Job Report: ‘New Normal’ Leaves Many Law Students Anxious

As law students approach the halfway mark of their last year, there is a mix of optimism, nervousness and downright pessimism about their job prospects. When we started this project, Karen Britton, the director of admissions and financial aid and of the Bettye B. Lewis Career Center at the University of Tennessee College of Law, said that most 3Ls start their last year without a job. She estimates that in the fall of a student’s final year, the trend is that about 25 percent will get offers. (Note that for Lincoln Memorial and Nashville School of Law, students in the home stretch are 4Ls.)

This is pretty much exactly the percentage for the students involved in the Tennessee Bar Association’s Law Launch Project.

I don’t mean to give the impression
that I thought finding a job would be easy.
I knew it wouldn’t.
But I did not expect it would be this difficult.

If Britton’s forecast holds true, another 25 percent can expect to have jobs in hand by the time graduation comes. Employers are making fewer offers and many will wait until later to make them so they can better gauge their actual hiring needs, she says. In addition, many public sector employers traditionally don’t hire until after graduation and/or bar passage, she says. “It is primarily the largest law firms in the larger markets, and other employers with formal hiring programs, who make offers for associate positions during the summer or early fall. Federal judges also make offers at this time,” she points out.

“In this day and time, if 50 percent of the 3Ls have a job offer by graduation,” Britton says, “that’s the new normal.”

Searching for jobs can feel a lot like dating — minus the romance.

“I think government jobs have been the hardest to secure because many of those offices will not even consider you until after you’ve sat for the bar,” Belmont University College of Law 3L Kimberlee McTorry says. “This makes it difficult because 3Ls are left unsure of what bar exam they should be studying/sitting for.” McTorry was told by the district attorney’s office in Nashville that it will not begin interviewing until the spring or after the bar exam.

Heather Shubert — a 4L at Lincoln Memorial University’s Duncan School of Law who has a job lined up — thinks one advantage she has is that she is also a registered nurse and is working as a paralegal at the hospital where she has been offered the job.

“Those of us who do [have jobs offers], had careers which are useful to an employer before we went to law school.” Of her friends with job offers, one was a social worker who is going to an office that does adoptions and divorces, and the other is a police officer who is going to a criminal defense practice.

I am petrified about the idea of taking the bar.

Be Still. My grandmother pops into my head again. Be still.

Another student in this project has a job offer as a judicial clerk, and another will work for a firm. “I’ve been getting some good advice on various fronts about how to transition from a clerkship into a firm job,” Vanderbilt 3L Jeff Sheehan says, noting that networking seems to be the key. “I have enjoyed the freedom to help others look for good opportunities. The market is still brutal, but it’s wonderful to see that moment when a friend or classmate finally gets the job he or she deserves.”

Some say they are just beginning to work on their strategic plans to tackle the job market, but most are already searching feverishly ... and in varying degrees of calmness. Plans include large doses of networking, shadowing, self-marketing, asking questions, applying and interviewing.

For me, the only decision
is to keep moving forward.
So I button up my coat,
tuck my head in and
keep walking ahead.

Three in the panel have plans (or, at least, back-up plans) to hang out their own shingles.“I am terrified by the thought [of starting her own firm],” Aisha DeBerry says, “but I really want to create my own schedule.” DeBerry will graduate from Duncan School of Law.

Brett Knight, in Belmont’s inaugural class, has interned with the District Attorney’s Office for a year, and a job there is his first choice. “They have expressed interest in hiring me but can’t extend any offers so far out because they won’t know of openings until closer to time,” he says. He speculates that this may be normal now for potential employers to hold their offers until later in the process. But Knight isn’t sitting around doing nothing, as he has talked with individual attorneys who may hire him, and is a voracious blogger and networker. Another option he has researched is to go into solo practice (“The great thing about this is that I know I will be willing to hire me”).

“The job search is an emotional roller coaster for me,” says Jerry Bridenbaugh, a 4L at Nashville School of Law.  “As an adult learner in a career transition mode I have found it very difficult to obtain employment in the legal arena. My hope was that I could be hired as a paralegal or legal assistant during school in order to gain experience and make myself more marketable at graduation. The job market is so tight that employers, law firms, private companies and government alike, are all looking for paralegals with 3 to 5 years of experience.

I have heard time and time again
that grades are the most important thing,
but in my opinion, community service and project coordination
are just as important.

“I’ve also been told by law firms that they would not interview me because they thought I would expect to be offered an associate's position once I was licensed and they were not in the market to expand. They wanted an employee that would be around for a while in that singular capacity.”

Bridenbaugh offers a solution for this Catch-22, suggesting that firms could take on a law student in a type of apprenticeship or mentoring program, not as an unpaid intern but as an actual employee. “They could draft an employment agreement expressly stating the job was only through graduation or passage of the bar and that no future employment as an associate attorney was promised. The firm would get a solid employee for three or four years and the student would gain invaluable experience in the law,” he says.

Right now my favorite number is 207 (number of days until graduation); tomorrow it will be 206.

“I don’t mean to give the impression that I thought finding a job would be easy,” Bridenbaugh says. “I knew it wouldn’t. But I did not expect it would be this difficult.”

Caroline Sapp of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law believes she will have a job by graduation. “Fingers crossed. … My optimism probably results from the fact that some of my friends that graduated in 2013 did not receive offers until the summer after they graduated.”

Today I was reminded
why I have been called to the practice of wills and estates.
As the shock of the news settled in I began to think
like a lawyer.

University of Tennessee 3L AnCharlene Davis doesn’t have a job yet, and although she is “by nature a planner” and this uncertainty is nerve-wracking, she says she is still hopeful. “I do feel nervous about this,” she says. “On average, I will be asked at least twice each week if I know where I will be working after graduation. When I say no, I often get sympathetic grimaces or words of encouragement.”

Still, she says she is not disappointed at this stage, mostly because she is so busy. She is an optimist, but also a realist. “I understand this is a tough market. While my graduating class is looking for positions, some people from the class of 2013 are still looking for employment.”

Though I neither have a job nor have a law clerk position,
I believe that I will have a job by graduation. Perhaps,
it’s false optimism, but I think this jobless status just means
I need to keep researching and applying for jobs.
So for now, I’ll just keep applying!

That is the case, yes. But 3Ls should not worry too much — it’s just December, after all.

This fall The Law Launch Project began following 15 members of the Class of 2014 as they wrap up law school and prepare to be lawyers. Participants are students from all six of Tennessee’s law schools: Belmont University College of Law, Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law, University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Nashville School of Law, University of Tennessee College of Law and Vanderbilt Law School.

Follow their journeys at http://tbalawlaunch.wordpress.com


SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.