Supply and demand. Buyer’s vs Seller’s market. These fundamental economic concepts are learned early. Where’s the legal industry now? Where is it headed? We know that we headed into a Buyer’s market long before the economic downturn. As we entered the new century, we encountered increasing numbers of client RFPs which boldly laid out the new terms of engagement. We endured beauty contests. We submitted to electronic billing and auditing. We modified billing systems to produce what clients wanted. We timidly stepped into the uncertain waters of alternative billing. Adapt or starve. That simple.
There is no doubt that there is a current imbalance between supply and demand. We’ve been reading articles about the big lie that law schools have told to prospective students about the percentages of graduates obtaining jobs which require a legal degree. Scandalous scoundrels. A few singled out under the bright light of scrutiny to pay for this misstep.
In 2011, more than 44,000 students graduated from the 200-odd U.S. law schools accredited by the American Bar Association. Nine months after graduation, only a bit more than half had found full-time jobs as lawyers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts 73,600 new lawyer jobs from 2010 to 2020. But just three years into that decade, about 132,757 new lawyers have hit the job market.
While not every new JD seeks employment as a lawyer, it is safe to say that planning to work as an attorney is not rare among law students. But perhaps it should be. Data from the National Association of Legal Career Professionals indicate that since 2010, about 75,000 new law grads have found full-time jobs as lawyers.
So, in theory, all of the BLS-forecasted job openings through 2020 have already been filled, and 59,157 new lawyers are still looking for “real” law jobs.
Yes, of course some of the JD graduates this year and in the years to come will find high-paying, partner-track jobs at big firms and elsewhere. But the scale of the imbalance over a decade gives some indication of just how tough it is — and will be — as armies of newly minted JDs rise every year. By 2020, about 300,000 additional grads will join those 59,157 in a hunt for jobs that, statistically, are not to be found.
Those are pretty grim numbers. And they’re mostly believable. An ABA Journal Law News Now article entitled “Law School by the Numbers: 300K Additional Law Grads by 2020; 73K New Jobs Forecast for Decade” reported on the Washington Post article. They noted that
Mark Medice, national program director for a Thomson Reuters unit that tracks jobs and pay at large law firms. . . believes a new legal education model may be needed that emphasizes specific skills such as discovery, regulatory matters and litigation support. The cost would be relatively cheap and the focus would be on jobs that are available.
Yikes! What a terrible idea. Well, not terrible from the perspective that one would likely get a job. But it would be a greatly downgraded job. And a cubby-hole career-wise. This would likely hasten the further commoditizing of legal services. Commoditizing = devaluation from my perspective.
What I don’t know is whether the statistics take into account the massive number of baby boomers who are set to retire over the coming two decades. I have to just “assume” that is the case. But even if not, that mathematical correction would not be enough to swing the pendulum back into a Seller’s market. So what are tomorrow’s grads to do?
- Put every single molecule of energy into graduating at the highest possible ranking. Although it is not a determinant of career success in the long run, most law firms see class ranking as an factor in candidate desirability. Remember, you have to actually have a job as a lawyer to demonstrate how skilled a lawyer you can be.
- Pick your focus carefully, and early. Too many graduates have no idea what type of law they want to practice. They accept jobs which often cubby-hole them. Too often they become trapped in practice areas which may forever doom them to higher hours and lower wages. Serendipity is not an acceptable career strategy, in my book.
- Prepare to hang out your own shingle. Don’t be dissuaded by condescending or pessimistic professors, partners at large firms where you intern, or overly concerned judges where you may be fortunate enough to clerk, that going out on your own without spending time in someone else’s firm first is a formula for malpractice. Just be sure that you connect with other more experienced solo and small firm attorneys through your bar association. The Pennsylvania Bar Association has both a Young Lawyer’s Division, and the Solo & Small Firm Section. Belonging and participating in both should be an essential part of your career.
- Nurture the business side of your practice. The legal industry is unique in that it is both a profession and a business. You can’t have one without the other. So avail yourself of the law practice management resources available through the Pennsylvania Bar Association (or whatever your state bar is), as well as the resources of the American Bar Association.
- If you’re determined to work for another firm you can greatly increase your success in finding a job by focusing on smaller firms in smaller towns. Find the law firms online, and send your resume to every firm. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time. Contact the executive director at the local bar and find out if they have a job bank, a way to circulate your resume or advertise your availability, or know of any openings. Remember that small-town firms usually provide more opportunities for direct client contact, rainmaking, and variety of assignments. The pay is lower, but after a few years you can — notice I didn’t say will — have the skills necessary to locate a more desirable situation, or open your own practice in the location you desire. And there’s a distinct possibility you may learn you actually like small-town practice and life.
- Learn to market. For a small percentage of lucky individuals, it is natural. For the vast majority it is learned. Just as you learn to become a skilled lawyer by practicing your trade, you learn to become a successful rainmaker by practicing your marketing skills. It gets easier, and you get better, over time. Networking. Teaching. Publishing. Leadership. Community Service. All of these are still successful methods. Except now you can — and should — leverage yourself with social media tools as well.
- Find your value proposition. Somehow you have to find a way to differentiate yourself from the mass of other attorneys trying to attract attention in a crowded marketplace. How will your voice be heard? If it is somehow different, it will be. Focus on responsiveness, creative pricing strategies — note I didn’t say cheap, which is different — which are based on leveraging your intellectual property to the max and running a highly efficient operation, and helping the client focus on value provided instead of hours x cost.
Today’s grads think it’s tough? The road ahead for future grads will be tougher. Don’t wallow in self-pity. Don’t be passive or weak in your efforts to get your career going. Most people are, even while thinking they’re not. Finding a job is a full-time job. Get active about creating your future.
If law school is ahead of you, put thought into where you want to be when you graduate. Take courses, even undergraduate courses, appropriately. And for goodness sake, don’t go to law school just because it seems like a good idea. I see too many graduates who land a job only to learn, after all that time and effort and expense, that they really don’t like being a lawyer at all. Don’t choose law school because you don’t have a better plan. Choose law school because you’re passionate about becoming a member of the profession, with an open eye toward all that entails in a world of supply and demand.