Lawyer Layoffs

It’s getting ugly out there for lawyers. A profession that has been fairly well insulated from economic downturns in the past is now being roiled with unprecedented numbers of layoffs. Each day brings more bad news. I check sites like “Above the Law” or “AmLaw Daily” and read headline after headline of white shoe and top tier firms laying off their associates and staff. And the numbers are staggering – 400 people from this firm, 300 people for that one and so on. Firms that laid people off in the fall are now conducting round two or three of letting people go. No one is safe. The law firm I was at until last August performed cuts in November of last year, and I could have easily been one of them. But I left just in time. After years of trying to get into a top law firm in New York, I eventually took a position at an investment firm, forever altering the path my career will take. I have left the law firm world for good, and I don’t miss it. The billable hour does not exist for me, and neither do demanding law firm partners. I have become the client and my timing could not have been better. I graduated from law school in 2006 and entered a legal market that was still strong. I was busy for most of my time at the law firm I worked. In 2008, as things started taking a turn for the worst, I was in the middle of looking for a new job at law firms in New York. I tried and tried to find that right position for me with no luck. Firms weren’t hiring, I was told, but no one had started laying people off. Finally, when an opportunity arose to jump ship and try something different, I took it, fed up with where I had been working and ready for a new challenge. There was a time I was even serious about becoming a legal recruiter, as I was interested in the legal industry as a business and felt I was good at creating and maintaining relationships. But now recruiters are being laid off or leaving the industry in droves. No one is hiring or needs their services. And for the few available legal positions out there, firms see recruiters as a cost too difficult to justify in this environment.

But above all, the law school class of 2009 is stuck with the short end of the stick. Entering law school in 2006, they studied (and borrowed money) hard, lured by the dream of rising associate salaries and constant deal flow. Even in a good market, most graduating law students do not have jobs by the time they are out of school, forced to pass the bar exam to become more marketable. Where will this year’s class find work? Coming out of college, they could have perhaps found a job in a field that interested them for a modest salary. And if so, their debt load, if any, would have been manageable and they could have started their career three years earlier. But now what do they do? Where do they turn? Bitter and upset, this will forever change the lure of law as a profession. Now, more than ever before, it is abundantly clear that being a lawyer is definitely not what it used to be. 

What makes all of this a bitter pill to swallow is that law students finish school with a sense of entitlement and a hope that their income will be a bit higher than the average. It’s the reason why many of them attended law school in the first place. This year’s graduating class will be seen as “too overqualified” to take the job they could have gotten out of college, while, paradoxically, no legal opportunities exist out there. It’s a catch 22. Of the tens of thousands of graduating law students in 2009, I would dare say that about 60% will not have a job when they graduate and will have no idea where to turn, having exhausted most of their options already in their job search. It’s one thing to be a graduate from a top tier law school. But the vast majority of law students and law schools fall outside that realm. Their first job will set their career down a path many had not anticipated or even desired a short time ago, but forced to make ends meet and pay the student loan debt most of them have incurred, they will conform. The legal industry is quick to pigeonhole its people, and no one wants to retrain and retool lawyers in this market. Wow, it is ugly out there and I am afraid the bleeding is not yet over.

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