The Past, Present & Future of Attorney Unemployment

Need-Work

 

With the effects of the economic crisis of 2008 and ensuing Great Recession still being felt in the job market, chronically unemployed and underemployed attorneys are doing whatever it takes to navigate a stagnant market.

Attorney Unemployment

Since those occurrences, the numbers of opportunities for new attorneys have all but dried up. Those fortunate enough to have had a job were burned by the great recession, watching helplessly as their jobs disappeared. It seems that the number of lawyers is increasing while opportunities are decreasing.

In response, attorneys are hanging their own shingle while simultaneously working 40-plus hours a week on document review jobs and other business opportunities. In doing my own inquiries, one attorney mentioned that he is looking to get out of law altogether to start his own business separate from the legal field. Another gave partnership a shot, but quickly realized that he and his partner weren’t on the same page. And another is just happy to not have to continuously worry about the billable hour after he was laid off.

“2009 was a significant drop-off because a lot of employers had offers out already, and because the unemployment wave was perhaps a bit slower to hit the legal profession than other occupations. The effects were significant, but even more severe for the class of 2010,” said Eric Bono, Assistant Dean for Career Opportunities at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

One wrinkle compounding the difficult Denver job market was the Independent Foreclosure Review—a massive document review project that employed more than 600 attorneys. The Independent Foreclosure Review lawsuits were settled in January 2013, and all 600 attorneys hit an already tough market at once.

“What the Review did was bring more lawyers to Denver from out of state, and once the project ended, many of them stayed,” a local legal recruiter said. “Denver is attractive to lawyers because of the lifestyle and work–life balance that Denver is typically known to offer.”

Looking Toward the Future

Law schools are looking for new ways to help graduates mitigate joblessness. The University of Denver Sturm College Of Law has partnered with the University of Colorado Law School, creating a pilot legal residency program. It is modeled on residency programs that are offered in the medical profession.

“This is a significant shift in the legal job market, so we haven’t been able to build up the type of infrastructure that exists in the medical profession,” said Bono. “But what we’ve done is we’ve persuaded eight or so legal employers to pilot a program where they consider hiring new grads from one of the two law schools for a year to 18-month term.”

The first of the legal residents started this fall, and while results are still to be determined, Bono indicated that some employers intend to use the new program as a recruiting tool. Underemployed attorneys, recruiters, and career development offices agree that the market doesn’t seem to be actively getting worse. In fact, it is even slowly improving, according to Bono: “The results that we’re seeing for our new grads reveal that the job market for newer attorneys in Colorado is slowly and steadily improving. But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Specializing in a practice area can also help the underemployed find work. According to recruiters, real estate attorneys have been in higher demand, as are corporate mergers and acquisition attorneys. However, high-demand practice areas tend to be cyclical, as real estate attorneys weren’t sought after before the uptick in the housing market.

“The legal job market for new grads is mirroring, or at least following, the trend of what you’re seeing with the overall employment market in this country,” Bono said. “What we’ve seen since the Great Recession is a very slow—sometimes imperceptible—improvement in the job markets.”

As for those seeking work, recruiters say that networking is still the best way to land that elusive job. For most lawyers “the more people you touch, the more likely you are going to find the opportunity.”

A myriad of networking opportunities are available through the DBA Young Lawyers Division and committees, providing you access to attorneys from all fields of practice. For information on upcoming events visit bit.ly/DBAcalendar or email membership@cobar.org.

By Peter Grandey

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