Jason Luros graduated in the top 20 percent of his class at Golden Gate University School of Law in 2007, with a portfolio of internships including business and intellectual property law experience and work abroad.
Given the impression from professors and career counselors that he was doing fine and that law firms were hiring, Luros said that he was surprised at the feeble job market that greeted him on return from Europe last summer. Most of his interviews were with firms of five to 30 attorneys -- and they weren't hiring.
"All the opportunities that I heard about required active bar membership and a lot of experience," Luros said.
En route to an interview at a small Napa, Calif., law firm, Luros decided to pop into the office of a financial services firm and fill out an application. After three rounds of interviews, the firm offered him a job as a financial planner and started him on a training program. Luros said he hopes to eventually make a salary comparable to lawyers at big firms, but declined to publicly describe his pay. A recent ad for a similar job listed a base salary that ranged from $30,000 to $80,000.
Luros is among the minority of law school graduates who, for one reason or another, embark on a career path away from law practice.
The latest statistics from NALP (.pdf), which tracks law grad placement nationwide, show that more than 55 percent of 2006 graduates went on to private practice. Nearly 10 percent opted for judicial clerkships, another 10 percent went into other government jobs and about 5 percent pursued public interest law.
But about 14 percent took jobs in business. According to NALP Executive Director James Leipold, that covers a wide range of jobs, including legal and nonlegal positions in accounting and insurance firms, banking and financial institutions, Fortune 500 corporations, private hospitals and political campaigns.
University of San Francisco School of Law Dean Jeffrey Brand says that segment might soon see growth. He sees an employment trend on the horizon that will have graduates from nonelite schools taking a harder look at careers outside the law.
With the economy's recent downturn and mushrooming overhead costs, he thinks law firms will be scaling back job offers.
"What I've heard from firms is that the associate economic structure they've created is destined to collapse," Brand said. Alumni are reporting that large national firms are increasingly hiring laterals or experienced lawyers on a contract basis, he added. "There are fewer associate positions for recent graduates," Brand said. "It's going to require them to be more resourceful in figuring out what they're going to do."
Students who graduate in the top 10 percent at nonelite schools normally would get attention from clients even in a slow economy, she said. "In down times, maybe they'll raise the bar," by narrowing their pool to the top 5 percent.
PUTTING PASSION OVER PAY
Gregory Blaine never intended to be a lawyer.
In the 1980s, he was a vice president at Coldwell Banker in Los Angeles.
"I thought that the way to get into the top ranks of this corporate real estate game was to add an advanced degree," he said.
But upon receiving his J.D. from USF in 1991, Blaine found an even better opportunity: staying in the San Francisco Bay Area to work for a real estate investment trust, or REIT, supervising property management for its Midwest and East Coast regions.
He believes that he could have landed the same type of position without a J.D., but said the benefits of the degree were obvious. "It helped me work with the in-house legal department much more efficiently, by helping me to understand their challenges better." He now works for himself, running a real estate investment business in Portola Valley, Calif., where he acts as chief executive (and the legal department).
As Blaine saw an upside to having a J.D. in the real estate field, others use it as an entry into politics.
Molly Claflin, a third-year at Stanford Law School, currently works on the Barack Obama presidential campaign and plans to work for whoever becomes the Democratic nominee after graduation. She said she's eyed a career in politics and public policy since middle school and thought an understanding of law, as well as the connections she would make in law school, would help.
Claflin said she believes she'll be able to afford the low pay on the campaign trail -- you're lucky if you get $50 a week, she said -- because her scholarships have kept her debt down to $46,000. And the campaign work is a stepping stone to her bigger dream: Although she hasn't ruled out practicing law, her ultimate goal is to work in the White House policy office.
But she is a rarity among her peers. "I think just about everyone is going the firm route," she said. "It seems to be the fallback." She added that the career center, with its law firm focus, has been of little help -- one reason Claflin believes so few go down other roads. "It's pretty daunting to be looking for alternative careers, and you're pretty much on your own in trying to find them."
Rachel Knight, a self-dubbed social entrepreneur almost three years out of law school, has more global ambitions.
In 2001 Knight was working in a family advocacy program at a Boston medical center, helping to train hospital staff in legal advocacy and drafting pamphlets to inform patients of their legal rights, among other things. Knight says she realized that if she was to help bring justice to the poor, she would have to understand the law.
During her studies, she helped set up similar medical-legal partnerships in the San Francisco Bay Area that bring legal aid lawyers into pediatric clinics. After earning her J.D. at Boalt Hall School of Law in 2005, she took a post as an Equal Justice Works fellow at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.
While Knight hopes to one day spread the legal-medical partnership paradigm to developing countries, she is currently doing contract-based consulting for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
She says the work is fascinating, but also admits it's sometimes hard to make ends meet. Some days, she asks herself why she didn't get the $160,000 job.
But, "I'm young, I have no kids, no mortgage," she said. "Now is the time to try my hardest to live out my dreams." She's considering moving away for a while to a place where her cost of living will be lower. Mozambique, where she spent a year studying abroad, is high on her list.
"I think that law students and lawyers feel that they don't have a lot of choices, but they do," Knight said. "Work in a firm for three years, pay all your debts, then go do what you want. ... We're our own biggest obstacles."