Law Vs. Undergrad: How Different?

handshakeBig Law Firms Resume Hiring

Remember the days when clients came to you? Back then, big cases magically fell into your lap, and your biggest decision was picking which clients to accept. In those days, young associates breezily clocked 70 hour weeks, never begrudging being on call 24×7. They’d schlep through tedious research and proofing assignments. Sure, they were the firm’s grunts, and their weekend plans could be scuttled at a moment’s notice. But they were in the door. With hard work, schmoozing, and a bit of luck, they’d eventually earn an opportunity to make a name for themselves. OK, maybe law practice was never that rosy. After the financial crisis, law turned into a field where supply outstripped demand. As always, the top ten percent of the top ten law schools nabbed $160,000 big law associate jobs, but with widespread layoffs and mergers, no jobs were safe. Everyone became expendable, as the easy work was replaced by software and outsourcing. Lawyers devolved into salesmen as much as advocates, often pitching their services as commodities to cost-conscious clients. Now, everyone is hustling for business, knowing performance is measured strictly on billable. Does that mean big law is dead? Not by a long shot! A June report by the NALP (National Association for Law Placement) found that big law hiring had increased by 9 percent over 2012. What’s more, median salaries at big law firms had jumped from $90,000 to $95,000 in 2013 (with 31% of big law jobs paying $160,000 to start). A few months earlier, the ABA found that hiring at big law firms (500 or more attorneys) had climbed 10 percent. And schools like Columbia, Northwestern, and Cornell were still placing over half of their grads into big law firms. That’s all good news. Question is, will big law ever return to its lofty pre-2009 employment rates? That’s harder to gauge. The drop in law school enrollments, with 39,676 students signing up in 2013 (down from the 2010 high of nearly 52,000 students), is discouraging.  Although nearly 47,000 students graduated from law school in 2013, future classes are expected to be smaller. As a result, the glut of attorneys is gradually receding, prompting one law firm manager to describe the job market as “the pig working its way through the snake” to the Wall Street Journal. Hiring is also uneven among various big law firms. According to Chambers Associate, 20 big law firms have increased their summer hiring. However, as Antony Cooke, the publication’s editor, cautions, “The trend indicates recovery, but we are very unlikely to see hiring at pre-recession levels any day soon.” That’s borne out by firms like DLA Piper, the largest global firm with over 4,000 lawyers. Although it hired 34 associates this summer, that number is way down from the 68 it onboarded in 2009. Similarly, Weil, Gotshal & Manages LLP, which downsized 170 associated and staff last year due to decreased demand, has only added 76 trainees this year, just half of its 2009 class. Bottom line: Small growth is the new normal for the legal marketplace. And law graduates will bear the brunt of this change. “The overall demand for legal services has certainly dropped at all levels,” says Joseph Torres, chairman of the hiring committee at Winston & Strawn LLP. “Incoming lawyers have not been excluded from that.” To see how many summer associates are being hired at the top firms, check out the chart below. Wall Street Journal Source: Wall Street Journal Source: Wall Street Journal

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