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Recent Law School Graduates Face the Tightest Job Market in Years

When Jose Ancer starts work at a law firm this fall, he’ll join a U.S. industry that, like so many others, sees people of color disproportionately affected during an economic downturn. Ancer’s path draws praise among diversity watchdogs because of the historically meager ranks of Mexican-Americans in the legal workforce.

But amid lingering industry wide uncertainties, officials at some law schools are scrambling to ensure that underrepresented minorities get jobs, especially law schools not customarily tapped by the country’s largest law firms. In some of the more striking measures, a dean will troop out of town to specifically lobby employers, or schools may piece together meager funds to hire their own graduates for academic work — a stepping stone position designed to bolster graduates’ skills in further preparation for a legal career. These stepped-up efforts are in response to a tighter market in which only 88 percent of 2009 graduates got jobs, according to the latest statistical data available from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). That figure is the lowest rate nationally since the last significant recession, in the mid-1990s.

“The feeding frenzy among employers is gone,” says Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law. “The top 10 or 15 percent of the class can’t count on getting the best jobs anymore.”

In the midst of the recession, many firms dramatically reduced the number of schools they visited for recruiting purposes. Firms across the nation have delayed start dates for newly minted attorneys. Howard University School of Law officials say many graduates accepted deferrals of three months or longer, plus stipends and lower than agreed-upon salaries. Some firms required these graduates to work in the interim at a government or public interest agency.

Other firms have grown pickier about whom they hire, narrowing their recruitment choices to the most elite schools. It’s a move that tends to exclude minority students, who often come from lower-tier schools where tuition is more affordable and which are more likely to offer flexible night programs. “That’s accurate,” says Jason Murray, a lawyer for the firm Carlton Fields, describing the tough hiring landscape. “Lots of schools get left out. For some graduates, it’s like being a walk-on to a team rather than being a high lottery pick.”

This apparently holds true among graduates seeking employment outside the profession, too. Robert Lewis has had only three interviews for government affairs work in Washington, D.C., since graduating last year from Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law — even though he spent four years as a legislative aide for a U.S. senator and 18 months as a lobbyist prior to enrolling at Catholic. “Reputation is everything, and if you don’t come from a top-tier school like Georgetown, George Washington or American, it’s tough getting employers to look at you,” he says.

Pulling Back

Lewis initially set out to become a prosecutor, but, discouraged by the limited job prospects paying enough to service $200,000 in student loan debt, he changed course to secure government affairs work. He’s not alone among disheartened graduates looking to go in a different direction.

Among 2009 law school graduates with permanent jobs, 20 percent, according to NALP, resumed job-hunting that year despite having permanent work — suggesting some of them grabbed whatever job they could get to chip away at student loans. The average debt nowadays hovers around $100,000, according to the Law School Admission Council. By comparison, 16 percent of 2008 graduates kept looking once employed.

Law firms have been hard hit by the recession, and the downturn appears to have been particularly devastating to minority attorney numbers. According to a survey of more than 260 firms conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and, a job-search website, minorities made up 13 percent of attorneys but 21 percent of departures in 2009.

Across the board, summer programs employing second year students — the pool from which firms have traditionally hired entry-level associates — had 20 percent fewer participants than in 2008. And less than 75 percent of those 2009 second-year students received full-time offers, versus 88 percent of the 2008 class and 93 percent in 2007.

MCCA Executive Director Veta T. Richardson believes the sour economy has led many firms to pull back in diversifying their workforces, saying that “despite best efforts, diversity progress has likely been set back at least five years.”

In recent years, law firms have been pressured to diversify by clients looking for the broadest range of viewpoints possible. But firms aren’t required to describe their minority outreach efforts, so information is largely anecdotal. Several large firms contacted by Diverse declined to be interviewed. Yet outreach to minority law students and graduates has been key to the progress Richardson describes.

Ancer, for example, benefited from a $10,000 minority scholarship from the law firm Vinson & Elkins. The scholarship helped him afford the University of Texas, an otherwise impossibility on his mother’s tiny income selling perfume at a Houston flea market. With a buffer from daily financial worries, Ancer felt comfortable enough to switch majors from business to philosophy. Because philosophy and law both rely on logic and argument, he grew interested in law school. He’ll graduate from Harvard Law School this semester; a full-time position at the firm Andrews Kurth awaits.

