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Small firms provide job opportunities in tough market

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While jobs at the large, AmLaw 100 firms continue to be scarce, the employment picture is much rosier for those looking to join smaller, boutique shops.

And while the recession has hit the legal industry, several segments have emerged largely unscathed.

"The unemployment rate for lawyers is miniscule compared to the unemployment rate of the population at large," said Beth Kransberger, associate dean for student affairs at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the class of 2011 had an employment rate of 85.6 percent. Although that’s the lowest rate for any class since 1994, it’s still relatively healthy.

"What we are seeing is that nearly all of the drop in total (legal) jobs can be contributed to the continued erosion of private practice opportunities at the largest law firms," Kransberger said.

"What we're seeing at career services is that small- and medium-sized firms continue to hire. They're still growing."

The job board at the University of San Diego School of Law has seen a 34 percent increase in job postings from January to November 2012, compared to the same period a year ago.

"A lot is due to fact that employers feel more confident in hiring," said Cara Mitnick, assistant dean for career services at USD School of Law.

"It's good news for everybody. Certainly for those entering the market as well as employers. It's good news for law schools and good news for the economy generally in San Diego."

Employment opportunities exist for young lawyers. The key is to cast a wide net, expanding the search area for both geography and type of practice, according to the career counselors.

Kransberger said graduates are stretching their search to neighboring states like Utah, Nevada and Arizona with success.

Jobs are still being found in the government and nonprofit sector, as well, according to Mitnick.

The downturn "has made people more resourceful, and they're more open to different areas of practice and different sizes of practices than they had been in the past," Mitnick said. "Even different geographic locations."

Her advice for law students is to gain practical legal experience while in school, where they can apply what they learn in the classroom to the real situations. She also encourages her students to take classes for a wide range of legal practices.

"Law firms want to hire practice-ready attorneys, so our curriculum at USD has always been focused on practice-ready and more so now," Mitnick said.

Debra Baker, chair of the law firm services group of the San Diego-based Legal Vertical Strategies, said the local legal market remains flat for the larger firms.

"I think we can expect to see more consolidation and retraction among the large firms in town," she said. "That said, a number of lawyers with portable practices are leaving their existing homes to start their own firms.

"We’re seeing more opportunities in the market. However, starting salaries are lower given the abundance of talent in the market."

Firms like Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch and Higgs Fletcher & Mack, which has grown to 69 attorneys continue to be aggressive in acquiring talent.

"The economy is improving and people are engaging legal service providers in a way they hadn't been doing during the recession," USD’s Mitnick said.

She said she's seeing hiring across the board, but especially in the corporate transaction and business litigation practice areas. Intellectual property and patent law also are very in-demand areas.

The large firms that are struggling have gone through similar cycles in the past, according to TJSL’s Kransberger.

"It really is the very large law firms that continue to shed jobs and reorganize, but those are structures that have always swelled in times of economic boom and shed like crazy in times of economic contraction," she said. "They are organized as business entities in very different ways."

Certain types of firms have been protected from the economic downturn as a byproduct of their practice. Family law firms, for example, are needed in good times and bad.

"There's plenty of unmet legal need out there," Kransberger said. "We've always been conscious as a civic participant that the school's mission is that unmet legal need gets addressed."

She said it’s important to not fixate on the largest law firms in town because about 80 percent of all lawyers work in small firms.

"Fortunately, San Diego and the surrounding North County and East County have a lot of smaller firms with between 2 and 10 attorneys," Kransberger said. "In San Diego, we have noticed a slight improvement in the amount of employment opportunities that our graduates have found."

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