Triangle law school graduates face tough job market

Having a great resume is no longer enough to land a plum job

dranii@newsobserver.com April 22, 2012 

  • The popularity of a law school education is waning in the face of a tough job market for newly minted lawyers and the increasingly high cost of going to law school.

    Law school applications for this fall fell 13.6 percent nationwide, on the heels of double-digit decline a year earlier, according to the Law School Admission Council.

    Meanwhile, the average debt for law grads who attended private schools was nearly $125,000 last year, an increase of 17.6 percent, according to the American Bar Association. The average debt for grads of state law schools was more than $75,700.

    Those in the legal profession say a law school education still can pay off, but going to law school is not a decision to be made lightly.

    And those who do choose the law school route are advised to live frugally while they’re in school in order to minimize their borrowing.

    “We tell students if they live like lawyers when they are students, they will live like students when they are lawyers,” said Brian Lewis, assistant dean of career services at UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school.

  • The legal profession’s struggle in recent years has highlighted the debt many students take on to get their degree.

    Julie Beavers, director of the career and professional development center at Campbell University’s law school, worries that the debt burden steers some students to put earning potential over job satisfaction.

    “Debt load is definitely impacting career choices,” said Beavers. “That troubles me. I want our grads to choose the career of their calling.”

    There are a number of programs designed to help lawyers manage their debt. Equal Justice Works, a Washington nonprofit, lists several programs that are available:

    •  Loan forgiveness.

    The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, created by Congress in 2007, is designed to encourage lawyers to take full-time jobs in government or with nonprofit organizations.

    The program calls for forgiveness of the balance of loans for those who work in the public sector after they make 10 years of monthly payments. Only federal loans are eligible.

    •  Income-Based Repayment.

    Also created by Congress, this program caps monthly payments based on income. For many borrowers, monthly payments will be less than 10 percent of their income; technically, the cap is 15 percent of a person’s “discretionary income.”

    As your income increases or decreases, your monthly payments will do likewise. Again, only federal loans are eligible.

    Participants in this program aren’t excluded from Public Service Loan Forgiveness. If you don’t qualify for PSLF, the government will forgive the balance of your loans after 25 years.

    •  Loan Repayment Assistance Programs.

    Some law schools and employers have established Loan Repayment Assistance Programs that provide funds to help with loan payments to lawyers who take low-paying jobs, whether the loans are from the federal government or private loans.

    Three Triangle law schools - Duke University, N.C. Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill - have such programs. LRAPs have varying requirements and benefits.

    For more information, go to http://www.equaljusticeworks.org/

    SOURCE: Equal Justice Works

For the hundreds of students poised to graduate from Triangle law schools this spring, the recession may be over but the damage it inflicted on their chosen profession lingers.

Whereas a decade ago many top law graduates would have had no shortage of job opportunities, today’s graduates face a far more uncertain future. Although the recession hit the legal profession particularly hard – forcing some firms to suspend the summer associate programs that serve as the gateway to entry-level hires – it didn’t reduce the number of people attending law school.

Moreover, several years ago some law schools were shocked when some law firms – realizing they’d made too many offers – took the unprecedented step of deferring by as much as a year the starting date for entry-level hires. That left graduates, who had received their job offers a year in advance after working as summer associates following their second year of law school, in the lurch.

The job market has improved since then, but it’s still anemic.

“It’s a fact: There are fewer legal jobs than there were (pre-recession), and there are just as many if not more law students,” said Bruce Elvin, assistant dean and director of the career and professional development center at Duke University’s law school.

Many law firms that suspended their summer programs have now reactivated them, but typically they aren’t bringing on as many summer associates as they once did.

“They are coming back smaller and more efficient because summer programs do not make money for anybody,” said Linda Wendling, assistant dean for career services at N.C. Central University. “They’re just expensive testing grounds.”

The difficult job market, combined with stagnating compensation, is a double whammy for law school students – many of whom amass more than $100,000 in debt to pay for their law school education.