The law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton is among the firms still reaching out to students of color. Attorneys there have tutored urban New York City high school students for the SAT and mentored them to go to college since 1991. When firms everywhere were clinging to business and shuttering sluggish practices in 2009, more than 100 Cleary Gottlieb attorneys and staff still mentored 400 students. Arthur Kohn, a partner and co-chairman of the firm’s diversity committee, called the effort “indicative of the deep buy-in among our people. It doesn’t bear fruit immediately but instead, long-term.”

At Carlton Fields, an academic-year fellowship has been carved into two $5,000 scholarships to be awarded annually to law students from underrepresented groups who will work at the firm alongside other summer associates. Officials say the change will enable the scholarship winners to compete with their peers for full-time jobs. Unlike many firms, Carlton Fields didn’t downsize its summer associate class during the recession. In 2010, the program employed 13 students. The firm has hired 10 of them; four are openly gay or ethnic minority, numbers typical in recent years.

Maximizing Every Available Resource

Despite the fewer campus visits by law firm recruiters, there is plenty that students and law school officials can do to help bolster employment prospects. Jorge Juantorena, a partner and chairman of Cleary Gottlieb’s hiring committee, suggests that students interested in a firm that won’t be coming to their campus visit the firm’s website and follow the application instructions found there. He also says students should search firms’ directories for attorneys who are school alumni, then e-mail the alumni introducing themselves, explaining the job hunt and attaching their resumes.

“Our lawyers often forward me material from these applicants because they take pride in the institutions,” Juantorena says. “I take more notice when a colleague asks if I took a look at a particular person.”

As illustration of the fierce competition for employment, Juantorena says this year’s class of 93 summer associates was culled from 1,500 on-campus interviews and 1,000 direct applications. He encourages deans to contact firms on students’ behalf if such firms don’t already have relationships with their schools, a tactic he laments as “relatively rare,” adding that “if I hear from a dean, then that student rises up the totem pole” among applicants.

MCCA’s Richardson suggests that school career services directors carefully consider how they spend their resources. For example, MCCA’s annual diversity conference usually draws 750 attendees — including managing partners and senior lawyers of firms as well as general counsel of corporations — but the number of career service directors languishes in the single digits. “This would be an ideal venue for career services people to develop relationships with employers on a national scale, for the sake of students,” she says.

Concerned Campuses

Southern University Law Center Chancellor Freddie Pitcher Jr., for one, recognizes the need to be a zealous advocate for his graduates. “Things are really in the tank,” Pitcher says. He cites these examples: fewer firms recruit on the 500-student campus; significant numbers of third-year students and 2010 graduates lack jobs; and many second-year students hired for summer positions have already learned there are no permanent ones for which they can be considered. Pitcher plans to tour Louisiana to attempt to pry jobs open from employed alumni as well as from firms. The road trip also is fueled by the fact that 17 percent of his 2009 graduates became solo practitioners because of the scarcity of jobs. Only 6 percent of the 2008 class took that route.

Southern is among the schools contacted by Diverse reporting that at least 90 percent of their 2009 graduates were employed, but only thanks to aggressive efforts by deans and compromise by the students. Countless new attorneys have settled for jobs in remote, often rural areas despite preferences for cities; schools have squeezed their budgets dry adding more career counselors; and deans have coaxed more alumni back to campus as guest speakers so that students can tap them for job and internship leads.

At some campuses, officials have cobbled makeshift solutions for students whose job searches have long since stalled. Faculty at Rutgers School of Law-Newark strung together research fellowships last fall for 14 graduates of the 840-student school, helping them bridge unemployment gaps. The fellowships — stitched together by an alumni association donation of $20,000 along with various faculty resources — also gave the recipients additional writing experience under the auspices of Rutgers, a name brand that faculty hope will boost the resumes of graduates. Some of these graduates also worked part-time in the legal field while scouring for full-time positions.

Such uphill job searches have spurred law deans to push students into legal clinics, where they can gain experience in courtroom procedure and client relations. At Southern, where at least 80 percent of students work in clinics, Pitcher treats the programs as near-mandatory because of the possibility that graduates may revert to solo practices to stave off unemployment. “You never know when you have to fend for yourself,” Pitcher says. “Knowing your way to the courthouse can help pay a few bills.”

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