The scenery has changed significantly for the practice of law by young attorneys since the economic downturn in 2009. Law schools graduated hundreds of students who had hopes of a rewarding, challenging job and a bright future. Unfortunately, since that time, the recent law school graduates have found fewer job opportunities and a shifting paradigm in how we practice law today.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, large law firms would routinely hire between 15 and 20 law school graduates, but today, they may be hiring five to seven graduates. Law firms that would hire five to seven law school graduates are now hiring one or two new lawyers. The number of underemployed and unemployed recent graduates has increased substantially. Several new lawyers have decided to hang up their own shingle in an effort to repay their student loans and provide for their families.
State and local bars are working to develop programs for these new lawyers to educate them on the practical practice of law. While law students graduate with the knowledge of how to think like a lawyer, there is a lot of practical knowledge that is not taught in law school. Mentors are available for these recent graduates to assist them in learning how to prepare pleadings, write contracts and practice in front of a judge. Bar leaders routinely meet with recent law school graduates in an effort to help them find a job with a law firm, company, governmental agency or other employer as a result of involvement in the community and hearing about an opportunity. Networking among established practitioners is and should be a primary directive for all recent law school graduates. I have been fortunate to place a few recent graduates with friends managing firms who had a need for a young attorney at the time I met with them.
These recent graduates are hit with a double dose of the new reality as a result of the challenges in operating a law firm. Companies are demanding more efficiency while expecting faster and greater results than ever before. The Internet has become not only beneficial to the practice of law but also a curse. Clients expect attorneys to immediately respond following receipt of an email regardless of whether the attorney is near his or her computer, is in a meeting, or has other work that needs to be done at that moment. Quite often, the second email is sent or telephone call made when a response is not made as quickly as the client expects. If the attorney is not responsive to the client’s needs, the client has other lawyers knocking at his or her door hoping to perform work for that individual or company.
Large law firms used to have a comfortable level of work with their larger institutional clients. Since that work has contracted, larger law firm attorneys are chasing business that historically was performed by the medium-sized law firms. The medium-sized law firm attorneys are now chasing other work that they might not have pursued 10 years ago. This makes it more difficult for the sole practitioner or small-firm attorney, as their clients are being poached by lawyers from larger firms.
The practice of law, while still a profession, looks more and more like a business. Law firms must operate their practice efficiently while taking into account the bottom line, just like other businesses with whom they consult and provide counsel. Young lawyers, if lucky enough to find work, must immediately show signs of maturity and skill beyond their young age. Firms may not be able to wait three to five years hoping a naïve, inefficient attorney becomes productive. Tough decisions are being made more often to let an experienced attorney go in an effort to appease other lawyers who may still have plenty of work and are generating revenues for the firm.
Hopefully, the economy will grow and expand to create additional needs for attorneys. We can return to the 1990s and early 2000s when law firms were profitable, attorneys were happy in their daily work, and law school graduates had smiles on their faces after having survived three years of law school in anticipation of starting their careers. I would encourage recent law school graduates to remain optimistic, work hard and network with as many attorneys as you can find since you never know when the next law firm or employer will need to hire a recent graduate. If you are not spending time with the practicing attorneys, you may never hear about the opportunity that awaits you.•
Jeffrey A. Abrams is the partner-in-charge of the Indianapolis office of Benesch and is a partner in the firm’s real estate & environmental practice group. He served as president of the Indianapolis Bar Association in 2014. The opinions expressed are those of the author.