By Chris Mondics,
Even as a robust employment market has emerged for lawyers with several years' experience, a sobering new reality awaits this year's crop of law school graduates: The market for those fresh out of school has rebounded only slightly from its recessionary lows and remains very weak.
Big law firms report that hiring of graduates is well down from its peak of just a few years ago, when legal work was plentiful and firms competed for first-year lawyers. This year, firms are showing a little more flexibility in hiring summer interns and first-year lawyers, but the change is incremental. Most important, law-firm leaders who once hoped that the hiring of young lawyers would return to its past peak now say it will likely stay down for years.
The struggling economy, continuing downward pressure on rates, and insistence by clients that their matters be staffed with experienced lawyers all are playing roles.
"I have a stack of resumes on my desk and a number of phone calls that I have put off making," said Stephen A. Madva, managing partner of the Philadelphia firm Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP.
In years past, the firm brought in eight or nine new graduates each fall and hosted a class of about a dozen summer interns. This year, Madva doesn't anticipate hiring any first years, and the firm has only two summer interns. Instead, it has been recruiting lawyers with several years' experience and established client relationships.
"Our clients are not willing to pay us to train (young lawyers), and the numbers in the firm now are a pretty good match to the amount of work we have," he said.
Most law schools still are collecting employment data on this year's graduates, so the best information available is for the job search of last year's class. Figures compiled through February showed that, except for graduates of the very top schools, a great number of law school graduates hadn't found jobs as lawyers.
Law schools say they expect this year's results to be about the same. The hiring plans of law firms back up that assessment.
Though big firms remain highly profitable, it has come in part through severe cost-cutting and layoffs. At the same time, competition among firms for work has sharpened, placing even greater pressure on hourly billing rates.