March 20, 2009
In These Tough Economic Times, What's a Law Student to Do?
Posted by Christine Hurt

These days one can't escape the downbeat news about law firm layoffs, rescinded offers and bleak law clerking prospects.  This site (HT:  Leiter) seems to have compiled some of the bad news, although I seem that some firm news (Baker Botts, for one) is not included.  Fortunately or unfortunately, this is all too familiar for me and my classmates of 1993.  When we started in 1990, it was like everything we signed up for and disappeared over night.  Law firms that had traditionally conducted large-scale first-year summer clerkships axed them right away.  Firms laid off associates.  In the summer, in front of everyone.  (Latham & Watkins, summer of 1991, 40, if I recall.)  Firms with historically high summer clerk-to-offer ratios suddenly gave only 50% of clerks offers.  Firms gave summer clerks offers for employment one year after graduation, whether the offeree had a clerkship or not.  Firms offered newcomers money to work in public interest for a year.  When I graduated in 1993, I remember seeing a chart in a legal periodical showing very frightening at-graduation employment rates for all Texas law schools.  See, everything old is new again.  Now, when I mention this to folks, some say that this recession is worse, or it will last longer.  I have no information on that.  But, I can share what I know about being a legal job-seeker in a really bad economic time.

Looking for summer employment.  As I said, once I figured out that fancy first-year clerkships were much fewer and farther between, I chose to look homeward, to my hometown of somewhat less than 200,000 people.  (Actually, I had interviewed for a clerkship at a big firm in Austin, which offered me a Fall clerkship, not a summer one.)  So, I called someone I knew who was a partner at a 15-person firm, one of the bigger firms in Lubbock, Texas.  They had 4 clerks, and I was one.  I made $8.50 an hour, which was more than I had ever made in my life (minimum wage was $3.50 I think, and my college job paid $5).  However, it was much less than the $1150 or so per week that Dallas and Houston offered.  But, since they hadn't offered it to ME, I took the Lubbock job.  It was a great job.  I got to do a lot of real work while my cohorts at big firms were scuttling around looking for any work at all.  I had a statute of limitations idea that got a med mal case dismissed on S/J.  Woo-hoo for me!  I didn't have dreams to come home to practice, but I took the job seriously and tried to do my best.  What was the long-term benefit?  I had something to talk about in the Fall interview season.  Many of my friends opted to stay and go to summer school or bartend, and they didn't have to talk about in interviews.  I had a much clearer picture of what legal employment was like and much more in common with the people that were asking questions.  So, if clerkships, externships and internships seem hard to come by, I would suggest looking homeward or outward or to other markets.  (This does require doing this on your own, outside of the placement office.)  Offer a 15-person firm to work for a month for free.  See where it gets you.

If you are lucky enough to get a firm clerkship:  Make the most of it.  If I were to predict the scene, I would predict that there's not going to be enough work to go around.  Seize it.  Go looking for it.  When your witty repartee is gone, they will judge your work.  Make sure you have as much or more work as everyone else.  And make sure it's good.  There's no such thing as a first draft, that kind of thing.  Don't say "no," say "no problem."  The thing I hated as an associate was to go to the trouble of carving out a piece of work to delegate to a summer associate, and then hear "I'm sorry.  I already have a project."  Aargh.  Take two projects.  Stay late.  Forego that social outing on Wednesday night.  Chances are the person who gave you the project is going, either.  (If you were invited to a sit-down invitation-only thing at a partner's house or something, ask "Man, this is a great project.  Do you think it's bad manners for me to blow off this dinner at so-and-so's house tonight?  What do you think I should do?"  Let others say no for you.  Your firm may tell you that they hired clerks conservatively and that there are spaces for everyone.  I would act on the assumption that this is not the case.  Find no comfort in this and do not let it affect how much you apply yourself.  And as a side hedge, interview for judicial clerkships as a second year.  If a firm can only make so many offers, those with judicial clerkships look pretty favorable because you won't start as soon.  Sort of like buying a couch with no money down for 12 months, or something.

If your law firm clerkship doesn't work out.  The summer of 1992, there were a lot of surprises.  A close friend who split her summer between two megafirms, including one she had clerked for her first summer, received zero offers.  I decided to decline offers to clerk for megafirms and chose two plaintiff's firms.  One closed the office right after me and the other clerks left!  The other firm didn't make any offers.  This happens.  So, I hit the pavement and got an offer from one of the firms that I had turned down the summer before.  But most places said they were full already (if they made 50% offers to summer clerks, why take a chance on a stranger?).  I had a lot of friends in this position.  One took a state appellate clerkship in Amarillo, Texas, a sort of out-of-the way place where clerks are hard to find.  Find these places.  Don't think it's either this city or nothing or federal clerkship or nothing.  There are a lot of jobs out there, but 1000 law students going for the ones posted in your placement office. 

Stay in the game.  Many of my classmates in 1993 took sub-optimal employment positions.  Two of my friends (including the Amarillo clerk) took positions at a small employment law firm in Houston that, according to them, paid less than the D.A.'s office.  But, wonder of wonders, the economy started to change mid-1990s.  By the 1995 or so, both were at extremely large firms in employment law departments, one in Houston and the other in New York.  I think what was important to their ability to take advantage of a looser market was that they stayed in the game -- took jobs after graduation, worked hard, kept their eyes open.  My other friend with the disappointing 2nd summer took a different path -- I'll start to look for a job after graduation, no I'll start after I take the bar, no I'll start after I come home from my honeymoon, etc.  She got off-cycle, and it's hard to catch up.  Also, once you're employed as an attorney, then jobs sometimes look for you -- head hunters call, etc.  There can be a lot of mobility up the law firm chain of being when markets loosen up.  But you have to be on the chain.

Don't get defeated.  It's hard interviewing across the table from people that got their jobs in an economy where it was easy.  But you can't get resentful.  The responsibility for creating the rest of your life is up to you -- not the placement office, not your friends who seem to have it easy and tactlessly chat about the details of their big firm job, not anyone else.  Believe me, when I was a third year and unsure of where I would land, I felt all kinds of resentment.  But things change in the blink of an eye.  A year or so after I graduated, a lot of my underemployed former engineer law school friends suddenly saw their lives change because someone invented "IP Law."  Something new will emerge that will require a lot of lawyers, too.  Law firms retain very little excess capacity, hiring in hot markets and laying off in cold.  The next big thing that happens, the hiring will begin again.  And you'll be there.

If you're applying to law school now.  By the time you graduate in 2012, who knows?

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