Young lawyers scrape to find work

Staff WriterMarch 1, 2011 

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Taiyyaba Qureshi does research at Panera Bread in Apex. Qureshi, a 2010 graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, is searching for a full-time job while she works part-time for $20 an hour at two law firms.

TAKAAKI IWABU — tiwabu@newsobserver.com

  • Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association, advises new graduates to find work wherever they can get it. The experience, he counsels, is more valuable than money.

    "Find a place to practice your craft, and don't focus on the economics," he said. "Find any position that gives you an opportunity. It may not be ideal, but there are lots of needs in this country for lawyers."

  • According to the most recent data, 96 percent of recent UNC-Chapel Hill law school graduates now hold jobs. But that data is for the class of 2009, and law school dean Jack Boger said he expects the 2010 numbers to be worse.

    The data is based on surveys conducted nine months after graduation, and it doesn't distinguish between jobs in the legal field and those students who may be working retail jobs or doing something else just to pay the bills.

    The national rate for 2009 grads is 88 percent, down nearly 4 percent from the previous year.

    All 2009 Duke University law school graduates were employed nine months after graduating, according to Duke law school data. At N.C. Central University, 85 percent had jobs; at Campbell University, 92 percent.

Taiyyaba Qureshi graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill's law school last year bursting with ambition. She'd soon be righting wrongs and improving people's lives. Her idealism knew no bounds.

But the job market had other plans. Nine months later, Qureshi is a lawyer without a full-time employer, the victim of a job market weakened by the recession. So she's cobbling together part-time assignments and has offered her fledgling legal expertise for free.

"We have this save-the-world complex, and we're so pumped and motivated," said Qureshi, who is from Raleigh. "It's hard to reconcile the big ambitions with the reality that you can't put that dream into action."

Qureshi is far from alone. The recession has hit law firms hard, experts say, particularly those tied closely to banking and other industries at the forefront of the economic collapse. The result has been a marked slowdown in offers for new lawyers and a dearth of the summer jobs that are critical for law students hoping to make initial contacts.

The struggles prompted UNC law school dean Jack Boger to end e-mail to his alumni network this month pleading for help.

Even unpaid positions would be welcome at this point, Boger told alumni.

"Students will line up for those jobs now," he said in a recent interview.

Though not totally immune to economic ebbs and flows, the legal industry has traditionally offered plenty of entry-level jobs to new attorneys. Many had work lined up long before graduation day, while law students often had their choice of summer jobs.

Openings vanish

The recession changed the rules. Suddenly, government jobs dried up in the face of budget cuts, while private law firms scaled back or consolidated services and cut staff in response to lesser workloads.

"The law firm economics have changed drastically," said Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association. "You see major law firms disappear overnight. And as businesses and industries consolidated, so have their legal needs."

That's playing out in North Carolina, where firms specializing in structured finance, banking or commercial real estate have scaled back considerably, Boger said. A firm that several years ago might have hired 20 to 30 law students for summer positions might now hire two or three. Some have even scrapped summer programs entirely, he said.

Too many lawyers?

But these lean times don't mean there are too many attorneys, law school officials argue. Local universities say they don't shrink enrollment when the job market tightens up, in part because of the lag time - law school takes three years - and in part because not all graduates become practicing attorneys.

"You're not just creating lawyers," said Linda Spagnola, N.C. Central University's assistant dean for career services.

"Many go into teaching or writing or become a politician. Some just want the degree," she said.

Schools try to help

To help its students, UNC's law school offers summer grants worth $3,000 for students who do volunteer work. And it created more research assistant positions for students who want to spend the summer getting a dose of academia.

NCCU offers summer stipends for unpaid public service positions and urges young lawyers to attend bar association luncheons and other gatherings where they can do some networking. A lot of students rely solely on job postings, to their detriment, Spagnola said.

"Law students think network is a four-letter word," she said. "They're so nose-in-the-books, I think they have a disinclination to put themselves out there."

It helps to have a built-in network.

Turner Sothoron, a third-year law student at NCCU, is the son of a judge. That connection helped him line up a clerkship after graduation in Maryland, where he's from.

"I'm lucky," Sothoron readily admits. "Connections play a huge role. It's a relief."

Lace Wayman could use a connection. The second-year law student at UNC-CH doesn't have summer work lined up yet, and though she always expected law school to be stressful, the uncertainty is wearing on her a little. At this point, she's willing to work outside public practice, the field in which she plans to specialize. She did so last summer, working for the Staff Judge Advocate in the N.C. National Guard.

"It's not where I plan on ending up, but it was great to have the experience," said Wayman, who is from Cary. "You don't necessarily have to get a job in a field you'll end up in. You just need legal experience."

Persistence pays

Some new grads are now weighing whether to work for free in the legal field or find paying work temporarily doing something else. Though they need experience, many grads leave law school saddled with debt. At UNC-CH, more than 70 percent of law students have loans, and the average debt at graduation is $56,000, said Boger, the school's dean.

Qureshi, the recent UNC grad, feels lucky because she has no debt and her husband has a steady job. That has eased her stress over the past nine months, during which time she has done a two-month, unpaid internship and now earns $20 an hour doing part-time case work for two separate law firms.

Boger urges his recent graduates to keep at it. Keep networking. Keep applying.

"It's like marriage," he said. "All you need is one 'yes' "

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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