The Legal Job Search in Your Words

In the current economic environment good-paying legal jobs have become a hot commodity. Indeed, there are few better subjects for a website which explores the intersection of law and economics than the out-of-whack supply and demand curves representing the legal job market at this time. For anyone who has not been paying attention, the situation can be described in economic terms as a medium-term glut in labor supply which has outstripped demand. In other words, the past few years have seen far more people chasing jobs than job openings. Being a recently graduated law student in 2011 isn't quite as bad as being a Dutch tulip grower in 1640, but it can certainly feel that way.

With this backdrop, we decided to take on the subject of legal employment. To be clear, we are specifically referencing the lower-end of the market, or those who have been hit hardest by the broader economic malaise (like high-end real estate the market for experienced lawyers is relatively insulated from external factors such as recessions).  More narrowly we are focusing on those individuals looking for their first jobs in the legal field.

In writing this post we decided to take a slightly different approach than we normally do. Rather than provide some commentary and links to other blogs and websites, we spoke to recent grads to get their perspectives in their own words. This resulted in a hodgepodge of advice, general thoughts and anecdotes which give what we believe is a very clear picture of the current operating environment. We also spoke to recruiters and experienced lawyers for their thoughts on the best ways to approach the job search. The following is what we received from those we asked along with a bit of our own commentary in italics.

One recent graduate we spoke to was successful in his search. He was able to frame the broader issues and explain why the job market is such a hot topic of conversation currently: 

2008 graduates were the last class to have it good in the world of Biglaw. 2009 graduates received summer associateships and offers, but many had deferred start dates. 2010 graduates received summer associateships, but offer rates were much lower than previous years, leaving many hopeful graduates unemployed. Firms readjusted their practices and hired fewer 2011 graduates as summer associates. But those few lucky ones that received summer positions also received offers of employment. Summer classes remained small for 2012 graduates, but it is still left to be seen whether they will be receiving offers to begin working next fall.

Unfortunately, even if the market begins to improve, it will likely do little to help those that have already graduated. Biglaw firms don't look to hire outside of their summer associate programs, and there is still a plethora of attorneys a few years out of school that have previous law firm experience (before getting fired). For those 2010-2011 graduates who still find themselves unemployed, the options are unfortunately much more limited.

Clearly the distortions in the legal job market a few years back are still impacting prospects today. What should recent grads do in such an environment? A current searcher who wished to remain anonymous had the following thoughts:

My story has been pretty quiet. I haven't gone the direct write route, I've really just been looking for and responding to postings and stuff. From that, I have not been getting any responses. I have reached out to a couple of people to see if they knew anything, but that didn't lead to anything either. So now, I am sending my information to temp agencies, hoping for something to do in the short-term while I continue the search/something that might develop from there. The same types of jobs still exist, there are just less of them now.

Recent graduate and past contributor Frank Gonzalez took a different approach:

I've found that direct writes are a colossal waste of time and energy. I know friends that have written hundreds of cover letters which have yielded zero interviews- informational or real. I think (a searcher's) most underused and under appreciated resource is their professors. I know that as of now, beside myself, they are my number one advocate. If it were not for my professor I would not have the job I do now. So, remember- times are grim, and the market isn't what the racket industry of law school promised, but there are people out there willing to help you. Go to office hours, buy them coffee, and above all: stay positive.

Frequent contributor Jeremiah Newhall also found networking to be a good tool as he embarked upon his ultimately successful job search:

The best advice I've gotten has been that almost everyone has been job searching once in their lives. People want to help you, because they remember how important it was when someone helped them. Knowing that made asking for help easier.

What about further afield? Is the grass greener on the other side of the Atlantic? We spoke to a few German students for an international perspective. Friend of the site Florian Seelig told us the following: 

I think the job market over here is okay. It’s hard for people with grades below average, but if you’re above average, you have good prospects of getting a job. The only real hard thing to get in is working as a judge or prosecutor or in Biglaw. There you should be in the top-10% range to have a real chance or some secondary degree like a masters or a dissertation. Even if you're below average, you still can find a job and that it's probably just not a really good job. But its a job.

It is worth noting that the typical law student in Germany has far less debt than most American students. Another German student provided some thoughts of her own, as well as some quotes she found from employment experts (translations courtesy of Google):

From what I know, the market has recovered and the prospects aren't too bad for young lawyers and lawyers-to-be, but that's all hearsay, so here are some thoughts from the experts -

"Both law firms and in particular companies currently hire quite a few lawyers. The cost sensitivity increases. The legal expertise is obtained internally rather than from external lawyers. It's cheaper. The departments of labor and contract law, IT and IP law and general corporate law and are particularly in demand." - Ina Steidl, CEO of HR consulting company Schollmeyer & Steidl, who specializes in the placement of lawyers

"The aftermath of the economic crisis diminishes and gives cause for cautious optimism. Regarding the quality of the work and payment, a substantial spread is apparent: while lawyers who obtained a degree "fully satisfactory" or better are skilled workers the market is looking for, the other candidates still have to fight with problems. They often switch to much lower-paid jobs or become freelancers." - Raimund Schouren, Federal Employment Agency

"The prospects are not so bad - provided a good exam. For those with an average exam, it is problematic." - Edgar van Mark, GF shareholders at Ising International Consulting

While the German system is different and weighs post-graduation state exams more heavily than the US system does, it is still appears to be true that those earning top marks have the best chances of success. Similar to the US, it seems that average and below average students are having a tougher time of it. Another German student had the following thoughts (with some paraphrasing):

For lawyers, things are pretty bad in general. We have over 150,000 lawyers admitted to the bar and every extra lawyer earns less. For those who were among the top 15% of scorers on the state exam, however, finding a job is more than easy.

