9 to 5: 9 Observations Regarding the Legal Job Market & 5 Strategies for New Attorneys Entering the 2009 Legal Job Market – A 3 Part Series (Part 2 of 3)
By Amanda C. Ellis, Esq.
Part 1 of this post examined 4 observations regarding the current legal job market and all 4 observations concerned large firms – (1) layoffs; (2) hiring freezes; (3) pay freezes and bonus cuts; and (4) increased bureaucracy in lateral hiring decisions. Part 2 of this post continues with more observations of the current legal job market; this part examines observations 5-9.
9 Observations Regarding the Legal Job Market (cont.):
1. Smaller firms are busy. Almost all of my small-firm clients are busier now than they were a year ago. Some are litigation boutique firms that are busy as a result of litigation related to failed financial institutions; others are bankruptcy boutique firms that are thriving as a result of the increased bankruptcy filings. And, many are busy as a result of corporate clients seeking smaller firms with smaller fees, a trend that is likely to continue. My small-firm clients definitely have a positive, upbeat vibe.
2. Certain practice areas thrive in an economic downturn. Certain practice areas spike during economic downturns. Bankruptcy is an obvious example. Litigation is another practice area that usually spikes during downturns; securities and white-collar litigation are expected to be strong during the current recession. Labor and employment litigation usually increases during recessions as well since more companies implement layoffs. IP litigation also remains a strong practice area in most markets.
3. “Hot” practice areas vary by legal market. The demand for attorneys in a particular practice area varies by legal market – what is hot in one market could be dead in another market. For example, asbestos litigation is cold in Texas due to tort reform but hot in California and Pennsylvania. Even among the practice areas that thrive during an economic downturn, there is still some variation. For example, there will always be a greater demand for bankruptcy attorneys in those markets where the majority of the large Chapter 11 cases are filed such as New York and Delaware. We are witnessing this trend today.
4. Firms (of all sizes) take longer to make hiring decisions. Obtaining a lateral position takes longer during a recession. Firms of all sizes are now more particular about which candidates they interview and take their time deciding which candidates to interview. Recently, I’ve seen firms take as long as 4 months before deciding to interview someone. And, I’ve seen firms take as long as 6 months before eliminating candidates from the interview process. So, don’t assume that the firm is passing simply because you haven’t heard from them!
5. Law school grades are more important than ever. At least 90% of the firms I work with (both large and small) inquire about lateral candidates’ law school grades. I won’t get into a discussion here on whether law school grades are more important than the rank of the law school, but I can tell you that the majority of the firms I work with scrutinize a lateral candidate’s grades more closely than the rank of the candidate’s law school. In the past month, I’ve seen 3 large firms move forward with candidates who graduated in the top 5% from a Tier 4 law school; this illustrates that a candidate can do well at a lower tier school and still land in a large firm. The one caveat I would emphasize is that a large firm typically only hires candidates from Tier 4 law schools within the firm’s legal market. For example, a graduate of a Tier 4 school in Texas will have a harder time finding a job outside of Texas even if he or she finished in the top 5% whereas large Texas firms are likely to consider the candidate.
Certain legal markets give greater weight to grades than others. Based on my experience placing lateral attorneys in multiple states, Texas firms have one of the most stringent grading scales. The major firms in Texas base their hiring criteria on the U.S. News Law School Rankings. Generally, a candidate from a Top 15 law school must finish in the top 40-50% in order to qualify as a potential hire for large Texas firms. Candidates from other Tier 1 schools typically must finish in the top 15-25% and candidates from Tier 2 schools must finish in the top 10-15% in order to qualify. Candidates from Tier 3 and Tier 4 schools typically must finish in the Top 5-10% in order to meet the hiring standards for large firms in Texas (though certain Tier 4 schools are favored over others). I’ve worked with firms in other legal markets that are not this strict; for example, the cutoff for Tier 1 schools is the top 50% in some markets. However, I predict that as the recession lingers, many firms will gravitate toward a more stringent scale like the one used by many large firms in Texas.
This part of the post concludes the 9 observations of the current legal job market; part 3 will examine 5 strategies new attorneys can employ as they seek to enter the 2009 legal job market – a market described by the 9 observations in Parts 1 and 2.