Higher Education, Human Resources, and Law

Competition still stiff for law grads

For law firms, it’s still a ‘buyer’s market,’ and students need to find a way to set themselves apart.

September 11, 2015
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The job market for law school graduates has not been great since the recession, leaving many newly minted attorneys looking for work outside the profession, but a recent American Bar Association report has given law students and recent graduates hope that hiring will, once again, increase.

The American Bar Association noted hiring in 2014 was slightly better than it has been since 2008, when many firms across the country began to decrease the number of new graduates they hired.

Whether conditions will continue to improve for new attorneys remains to be seen, but several West Michigan law firms say they don’t expect to dramatically increase their hiring, nor are they concerned an attorney shortage is looming due to declining enrollments, which hit a 15-year low in 2014.

“I do think that job prospects are getting better for law school graduates, which is based both on what I see happening generally in the regional market and with Varnum's own hiring practices,” said Brion Doyle, chair of Varnum's recruiting committee.

Doyle said Varnum does expect to increase its hiring.

“That being said, law school hiring has not returned to the level it was at in the early to mid-2000s. Many law students intern with firms during the summer after their second year of law school, and the summer intern classes are still smaller than they were before the market downturn that started in 2008-2009,” he said.

Carin Ojala, director of professional development at Warner Norcross, is optimistic about the future, but cautions the firm is not planning any significant increases in the number of new lawyers it hires.

“Last year, we added 16 new attorneys, both as lateral hires and new law school grads,” Ojala said. “Five new graduates will join the firm after Labor Day, which is consistent with the size of incoming classes we have had in recent years.

“We anticipate an uptick in hiring down the road, but would caution that this will not be near the historic pace where law firms were a decade or two ago. The very best students at very good law schools are likely to be first to experience this bounce back in hiring.”

Stephen Hulst, chair of Rhoades McKee’s recruiting committee, said his firm’s hiring plans would remain consistent.

“We’ve been pretty consistent in hiring one to three new attorneys each year, even during the economic downturn,” Hulst said. “Our short-term outlook is to remain on that path.

“In the past year, we added one new attorney who just graduated from law school and passed the bar exam. Another new attorney that worked as a summer clerk for us in 2013 took a clerkship with the Michigan Supreme Court for his first year and will join us soon.

“We’ve also continued to strategically add lateral attorneys and have added two within the past few months, with a total of four over the past year and a half.”

Mika Meyers also sees the job market improving for law school graduates, but the firm doesn’t expect to increase the number of attorneys it hires annually.

“We have hired four new attorneys over the past year, all of whom came to us after practicing law elsewhere,” Neil Jansen, attorney with Mika Meyers, said. “I do not expect we will increase the number of attorneys we hire per year, but do expect that we will include the recruitment of recent law school graduates as part of our growth strategy.”

While law schools might tout lower enrollment rates as a good thing for future attorneys, law firms say there are still more attorneys than jobs, and they aren’t having any difficulty obtaining the talent they need from the pool of applicants.

“Even with decreasing enrollment over the past five years, we’ve interviewed and hired some of the most qualified students we’ve ever seen,” Hulst said. “The quality of the candidates we continue to see only supports the conclusion that it remains a buyer’s market, and students still have to set themselves apart in order to get a job.”

However, increased competition for top talent in a diluted and shrunken pool likely will benefit law school graduates at the top of their class in the coming years.

“I think there is less of a concern about an overall shortage of attorneys and more of a concern with attracting top talent out of law school,” Doyle said. “From the law firms’ perspective, as class sizes shrink, firms are competing over a smaller number of top candidates.”

“The pool we’re looking at is certainly diluted,” Ojala said. “We recognize that some good people who would have been great lawyers have taken a look at the … cost of attending law school and the job prospects, and opted out to find a career path that is less risky. It is getting harder to find top-quality people.”

Law school costs are certainly a factor for prospective attorneys, particularly when landing a job after graduation is not a guarantee.

Law schools have reacted by offering more dual-degree programs, accelerated programs and distance/online learning options, but while that might benefit some students in terms of cost and time it takes to graduate, it probably won’t help them get a job in the legal profession.

“I can see some benefit to obtaining a dual degree like a JD/MBA, particularly if the student is convinced that he or she is going to do corporate work or other business-related legal work and has good prospects of getting a job in that field,” Hulst said. “I don't know what accelerated degrees or options for online/distance training are going to do in terms of the number one problem facing law students: getting good jobs.”

Jansen agreed.

“I see the growth of dual-degree programs as a plus, particularly in the corporate or transactional practice areas,” he said. “These programs show the promise of better equipping attorneys to work with their business clients and understand the needs of those clients.”

But whether a dual degree will prove useful in the legal job market really depends on whether it can enhance a future attorney’s legal practice.

“Dual degrees seem to provide more of a benefit to students than to law firms, by allowing them to make their résumés more viable and attractive,” Ojala said. “From the law firm side, if that dual degree is an MBA, master of accounting or master of laws, we definitely benefit.”

Ojala is more excited about the shift from theoretical to practical training taking place at law schools.

“I had dinner with a candidate recently, and he said that one of his law school professors has taken a much more experience-based spin to this issue,” she said. “The professor records himself conducting a legal argument, plays it for the class and, when the class hears something they would object to, someone objects. The professor then calls on someone else in the class to explain why the objection was made, what the rule of evidence was, etc.

“These types of practical experiences for law students are just wonderful — they teach students to think on their feet in a realistic environment, which they will have to do once they begin practicing.”

Soft skills are another area where law firms find candidates could use some improvement.

“Everyone is looking for new clients, to retain existing clients and to make new connections,” Hulst said. “I think law schools could do more to emphasize the importance of not only having the technical skills, legal writing, research, analytical thinking, etc., necessary to be a successful lawyer, but also the soft skills of networking and client development that are so important.”

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