Law Students

Law School Graduates Continue to Struggle
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Some law school graduates struggle for years to find jobs.

Summary: Law school graduates, especially those who have graduated since 2010, are struggling to find work. These graduates have tens of thousands of dollars in debt, forcing some of them to turn to work that does not require a law degree.

Although Jonathan Wang graduated from Columbia Law School in 2010, he has yet to step foot into a courtroom as a practicing attorney. In fact, he has not practiced law at all.


According to the New York Times, when Wang started law school, the economy was still strong, and he believed that his efforts would secure a stable, high-paying job. He told his parents, who work in Silicon Valley, that he had it all planned out: “I would spend three years at school in New York, then work for a big law firm and make $160,000 a year,” Wang recalled. “And someday, I would become a partner and live the good life.”

After graduation, Wang had a yearlong fellowship with a state court judge, but when its term ended, the “market was still awful,” he explained. After being admitted to the New York State bar, Wang began tutoring and advising to pay his expenses.

Law school debt has far outweighed lawyers’ starting salaries.

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Wang said, “I thought the LSAT tutoring gig was going to be a temporary thing, but five years and one bar admission renewal later, here I am. I waffle constantly, but I’m still in the mind-set that I need to find a real job,” he said. Although Wang makes over $100 an hour, his income is not what it would be if he were in a prestigious law firm.

Wang is part of the 20 percent of law graduates from the class of 2010 who are working in positions that do not require a law license. Only 40 percent are working in law firms. Ten years earlier, 60 percent worked in firms. In 2007, 91 percent of graduates found jobs, according to Forbes, but that number has declined. Since most 2010 graduates have an enormous amount of student debt, they have taken on a variety of jobs to pay the bills. Others have attempted to work as solo practitioners.

Law school enrollment was peaking in 2010, at 52,488 students. However, those who were graduating were not receiving offers from firms where they were interning, and some students even had offers rescinded.

Here are the schools with graduates with the least amount of debt.

Wang said, “None of this was on my radar, but it began to be obvious by the time second-year summer internships were over. We knew things were depressed, but then the legs were cut out from under us.”

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When the economy crashed in 2008, many corporations began cutting back on their legal expenses. As a result, law firms began cutting back on hiring and laid off some employees. The legal profession was entering an abysmal job market.

Many legal scholars at first predicted that when the economy turned around, the new law school graduates would land jobs. However, according to Deborah J. Merritt, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, this has not occurred.

Merritt combined public data for over 1,200 lawyers who graduated in 2010 and passed the Ohio bar exam and published the results in a study called “What Happened to the Class of 2010? Empirical Evidence of Structural Change in the Legal Profession.”

According to Merritt, “Employment has improved only marginally for the class, with unemployment at 6 percent, many fewer lawyers working at law firms and a leap in the percentage of solo practitioners. These outcomes contrast markedly with those from the 2000 graduating class, which was also shadowed by an economic recession but were later able to better their positions. But that type of progress has not occurred for the Class of 2010.”

With so many firms cutting back, most jobs “fall within modest-paying categories: solo practice, small firms, government work and business jobs that do not require bar admission.”

The United States economy added 214,000 jobs last October.

Many 2010 graduates said that they were “too ashamed to admit [they] have not found a legal job” to allow their names to be mentioned at all. One graduate said that he did not want to draw attention to his job situation and that he was “doing rote legal temp work on the side to pay rent.” He added, “I dare not put it on my resume because it makes you instantly nonprestigious and unemployable.”

Troy Pickett, of Houston, worked as a bartender in Austin before attending law school to become a mergers and acquisitions lawyer. He decided to open his own law firm. When asked about his decision to attend South Texas College of Law in Houston, he said, “I began to realize that I had set the bar too high, but I kept thinking that if I could get my foot in the door, I could do it.”

Pickett noticed that fewer firms were recruiting on campus, and that job offers were disappearing. He said, “It was a double whammy. Our class was also competing with third- and fourth-year associates who had been laid off,” he said. Upon passing the bar exam, he and another classmate opened their own practice, which handles family law matters.

Hyatt Shirkey, another 2010 graduate, earned his law degree from Ohio State’s law school in 2010. Shirkey moved to Virginia, passed the bar, and opened his own firm after trying to maintain several jobs. Shirkey recalled, “When I started law school, it was still a great era. I had some good experiences, including working for a federal judge in Columbus, Ohio. Then, the end of my second year in school, I saw that law firm offers were being pushed back. There was a glut of people in the job market, and the only job I could find did not require a law license.” Shirkey first ran the paralegal studies program at a private college before finding work at the Roanoke public defender’s office. Shirkey kept his part-time work at the college, as well as a waiter position at a Cracker Barrel.

Since that time, Shirkey has found a teaching job at a community college and has opened a solo criminal defense practice. He hopes to “build up [his] experience and reputation] so that he will qualify for an opening in the United State attorney’s office.” He receives referrals for cases the public defender’s office can’t take, and Shirkey said that practicing on his own was shaky financially.

Over 85 percent of law graduates have student loans. 2010 graduates have an average of $77,364 in debt from public schools and $112,007 at private schools. One California couple refinanced their home to help their son repay his loans, Business Insider reported.

Many graduates have received financial hardship deferments or received credit for public interest work. Federal government rules allow student borrowers who are employed in nonprofit and public sector jobs to have their loans forgiven after they put in ten years. Shirkey said, “Otherwise, I would be very, very much in a pickle. I anticipate that I will wind up working for the government or a nonprofit because I will need the credits to take care of my loan burden. Every time I look at the debt amount, my heart beats a little bit harder.”

Source: New York Times

Photo credit: New York Times



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