With headlines still screaming about the glut of lawyers and recent law school graduates struggling to find jobs that will enable them to repay their student loans, Andrea Kochert admits she is probably not the typical law school student.
Before completing her legal studies in May 2013, the Lafayette native had landed one job offer and been selected for a clerkship with the Indiana Supreme Court.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Kochert said, “but it isn’t a luck that happens by itself.”
After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, Kochert headed to the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. She purposefully chose I.U. McKinney School of Law because it was located in Indianapolis where making professional connections would be easier.
When she arrived at law school, Kochert joined the Indianapolis Bar Association and talked to attorneys about the practice of law. She took on extra projects, worked as a summer associate, and spent time working in the law school’s wrongful convictions clinic.
Kochert even tucked away a Valentine’s issue of a legal magazine that included an article detailing the reasons why lawyers love the law.
The legal job market, while improved compared to the depths of the recession, is still stumbling. According to data from NALP, formerly the National Association for Legal Career Professionals, only 65.4 percent of the Class of 2011 (the most recent data available) found positions that required bar passage. This compares to pre-recession levels of 76.9 percent and 74.7 percent in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
A look at NALP data concerning the recruitment by law firms at law schools in the late summer and early fall of 2012 indicates the prospects for legal employment are not recovering steadily. Since 2008 and 2009, law firms increased entry-level hiring but, in 2012, the brakes were applied and both the median and average number of offers to second-year law students for summer associate positions in 2013 fell.
From his desk at Lewis Wagner LLP in Indianapolis, attorney John Trimble does see a pickup in employment, but hiring is nowhere near the pre-recession heydays.
“My initial feeling is the job market for 2013 graduates is a little better than it has been in the last five years, but it’s not a lot better,” he said. “(The) 2013 graduates are still having to compete against lawyers who are unemployed or underemployed as a result of the events of the last few years. Law firms have lots of choices.”
In this sea of competition, freshly minted law school graduates have to distinguish themselves more so than in the past. Displaying a positive attitude and having a strong work ethic are required along with compiling a record of work and clinical experience before graduation.
“This is probably not a time to go to law school unless you’re prepared to go there and achieve,” Trimble said.
Editor's note: This section has been updated to correct the number of summer associates Barnes & Thornburg LLP had last year.
Training new hires is a costly endeavor, so law firms remain methodical in their hiring process. Many law offices want to give jobs to candidates who are likely to stay and rise through the ranks to partner.
For Barnes and Thornburg LLP, the recruitment starts with law students who are in their first semester of study. The firm has mixers and receptions to meet the soon-to-be-lawyers. From there, Barnes relies on its summer associate program to find the students to bring on as full-time employees.
“We want to find the very best candidates out there so we kind of scour the landscape,” said Bill Padgett, hiring partner at the firm’s Indianapolis office.
To identify the top candidates, Padgett pays particular attention to past work experience. Even a job making sandwiches can indicate the individual has a strong work ethic and knows how to function in a workplace.
This year, Barnes’ Indianapolis office has hired eight summer associates who are between their second and third years of law school. The firm only takes the number of summer associates that it intends to eventually hire full time, Padgett explained. Last year, Barnes had five summer associates who were between their second and third years of law school.
At Indiana University Maurer School of Law, the Class of 2013 is not surprised by a tight job market but, nevertheless, is frustrated and anxious, said interim Dean Hannah Buxbaum. The class members are working hard to identify possible jobs, even considering positions that do not require a J.D. and paying attention to presenting themselves well in interviews.
Buxbaum hesitated to say the job outlook is brightening but she did note business activity, in general, is picking up a little bit.
Kochert is optimistic based on what she sees happening with her classmates. One year ago, about half her friends in the Class of 2012 left school without jobs, but this year, a majority of her companions graduating in 2013 have found positions.
However, the recession-induced changes to the legal profession are likely to stay despite any boost in the overall economy. In large part, businesses have become better consumers of legal services, Trimble said, which is resulting in a decline in legal work.
Corporations and insurance companies are more careful about pursuing legal action, instead choosing arbitration and mediation. They are relying on in-house attorneys more and are scrutinizing their legal bills.
Finding the right fit
Sometimes, Bob Schuckit meets an individual who is just looking to take any job offered. At his boutique firm, Schuckit & Associates in Zionsville, he has seen his business increase during the recession, but he is not willing to take on any lawyer who needs a paycheck.
“We look for stars who want to stay here for the rest of their lives,” Schuckit said. “We expect everyone we hire to do that, and we rapidly increase their compensation as they increase their star power.”
His requirements for new employees include being hard working, paying attention to detail, having previous work experience and being a perfectionist. In this employers’ market, Schuckit is looking for “sharp motivated people.”
As head of recruiting at Lewis Wagner, Rob Baker often passes along a piece of advice that almost seems an antithesis to the current economy. He tells the students he meets to interview the firms just as the firms are interviewing them.
Baker counsels the job candidates to find a job where they will be happy and comfortable. They need to find a place where they will enjoy coming to work every day because, as a lawyer, they will be spending a lot of time at the office.
Buxbaum echoed this idea, noting that finding the right fit has always been important. Yet during the boom years, jobs in firms were so plentiful, students did not always consider if practicing in a big office was what they really wanted.
Now, the discussions in Bloomington focus on what the students want to do and where the opportunities are. When students first come to the law school, they are advised to think about where they want to go and to choose the courses that will position them for the career they will truly enjoy.
Kochert admitted she came to law school with a fail safe. If she did not like it, she could fall back on her bachelor’s degree and become an accountant. But she found she loves the law.
So she stayed and will soon be starting a judicial clerkship. Long term, Kochert’s career goal is simple: she wants to be a good, well-respected lawyer.•