The market may be warming to the idea of hiring associates, but it's still not easy for young lawyers to land a job these days. The National Law Journal talked to a variety of legal types who gave us their take on the associate job market right now. The prevailing view? It's better, but remains vastly changed from prerecession times.
THE PICKY PARTNER
As chairman of the hiring committee at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Steven Sletten has seen one benefit from the excess of potential associates on the market. The candidates he interviews tend to be "a little more prepared on average" than they were in the past.
They are also geographically "more flexible," he said, more open to the possibility of working in their second- or third-choice city.
As for Gibson Dunn, the greater competition for Big Law jobs has given the firm "the luxury of being choosier," he said.
Like most other major law firms, associate hiring of all kinds is down at Gibson Dunn, which has 983 attorneys, according to the The National Law Journal's annual survey of the nation's 250 largest law firms. The class of incoming first-year associates at Gibson Dunn is smaller, Sletten said. In 2009, the firm hired 136 first-years. This year the number is just 121, although the firm is still waiting to hear back from some candidates to whom it extended offers.
Moreover, Sletten said, the incoming summer associate class is 25 percent smaller, dropping from 150 firmwide in 2009 to 110 in 2010.
And the number of lateral associates the firm hired last year was "way down" from 2008. Sletten declined to put a specific number on it, but called the lateral market "much more competitive."
Gibson Dunn hasn't changed what it is looking for in candidates: academic excellence, leadership and evidence of being a team player. But in this competitive market, Sletten said, they really need to show they've "done their homework."
Knowing enough about the firm and its partners to ask informed questions in an interview is essential to impressing him. "It always surprises me when a candidate asks something like, 'Do you have an office in London?' " Sletten said. "Had they spent 10 minutes on our Web site, they could have found that out."
Candidates should recognize that the interview isn't over if they're invited to a meal. In fact, Gibson Dunn places a premium on lawyers who can hold their own while eating. "They still need to have their head in the game, albeit in a less formal setting," Sletten said.
The bottom line, he said, is that candidates need to show that "they're the kind of person we want to work with for sometimes 20 hours at a time."
STUDENT STRIVES TO STAND OUT
"Scrappy and creative" is how third-year law student Peter Feldman describes the class of 2010's push to find jobs. In other words, they're broadening the search beyond Big Law and fighting for opportunities to distinguish themselves.
Feldman, who is scheduled to graduate from American University Washington College of Law in December, doesn't have a permanent job lined up. So he has been entering legal-writing competitions, focusing hard on his grades and adding classes in subject areas he might not have taken in a better marketplace. Feldman, who ultimately would like to practice election and campaign finance law, said he has picked up classes in securities law and financial regulation to make himself more marketable.
"It's all part of the effort to make my application pop and stand out," he said.
During their school years, his class has become more willing to take unpaid positions because those are often "the only thing available," he said. For the past several years, Feldman has worked at the National Republican Congressional Committee as an unpaid intern.
In some ways, the drop in the number of associate jobs may have been a good thing. Pointing to his job at the congressional committee, a position he found without the help of his law school's career services office, Feldman said, "We've all had to become more innovative and willing to explore every possible avenue for results."
He added that tougher competition could also produce better lawyers after graduation. "We're all working to improve our skills with more urgency than may have been there in the past," he said.
Despite not having that post-graduation job yet, Feldman refuses to get discouraged. "I know I'll land on my feet eventually. Besides, you have to be upbeat," he said. "There's too much else that has to be done."
LIFE AFTER THACHER
The upside of Kashif Sheikh's legal career didn't last long. He was hired as a first-year associate at Thacher Proffitt & Wood in 2008, fresh out of Georgetown University Law Center. He worked on banking transactions until December 2008 -- when the New York firm went bust. One hundred lawyers joined Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, and the rest, including Sheikh, were left to fend for themselves.
It's been tough going ever since, as Sheikh has moved back to Washington, D.C., with his wife, a lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice, and tried to find work.
"I applied everywhere: law firms, Treasury, the FDIC, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve. Nothing panned out," Sheikh said. "Now I'm still out of a job with more than $150,000 in debt."
Since December 2008, Sheikh said, he has worked the occasional odd job, providing friends with legal and technical advice as they sought to launch startup companies. He also is studying to earn a chartered financial analyst certification.
Sheikh isn't alone. According to a 2009 LexisNexis survey, 43 percent of the private practice attorneys surveyed said their firms have conducted layoffs, 33 percent have enacted hiring freezes and 18 percent expect to lay off employees this year.
