The job market for new law school graduates may be seeing small gains, but the competition is fierce, according to local legal professionals. It’s not enough to graduate from law school and pass the state bar exam. The few entry-level positions available at local law firms are being filled by those with the best connections and the highest grade-point averages from top-ranked law schools.
“It’s very, very hard. It really is dependent on the school they are coming out of because the market is so saturated with new attorneys,” according to Christina Baker, senior recruiting manager for LegalStaff, a professional legal staffing firm based in San Diego’s University City area.
And if one were to submit a resume citing a lesser-ranked school?
“We throw it in the trash,” Baker said.
“It’s tough, but it makes the screening process much easier. When we place an order out, we get 500 resumes. That’s the first target,” she said.
Of the local law schools, graduates from the University of San Diego School of Law are the most sought after by Baker’s clients. But Baker said her recruiter colleagues in Los Angeles don’t even recognize USD as a worthy candidate pool.
Nationally, the legal sector is eroding jobs at a slower pace than in previous years, while entry-level recruiting volumes in fall 2011 were up slightly over dismal recruiting efforts in 2008 and 2009, according to NALP, formerly known as the National Association for Law Placement. The Class of 2012 is being offered entry-level associate positions at a rate of 91.4 percent if they were summer associates in 2011, according to NALP’s annual report released in March.
Summer associate class sizes remain small, at a median of just five law school students.
"This is not a hot recruiting market," NALP's executive director James Leipold said in a statement. "But this sort of modest growth may well represent the best we can hope for with year-on-year comparisons going forward. I would anticipate volatility in the recruiting market for some time. For instance, 2012 is off to a slow start economically for law firms, and we may see that reflected in the recruiting numbers this August."
Marvin Mizell, president of the San Diego County Bar Association and a deputy attorney general in the California Attorney General’s Office, has seen some anecdotal evidence of improvements in the local legal job market. For instance, his office recently hired five new attorneys.
“From what I’m seeing, things are slowly starting to get better. Law students coming out now should be more positive,” Mizell said. “It has been a very difficult past few years. I think things are improving. I can’t be sure, but hopefully that’s the case.”
Mizell said it’s key for law school students and new attorneys to forge relationships with others in their field. They need to get involved in the variety of mentoring and networking programs offered by the San Diego County Bar Association and other local lawyers organizations, he said.
“A student should take every opportunity they have to formulate those relationships. Doing that is going to open up a whole lot of opportunities,” Mizell said. “Getting a mentor is very important. Not just for the relationship with the mentor, but so that mentor can introduce you around to other attorneys.”
One of the San Diego County Bar Association’s biggest networking events for students is the Law Student Welcome Reception held each September. The evening event is so well attended, “I don’t think there’s a blue or black suit left in San Diego,” Mizell quipped.
Mentorships and summer clerkships are essential to securing employment, as are stellar grades, he said.
“It starts before the third year. They would have had to lay the groundwork, and that groundwork starts with the grades,” Mizell said.
“You have to have a single-minded focus on your grades, to the exclusion of almost everything else.”
Julia Shaver, an attorney and legal recruiter also with San Diego’s LegalStaff, suggested the tight job market means those considering careers in law should do their due diligence even before applying to law school.
“My advice is to work in a law firm before deciding to go to law school. Make sure it’s something you like,” Shaver said, adding: “Where you go to law school is important, so you need to weigh what’s going to give you the best results.”
Shaver said students need to consider what recruitment rates are like at their schools of choice, and also how well those schools are preparing students to pass the state bar exam.
For those law school graduates who don’t find traditional law firm jobs, there are nontraditional routes to employment in the legal field. There are jobs in legal recruiting, for instance, Shaver said.
“Since a lot of people are looking for jobs, the market is so thin,” she said. “There are other opportunities out there for those seeking them out.”
-McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance writer.