Law-school graduates seeking their first job are feeling the effects of an economy that has buffeted both the public and private sectors and brought hiring to a near standstill, say industry observers here.
Job offers for new lawyers are scarce these days, causing law schools to bolster their efforts to help graduates find work and forcing new grads to be more open minded about the few legal jobs that might be available to those who are right out of school, says Holly Brajcich, director of career services at Gonzaga University's School of Law here.
Blame the recession, says Ryan Yahne, an associate at Winston & Cashatt Lawyers PS here and president of the Young Lawyers Division of the Spokane County Bar Association.
"Law firms fluctuate with the economy. I think that there's been a trend of not hiring as aggressively as in the past, with the economy being down," Yahne says.
Amy Swinhoe, who graduated from Gonzaga's law school in May and clerked for Winston & Cashatt during her final year of school, says the tough job market for lawyers is forcing recent grads to consider any and all job options.
"I feel like beggars can't be choosers in this economy," Swinhoe says.
She says she's seeking work throughout Washington and across different fields of law, with the expectation that she'll have to be flexible about what type of job she'll accept.
"My experience has been that there are a lot of graduates, and there are fewer jobs out there," Swinhoe says.
She adds that one firm she interviewed with said there were numerous applicants for the one position.
Local and state government employers, such as public defenders' and prosecutors' offices, which typically are big sources of jobs for new graduates, have been hit hard by budget cuts and are hiring fewer lawyers, says Brajcich. That worsens the more industrywide problem, she says.
In the private sector, Yahne says the 30-lawyer Winston & Cashatt firm generally employs four or five law students as part-time clerks each year, then usually picks one new associate from that group each year.
"Our first choice is to hire from within. That's how most firms do their hiring," Yahne says.
This year, however, Winston & Cashatt isn't planning to add any new associates, Yahne says.
Swinhoe says that while she would have liked to become an associate at Winston & Cashatt after graduation, she's happy at least to have had the experience of being a clerk there.
"Working for a firm and getting that experience taught me a ton," Swinhoe says. "In a perfect world, it would have been nice to transition from clerking there to being an associate there, but I also understand the realities of the economy I graduated in."
Brajcich says that big firms in big cities have pulled back the most on hiring new grads, so Gonzaga is concentrating on networking more with law firms in smaller communities, where the economy might not have been hit as hard and there still are job opportunities.
"They are not hiring at the rate they were, but they're still hiring," she says. "You see our students getting jobs in Tacoma, Yakima, and Kennewick," while previously the biggest target was Seattle law firms, Brajcich says.
She says she won't know how many of last spring's grads have found jobs until after the bar exam results are available in October or November, but she has seen a lot more requests by recent grads for assistance with their job searches. That also includes alumni who have been out of school for a while.
"We saw a big increase in January of our alumni that called in for resume reviews or to log into our job board," Brajcich says, but adds that such requests have eased some recently.
In another sign of the times, Yahne says he's seen more new law-school grads show up at Young Lawyers Division meetings looking to network.
At one recent meet-and-greet event, about a half-dozen new lawyers made the rounds, he says, adding that typically there's no more than one or two at such meetings.
"I've gotten more inquiries recently," from new lawyers looking to connect with the group, Yahne says.
Swinhoe hopes the networking she did while serving as vice president of her school's student bar association, which included attending Young Lawyers events as a student liaison, will help her in her job search.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga's career services department has adjusted its presentations at the school, putting greater emphasis on how to find a job in a down economy and arranging networking meetings for grads with Gonzaga alumni, both in the smaller communities and metropolitan areas, Brajcich says.
She says the school is encouraging students to broaden their search geographically, to broaden the scope of the type of work they will accept, and to seek one-year positions as judicial clerks as a way to gain experience while also paying the bills.
Brajcich says graduates here report that the starting salary offers they are receiving haven't decreased, though national trends show a deflation in salaries as larger law firms, which typically pay more, hire fewer associates. Meanwhile, the average debt incurred during law school for 2008 Gonzaga graduates was almost $92,000.
In some areas of law, including environmental and energy law, recruiting remains more active because of federal stimulus funding.
"We help them to do some research on where the stimulus money is going in the state," Brajcich says.
Other legal emphases that get busier in a down economy include bankruptcy, debt collection, and consumer protection, all of which Brajcich says hold opportunities for new lawyers.
Swinhoe says she's being as flexible as possible, and adds it's helpful to her that she hasn't decided on a specialty, so she has more options for a first job.
As competition for jobs heats up, internships for students also are becoming more competitive, Brajcich says. To counterbalance that, more Gonzaga law students are participating in what are called externships, in which they arrange to get school credit for the work they do at a firm or organization in lieu of being paid, she says.
Brajcich says one mistake a lot of new graduates make is to wait for their bar exam results before starting to look for work.
"My office is telling graduates to get as much experience as possible, even if it's volunteering for the prosecutors' or public defenders' office," while they wait for their bar results, Brajcich says.
Yahne says some young lawyers in Spokane who decide to start their own practices can gain experience and build a clientele by offering services at reduced rates for clients who have little money but don't meet the poverty guidelines. They can do that through a program called the Greater Access and Assistance Program, or GAAP, which is administered by the Young Lawyers Division here.
"A lot of young lawyers sign up for our GAAP list," to get experience and work as they get their practices started, Yahne says.
Swinhoe, who also has worked at Gonzaga's University Legal Assistance clinic, says that while she's not exactly waiting for bar results before she seeks a job as a lawyer, she believes a lot of firms hold off on hiring new graduates until the candidates can show they've passed the bar exam.
"From what I hear, a lot of firms don't take the risk to hire grads" until after the bar results are in, she says.
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