For the first time in decades, the promise of a profitable law career for top students is uncertain, as law schools report significantly reduced hiring rates.
"There is no ducking the fact that the students who walked across the stage in this year's Sunflower Ceremony are having more trouble finding good jobs," Larry Sager, dean of the University of Texas law school, wrote in a recent online message to alumni. "And internships for our 1Ls and 2Ls [first years and second years] are becoming scarcer."
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Law schools across the country are seeing a reduction in the number of firms participating in the recruitment process. Harvard Law School reported a 20 percent reduction in the number of employers participating in recruitment, according to assistant dean for career services Mark Weber, while New York University, Georgetown and Northwestern reported on their Web sites that on-campus interviews are down by a third to a half when compared with recent years.
The University of Texas at Austin experienced a 45 percent decrease in on-campus interviews and seven of Texas' nine American Bar Association-accredited law schools have said fewer employers will visit their campuses this year.
"By mid-summer, employer participation levels had eroded.," David Montoya, UT's assistant dean for career services, said at a recent round-table discussion hosted by the Association for Legal Career Professionals. "It was not so much a matter of firms canceling, but rather most firms scaling back the amount of recruiting they wanted to do on campus.
"What became clear was that law firms were consolidating and centralizing the recruiting in a way they haven't done before. It seems they were coordinating among offices more to reduce the number of personnel they would have to send to campuses. Clearly, they were recruiting in much smaller numbers and for much smaller numbers of candidates as well."
The decrease in recruiting on college campuses has resulted in fewer summer associate programs for 2Ls and entry-level jobs for 3Ls.
Dozens of firms cut their summer associate programs earlier this spring, some by 30 to 50 percent, according to the National Association of Law Placement. As a group, the largest law firms in Texas that hired summer help took on 27 percent fewer associates than they did last year -- 683 compared with 930 in summer 2008, according to Texas Lawyer, publication for the Texas legal community.
Montoya said many 3Ls who were able to land an entry-level job at a large law firm, later had their job offers deferred or revoked.Those in Texas typically have deferrals of only a few months, while the graduates joining national firms outside of Texas, especially in New York and California, are experiencing year-long deferrals, according to Montoya.
At New York University, 140 3Ls faced a one-year deferral and a number of others have been asked to defer until January 2010, said Irene Dorzback, assistant dean of career services.
Jason Banks, who graduated from N.Y.U. law school in May, received a job offer from Shearman & Sterling early last year. But the firm said in March that it is deferring jobs until 2010.
"When I found out about the deferral program, I decided to spend the year doing self-enrichment activities, like taking art classes and volunteering for a nonprofit," said Banks, 27. "I'm going to be a lawyer for the next 20, 30 or 40 years of my life, so I'm glad to have this year to sort of recharge my life. I can't say I'm happy for the reasons this has happened, though."
At Penn State's law school, about 13 students out of the 210 that made up the school's spring 2009 graduating class have seen their jobs deferred for up to a year.
"The significantly reduced hiring rates for current 2Ls and 3Ls may accelerate the deferral bubble through the system, but at this generation of law students' expense, unfortunately," Montoya said.
Despite the diminishing number of summer associate and entry-level positions, many undergraduate students are applying to law schools, or other graduate school programs, to ride out the recession.
"It's a general truth that when the economy tanks, everyone goes back to school," Banks said. "Even though there aren't any jobs in law, people are still applying to law school. Obviously, everyone's hoping that when they get out, [the economy] will have improved."
Patricia White, dean of the University of Miami School of Law, advised prospective students not to "look to law school as a safe harbor" to wait out the economic storm, and even offered incentives to students willing to defer admission for a year.
Another law school, Southwestern Law in Los Angeles, is being up front about salary prospects. Bryant Garth, Southwestern's dean, tells students that they're in for a huge disappointment if they counted on starting salaries of $160,000 per year.
This is a surprise to some because there has been an underlying assumption for decades that if you obtain a high GPA at an elite school, you will be able to find a high-paying job at a big law firm.
Instead, some graduates are now struggling to find jobs and pay off their debt of more than $200,000, in some cases, from law school.
In a recent blog posted on the Veritas Prep Web site, a company that offers graduate school application services, the director of admissions consulting emphasized that law school is not a panacea.
Lawyers who want to work in highly coveted positions are going to have to hustle; perhaps spending summers working for free. Hoff also advised students to put cost first and foremost atop the list of criteria that they evaluate in selecting a law school.
In response to the tough job market and debt load taken on by law students, some recent graduates are considering alternative ways to find jobs.
Ian Pittman, a 26-year-old from Caskerville, Texas, and Leigh Jorgeson, a 25-year-old from Austin, Texas, started their own law firm after graduating from the University of Texas in May.
Jorgeson aspired to land a job with a large Dallas firm. But, months before graduation, her high-paying job offer was revoked.
Pittman had initially hoped to find a job at a small family firm. Then he interned for a solo-practicing family law attorney the summer before graduation and considered making it on his own.
With Jorgeson out of a job, the idea of starting his own firm became a reality for both of them.
"The idea of opening our own law firm appeals to us more than working for someone else," Pittman said. "Across the board, people were pretty supportive of our decision. One of my close friends tried to talk me out of it because he thought it was too big of a risk, but there's risk in starting any business."
Focusing on family law and estate planning, the two plan to expand their firm during the next year.
As with Pittman and Jorgeson, a growing number of students is seeking alternatives, such as firms in smaller markets, opportunities in government and jobs with public interest groups. Melissa Lennon, dean for career planning at Temple University's Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia, said that 38 percent of the 2008 graduates went into the public sector.
In an effort to cope with the job market and prepare students for any job opportunities, law schools are training their students for different working environments and coming up with programs that aid in the job search.
In the summer of 2008, the University of Texas introduced its Career Launch Program, which is offered to students who are not employed at the time of the bar examination. The program places students as interns in governmental and public interest law offices, receiving a $6,000 stipend, for the period between the bar exam in August and the announcement of the exam results in November.
"The program has been quite successful," Texas' Montoya said. "Last year, almost half of the students were hired by the employer with whom they were placed in as interns. Almost all of the remaining students, bolstered by their experience and resulting recommendations, found good jobs."
N.Y.U. also provided additional resources to students, as it claims to be the first law school in the country to host a career fair for deferred students and furloughed alumni. Fifty employers, including nonprofits and city and federal agencies, took part in the job fair in April, Dorzback said.
As for what law students should expect in the future, Montoya said the verdict is still out as to whether the economic downturn will last long enough to result in quick and radical changes to the large-firm hiring model.
Either way, students will need to look beyond their immediate needs, according to an article in last month's National Law Journal.
"We will keep reminding our students to take the long view," wrote William Chamberlain, assistant dean for law career strategy and advancement at Northwestern University School of Law. "We try to convince them that they will be fine. As always, we career counselors are here to listen and to help them build their job search plans.
"Despite what on-campus interviews emphasize, high GPA and success in practicing law are not correlated. In many ways, the current law firm model has proved unequal to the challenges posed by the economy. Perhaps out of the general uncertainty there will grow a better and stronger legal community where its members will be happier."
ABCNews.com contributor Emily Watkins is part of the University of Texas-Austin ABC News on Campus program.