A Midsummer Week’s Bad Dream: More Bad News than Good in Legal Employment

Recent reports on legal employment haven’t been very encouraging.  On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that, contrary to its prior estimate, there was a loss of 600 legal jobs in May rather than a gain of 300.  Well, not so bad.  Worse is that BLS estimates a loss of almost 4,000 legal sector jobs in June, bringing the 12-month loss to 22,000.  The May and June data also show that the legal industry is acting countercyclically at this point (which isn’t a surprise, as we’ve pointed out before).  The economy overall has been adding a small number of private sector jobs—but not in the legal industry.

There was other less than happy news.  Shearman & Sterling finally set start dates for 2009 deferred associates at January 2011, somewhat later than some had expected, although consistent with many other firms, as Ellen Branch told us last Friday).  Shearman’s deferred associates were luckier than some of their counterparts at Baker & McKenzie, 11 of whom were told their deferrals were, well, permanent.

Finally, the consulting firm Altman Weil’s survey of law firms gave a pessimistic report on near-term prospects for law students, entering lawyers and senior law firm associates.  Anyone thinking about or in law school or acting as an advisor to people in those positions needs to read this report carefully.

What does this raft of bad news mean for those entering or considering law school?  These are all short-term reports and we know how quickly assessments of the market and hiring plans can change.  So they’re not necessarily definitive.  But you can’t ignore them—they do have longer-term implications.

First, you should assess realistically your own prospects and ambitions.  There are still, and almost surely will continue to be, some terrific jobs available for lawyers entering at the top of the market with elite credentials.  You need to assess the likelihood that you’ll be in that group.  If you’re not sure, you’ll need to be sharply attuned to the “non-elite” market and changes in the elite market that push down to other market segments.  Regardless of your likely position (but especially if you’re not in the “elite” group), you’ll need to account for your own desire to be a practicing lawyer.  The state of the market may have a different meaning for those whose ambition is to be a great counselor, as opposed to those entering law for lack of anything better to do or for the assumed prestige and money.

Second, you must stay abreast of developments and make sure that your admission advisors and law school advisors do the same, with special focus on what market trends mean for you.  Third, run the numbers or ask an advisor to do it.  Figure out what your likely debt load and employment prospects at the end of law school will be, and run those numbers at various degrees of probability and in comparison with your other options.  Update those analyses regularly.  It’s ok to take risks—but you should have a clear understanding of the risks you’re taking going in to any field.  Don’t be blindsided three or four years from now.  If you’re afraid of numbers, you’ll have to conquer that fear (regardless of whether you’re the person who does the risk/reward analyses, you’ll need to be able to assess them).

Finally, don’t do what people in labor and financial markets do all the time to their detriment:  believe that all will be well (or awful) because you want it to be.  A lot of people lost a lot of money (and in many cases, their homes) over the last several years because they wanted something so badly that they took all data to confirm their desires and listened only to the “experts” who agreed with them.  Having advisors in your corner can be extremely helpful, even necessary—but you need to know that they’re actually in your corner.  Two indications are the person’s depth of knowledge of the market and willingness to give you an analysis you may not want to hear, that is, someone who cares about your long-term success and happiness, not just making a profit.

Stay informed, be realistic, think carefully about how much you want to be a lawyer, guard against facile and merely convenient advice and, equally important, avoid being blinded by yourself and what you want to be true.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on July 6, 2010.

2 Responses to “A Midsummer Week’s Bad Dream: More Bad News than Good in Legal Employment”

  1. […] the rest of this great post here Comments (0)    Posted in Attorney Lawyer Legal   […]

  2. […] in July, losing 800 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The loss is narrower than June’s loss of nearly 4,000 jobs but was again somewhat countercyclical, since the private sector as a whole added a small number […]

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