marcie Davant, recruiting coordinator for Butler Snow O’Mara Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, said the Jackson law firm is “certainly in the market to hire both the best and brightest law school graduates and lateral candidates. We’re growing and looking for great people. We have a great group of summer associates coming to Butler Snow this year, and the market for the ‘best of the best’ remains very strong. While the firm had extraordinary hiring needs two to three years ago, the number of attorneys being hired by the firm has returned to more normal levels in 2005 and 2006.”

The Vault Report stated that Butler Snow partners “look to hire well-rounded, bright associates who are looking for a good place to begin a career … grades count, but so does personality.”

According to the NALP, the median salary for first-year associates ranges from $67,500 in firms of two to 25 attorneys, to $125,000 in firms of more than 500 attorneys, with a first-year median of $100,000 for all participating firms.

The average starting salary for Ole Miss law school grads is slightly lower, $64,445; the median salary, $59,000.
In small firms, there are fewer people to answer to, mentoring is oftentimes better, and young lawyers get more “hands on” experience quicker than with large firms. They usually make partner quicker, and the perception remains that lawyers in small firms don’t work such long hours, said Whittington.

“While I don’t think this is necessarily true, overall, there seems to be more job satisfaction with alums in the smaller firms,” she said. “That’s not to say there aren’t firms out there that are large and have very happy attorneys, but it’s certainly not across the board.”

Even though starting salaries are usually higher at larger firms, pay tends to even out over a period of time. Large firms tend to have “boutique” areas of practice, such as litigation, mass tort and bankruptcy, said Whittington.

“This may cause problems if associates aren’t well rounded and have expertise in only one area (such as) bankruptcy,” she said. “On the flip side, it’s easier in a large firm for a lawyer to get great expertise in one area that they probably couldn’t get in a small firm with a general practice. Large firms will pay well, but you’re certainly going to earn it, especially if the firm requires 2,200 hours and upwards.

“If attorneys at big firms were to ask me how they could make their firms successful in terms of retaining attorneys, I’d tell them over and over again: mentoring, mentoring, mentoring. And you’ve got to work with good attorneys to be a good attorney.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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