Sheikh said his resume states that he is out of work because Thacher "is in dissolution" to counter any impression that he was laid off. "The environment is too competitive to let them think I was laid off," he said.
He described his difficulty in finding legal work as ironic because he left a "lucrative" position at what was then Merrill Lynch & Co. to go to law school. Although solvency concerns forced Merrill Lynch to sell itself to Bank of America in September 2008, it is, unlike Thacher, still in business.
These days, Sheikh isn't even applying to law firms. He has switched his focus to government legal positions and is also trying to return to the financial sector. His situation has begun to look a little brighter, he said, because he is starting to get called in for interviews with financial services companies.
That said, Sheikh offered a word of caution to those considering law as a career. "Consider the opportunity cost of getting there," he said. "It can be very high."
ADVISING SKITTISH STUDENTS
Kevin Donovan has two tracks on advice for law students, depending on their enthusiasm for Big Law.
As head of the University of Virginia School of Law's career services office, he said he counsels students that it would be wise to "think broadly" in this tough job market about the kind of practice they want and to consider alternate routes to getting there. Donovan listed judicial clerkships, government agencies, nonprofits and smaller firms as ways to pick up experience on the longer road to securing a position at a larger firm.
"It may be a two-step process to get the ideal job, given the state of the market these days," he said.
As for students who are "lukewarm" about Big Law, Donovan, who is a former Morgan, Lewis & Bockius partner himself, tells them to just focus on those same clerkships, government agencies, nonprofits and smaller firms.
They seem to be listening. Between 2007 and 2009, Virginia Law sent 77 percent of its students directly into private practice, but Donovan expects that number to be lower this year.
Donovan said that last year fewer law firms recruited on the school's campus than in the past. "There has been more hiring lately than there had been in months. But it's not a booming market by any means," he said.
Not a booming market is right. According to a March report by the National Association for Legal Career Professionals, the rate at which law firms offered jobs to summer associates fell from 90 percent for the summer 2008 group to 69 percent for the summer 2009 group. Almost 40 percent of those summer 2009 offers came with a deferred start date. And just 10 of 300 legal employers surveyed have made offers to third-year law students who were not part of the summer program last year.
Donovan said he's seen "tremendous resilience among our students ... . They're picking themselves up off the deck and keeping their head in the game."
Some even see the lack of law firm jobs as a positive effect of the recession. They "feel liberated," he said, to go after the kinds of jobs they originally dreamed about when they applied to law school.
But convincing students to be patient as they add up their tuition bills isn't easy. At Virginia Law, tuition for out-of-state students is $43,800 per year and about $38,800 for in-state students.
Donovan said he tells students who are worried about the market's long-term impact to remember that "they're still going to have all of the academic and professional achievements they had before the market took a dive."
RECRUITER: THINK OPTIONS
With many firms on the rebound after a rough 2009, the market for associates is thawing, said Marina Sirras, owner of the New York recruiting firm Marina Sirras & Associates. But law firms are much pickier than in the boom period of 2006 and 2007.
"In the past, firms might have been willing to take chances on associate hires, but they don't want to take those chances anymore," said Sirras, who has been in the recruiting business for 24 years.
These days, she's finding that firms head into the associate market with a "narrowly defined idea" of whom they want to hire, and they rarely budge from that idea, she said. They don't need to. "The pool of potential hires is much bigger, so they know they can find that person," Sirras said.
Midlevel associates whose practices focus on restructuring, intellectual property and corporate issues are in the "sweet spot" of hiring partners' demand. Litigation and real estate associates are also seeing an uptick in demand, Sirras said, although those practices have been slower to recover.
Hiring partners are also taking into account whether an associate has switched firms before. She said that can be a deal-killer because "it raises questions about what prompted the move."
Finally, some large firms have little, if any, interest in laid-off associates, regardless of the practice area. "I have heard a lot of firms say that they won't even look at laid-off associates," Sirras said.
Moreover, Sirras said, some AmLaw 100 and 200 firms aren't interested in paying recruiting fees to find those associates, knowing full well they're likely to send their applications directly to the firm for free. She said her advice to laid-off associates is to "remain open-minded" and pursue a wide variety of job avenues, even if it means moving to another city or volunteering at nonprofits.
"But if they want to join a firm, I encourage them to reach out to the firms themselves," Sirras said. "There's always hope."