Barry Porter, 26, who is about to graduate from N.C. Central and has two job offers on the table, said his approximately $100,000 debt weighs on him even though he has no regrets about going to law school.

“I feel like it was the right decision,” said Porter, who grew up in Atlanta. “I have a passion for law.”

Great resume; no job

The new reality facing graduates means simply having a stellar resume and academic record is no longer a guarantee that you’ll land a job with your desired firm or in your desired field.

Michael DeFrank, co-chair of the recruiting committee at Wyrick, Robbins, Yates & Ponton, which has about 65 lawyers in Raleigh, recalls that when he graduated from Emory University law school in Atlanta in 2000, it seemed as if jobs were falling out of the sky.

“It has been the polar opposite of that of late,” DeFrank said. “Honestly, it is difficult to watch these incredibly talented students struggle to find jobs.”

James R. Lawrence III, 27, a Raleigh native who is poised to graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school next month, is grateful that he has lined up a job with Coats & Bennett, a Raleigh intellectual property firm with 11 lawyers.

“I have friends of mine at UNC who are still looking for positions (even though they have) fantastic resumes and great work experience,” he said.

Lindsay Levine, a 25-year-old from Warwick, N.Y., who is about to graduate from N.C. Central’s law school, hasn’t snared a job yet. She is especially worried about her prospects because she’s limiting her search to the Greenville/Goldsboro/Kinston area so she can be with her boyfriend.

“It’s difficult,” said Levine. “A lot of the smaller firms are just not hiring.”

Although it may be hard for some frustrated third-years to believe, law school officials say that the market for new lawyers does seem to be improving.

Fewer tears this year

“There seem to be more opportunities; there seem to be more interviews,” Wendling said. “There are (fewer students) coming in and crying. I haven’t had a crier yet, which I have had in the past.”

James Leipold, executive director of NALP, originally called the National Association for Law Placement, says virtually all law school graduates do get jobs.

“The thing is, they may not get the jobs they want,” he said. “There are certainly fewer jobs with large law firms, so they may take a job in another setting where they don’t make as much money, and they may take longer to find a job.”

The data from local law schools – Campbell University, Duke, N.C. Central and UNC – reinforce the employability of law school graduates. For last year’s crop of graduates, the number of students who were seeking work and had landed jobs as of Feb. 15 ranged from 86 percent to 88 percent at N.C. Central – depending on whether you include those who are pursuing graduate degrees as well as those who chose not to seek work – to 95 percent to 98 percent at Duke.

Law schools report employment data as of Feb. 15 because many law school grads, especially those seeking to work as prosecutors and public defenders, don’t receive job offers until they pass the bar exam.

Where local law grads end up working varies depending on where they went to school.

Campbell and N.C. Central report that 90 percent or more of their law school grads typically get jobs in North Carolina. Meanwhile, for the class of 2011, 57 percent of UNC’s grads and 15 percent of Duke’s grads found jobs in North Carolina.

UNC reported that its class of 2010 ended up with starting annual salaries ranging from a low of $38,400 to a high of $160,000, which is what the top-tier New York law firms pay. The median starting salary for UNC grads who went into private practice was $107,500, while the median for those going into the public sector was roughly half that – $55,000.

The median starting salary for entry level lawyers at large and mid-sized law firms in the Triangle was $115,000 last year, according to NALP.A number of local firms that never suspended their summer programs – including Smith, Anderson, Blount, Dorsett, Mitchell & Jernigan and Wyrick Robbins – also say they benefitted by getting the cream of the crop.

“It was an intentional decision to make an investment in the future,” said Carl Patterson, managing partner of 122-lawyer Smith Anderson, which actually more than doubled its entry-level hires in 2010. “When other firms were not hiring as much, there was more talent available for us to look at.”

More law firms are hiring these days, but the job market remains a work in progress, said Johnny Loper, managing partner of the Raleigh office of Womble Carlyle, which has about 75 attorneys in the Triangle.

“I have heard it said that the train wreck is over, most of the train wreckage is off the track, but the trains aren’t running on time,” he said.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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