In general every law student is still able to find work within the first couple of months after graduation statistically. But the salaries paid to low scorers with no extra qualifications are under average. And independent lawyers with no network can end up in real poverty or struggling for years before they are able to build up a client basis.

However despite a negative outlook, the same student quoted some positive trends he had found to me:

Compared to 2010, German law firms want to recruit 26 % more lawyers in 2011. Companies and administrative firms will hire 11 % more lawyers than in 2010.

Returning to the US market, one recruiter we recently spoke to had a few helpful suggestions. We have paraphrased heavily:

It is important to consider alternatives outside the typical track. Maybe working in-house with a company that has an internal legal team could give searchers a foot in the door. Maybe targeting and applying to smaller firms who don't have the same hiring schedule as Biglaw firms could work. With a few years worth of grads chasing the same Biglaw jobs, it is going to be more difficult to get those jobs than it has been in the past.

Meanwhile an experienced lawyer we chatted with from a medium-sized firm noted that strategies such as temping and contract work could help keep searchers afloat and possibly lead to permanent employment.

Another lawyer we spoke to recently who has worked both in-house and in Biglaw echoed the thoughts of the recruiter above. Once again, we have paraphrased:

It might be worth looking at smaller firms who hire on an as-needed basis. Searchers might also want to consider using their JD's for something other than being a lawyer. It definitely won't hurt you to have a legal degree in a business setting.

That wraps up thoughts from the inside. Things are clearly not good for young lawyers, and we don't want to give the impression that we are unreasonably optimistic about the legal job market. Despite poorer than typical prospects, however, there still appear to be some lessons to be learned from our conversations. In broad terms it seems that those willing to take non-traditional approaches to their searches could have the most success going forward. More specific themes we were able to identify from talking to our commenters include the following:

     1. If you don't have a Biglaw job, offer or summer position currently, it is highly unlikely that you will be getting one. It's probably best to get over it and move on to number 2.
     2. Tap into networks. Most people have been helped at some point during their lives; some of them are kind enough to pay it forward.
     3. Scan the map. Things might not be much better abroad, and it is often difficult for US-trained lawyers to work abroad. However, this doesn't mean that you can't look outside your current target markets including secondary markets in the US.
     4. Consider temp or contract work to get your foot in the door.
     5. Above all, stay positive. This final bit of advice is not as purely practical as the others, and runs the risk of seeming almost trite when considering the realities of the current market. However it is hard to overstate how important it can be to send out that one last email or make that one last phone call.

Please feel free to add any thoughts or suggestions in the comments section below. We would like to give a very special thanks to all those who shared their thoughts with us for this article.


  1. Quite interesting how similar the views on the German legal market are...

    The above mentioned "fully-satisfactory" grade is the "9 points" I told you about. But under 9 points is not to be confused with "under average", that might have been ambigous. As I said, the average is somewhere between 5 and 6 "points" (we really say points, it even sounds odd in German). So even 7 or 8 points are enough for good jobs, especially when a PHD / doctorate / LL.M. is added.

    Becoming a judge requires, for example in the state of Hesse (Hessen), at least 17 points in both 1st and 2nd state exam and at least 8.5 points in the 2nd exam solely. Although state salaries are way smaller than those provided by big law firms (but workload is smaller too). ;)

  2. Josh Sturtevant22/9/11 13:49

    Thanks for the clarification Christian. I guess the broader point that those on the top end are doing okay while those in the lower tiers of the hierarchy are suffering still holds though?

  3. Anonymous22/9/11 15:54

    Great post. Beyond temp or contract work, working for free is a great way to get your foot in the door. Unfortunately, "free" doesn't pay the bills. For those without a trust fund, volunteering their days to get a foot in the door, then working nights and weekends to pay the bills may be what it takes.

  4. Josh Sturtevant22/9/11 16:02

    Thanks for the feedback and the additional thoughts.

    Free work isn't exactly what students have in mind when schools talk about employment numbers north of 90%, but in this environment you might be on to something.

    Perhaps recent grads who stashed some of their bar loan money in the bank instead of taking a vacation have enough set aside to be able to take on an unpaid internship for a short time period.

    Otherwise, people considering this option should probably be prepared to drink as much of the free coffee their internships provide as possible, as working another job nights and weekends might be the only way to make this work.

  5. Of course, it is always survival of the fittest ;)

    I just wanted to clarify that "under average" and "fully satisfactory and better" are not the only two categories for the legal job market :)