I beg to differ. Certainly, a legal education can be a very expensive proposition. But tuition costs vary by school, not by advanced degree type. In other words, a JD from Big Prestigious U will cost approximately the same as its Phd equivalent in Divinity. But a JD from Big Prestigious U may cost substantially more than a JD from Local U. So, the name of the game is to invest wisely in your legal education (see my other blog posts on this).
Further, the legal job market today hasn't necessarily been hit any harder than any other job market. I do believe there has been a much-needed correction in the insanity that was escalating first-year lawyer compensation throughout the 1990s. Big firms, in an effort to compete for the top law students, engaged in a salary war that resulted in first-year lawyers being paid much more than they could possibly be worth (I apologize if I'm offending anyone, but I think the law firm economic model, and the resulting first year layoffs and deferrals prove my point).
And, just as with the "tech bubble" of the 1990s, the "housing bubble" of the last year or so and stock market corrections that occur every five years or so, what goes up must come down. A correction of "irrational exuberance" as former Fed Chairman Greenspan called it, is inevitable anytime a business' economic heart gets ahead of its intellect. Bottom line, the current strain on the legal job market is a "correction" but arguably a need one. People, businesses and the government will always need lawyers. Ours is a nation of laws- someone with expertise and skill has to help that nation navigate them.
But to abandon ones dream of a law career in light of the current job market makes no more sense than avoiding college because unemployment is so high. Career and educational choices are a long term play. You make decisions based upon anticipated circumstances five, ten and more years out into the future.
Anyway, I continue to believe that now is as good a time as any to pursue a law degree. It will almost certainly be more difficult to find a job now than it was five years ago, but that's the case for almost any type of job.
The rest of this post is dedicated to those new lawyers out there. You may be reading this, having recently passed the bar, the ink on your bar card still drying. You don't have a job or prospects. You have substantial debt. It looks pretty grim.
But the reality is, it doesn't have to be grim, if you are willing to be flexible. You may have to work a little harder in finding a job. You may have to compromise your desired practice area. You may have to work for a firm that isn't quite as prestigious as your degree would indicate. But there are jobs out there. So, with that said, on with the job search tips:
1. Consider the "hot" practice areas. Even with a bad economy, there are legal practice areas that continue to flourish. In particular, employment lawyers are busy right now. Terminated and disgruntled employees seek redress from their employers. As a result, EEOC charges and lawsuits are increasing.
Another area that is very busy right now is bankruptcy. The Bankruptcy Code was revised recently and a code change always at least initially will increase the amount of related legal work. More importantly, today bankruptcies are skyrocketing. In a bankruptcy proceeding, everyone needs a lawyer- the bankrupt person or company, its creditors and others.
There are also other practice areas that are "counter-cyclical" to the economy. Do some due diligence and seek employment in these areas. You may be saying, "But that's not what I went to law school to do." Regardless, we are talking about short term survival, at least for the present. The practice of law is akin to a trade in many ways. We learn by doing. So, your short term objective should be to simply jump into the pond. Do legal work- any legal work. Sharpen your reading and research skills. Any work you do, be it pro bono, litigation or defending a traffic ticket will accrue to your skillset. It may not be pretty, but for now it will serve you well in terms of long term skill development.
2. Market Yourself the Old-Fashioned Way- Send a Resume With Cover Letter to a Variety of Legal Employers. As I explain in "Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education" (Kaplan Publishing, 2009), I found my first summer clerkship and my second law firm job this way. I started with the Martindale-Hubbell law firm database: http://www.martindale.com/. This is a broad and deep database, that can be sorted a variety of ways, including geographically. The database will tell you how many lawyers a firm has, and who they are. Use this database and develop a meaningful database of potential job prospects.
Create a one-page (two, max) resume that is perfect. There are lots of resume tips out there (and I defer to those folks), but essentially, the resume should focus on your marketable skills ( e.g. "extensive U.S. Tax Code knowledge"). At this point in your career, you may not have a lot of marketable skills, which is why firms have traditionally focused on grades and Law Review. These are arguably indicators of your intellect and work ethic, and predictors of your success. Regardless, if you have applied yourself in law school, you have developed some solid skills. Do your best to craft a resume that sells. Use quality paper, unfolded in quality envelopes. Be very, very conservative- don't get cute or creative with paper choices or fonts. Law firms, even small ones rely on "image" because it instills client confidence. Your image should be consistent with theirs.
Further, with today's technology, you must tailor your resume to the target. If it's an employment law firm, try to include relevant experience or other work involving employment matters, or at least that shows your familiarity with employment law concepts, such as Title VII, the EEOC and so forth. If you have to, do research to gain this familiarity.
Mail the resume to your list (keeping in mind that many of the larger firms have full-blown recruiting departments and receive resumes electronically). I suggest doing the mailing in stages. Experiment with what seems to work and do more of that. For example, if your first mailing is limited to large firms and you get no response, then move down the list to mid-sized firms. You might even experiment with different resumes and cover letters to see what works best. The point is to be flexible and adjust your strategy and resume to increase your odds of landing an interview.
I won't go into interview skills here- there is plenty of literature about it. However, if you are fortunate enough to land an interview, make sure that you are extremely well-groomed and well prepared. A job interview is the ultimate sales pitch. You know the drill- the interviewer makes up his or her mind in the first ten minutes, etc. Practice beforehand, think about questions to ask and research the firm. Talk their language and talk about them. But also listen carefully.
3. Consider Pro Bono Work. If you are having trouble landing a job, consider doing some pro bono work with an established organization that delivers free legal services to the community. Your local bar association is a good place to start; they can help you understand the process and ground rules, such as training, malpractice insurance and how you will be supervised. They will also help you avoid getting in over your head and into trouble. Talk to them and see what kind of opportunities they have. You will enhance your skillset and very likely make some job contacts. I know of people who started with pro bono gigs that led to permanent employment. Obviously, any pro bono work requires that you have a license and some sort of malpractice insurance coverage, as well as the requisite skillset or supervision. I would suggest that you do work where you will be supervised and have plenty of resources and support. An exellent website with further discussion and detail on pro bono work is http://www.probono.net/.
4. Consider Contract Employment. As with any job, using a contractor is generally cost effective, as compared with a full-time employee. There are job agencies and websites out there that specialize in placing attorneys on a temporary basis, such as http://www.simplyhired.com/a/jobs/list/q-contract+attorney. Again, this type of work will strengthen your skillset. And it may lead to contacts and/or permanent employment. Here again, I would suggest that you seek employment where you will have good supervision, at least initially, and where malpractice insurance is provided.
Bottom line: it is certainly a tough legal job market out there. But new lawyers are finding jobs. You may have to compromise, at least in the short term, your career objectives. But the most important thing right now for you is simply to get working. Don't give up. Keep pushing. Don't let the negative soothsayers discourage you. You will become a lawyer. You will find a job. You just will.