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‘Not a pretty picture' for law school grads seeking work

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Jason Cotter, Archer & Greiner (Christina Mazza)
Jason Cotter, Archer & Greiner (Christina Mazza)

New Jersey's young attorneys are facing one of the toughest job markets in decades, struggling to stay afloat in an employment pool that has become flooded with candidates affected by deep hiring cuts across multiple sectors. Compounding the problem is the continued influx of new law school graduates into the work force, making the odds of finding employment even slimmer.

"It's been tough for some time," said Rebekah Verona, director of career planning and professional development at Rutgers School of Law – Camden, "and unfortunately, it does not seem to be getting any better — at least, not anytime soon."

The school's Class of 2010 "has faced the worst job market since the mid-'90s," when the last recession occurred, she said. "It's not a pretty picture."

Frances Bouchoux, associate dean for academic and student services at Rutgers School of Law – Newark, said, "we've definitely seen a decline in job placement" for new graduates from 2009 to 2010. While 92 percent of the school's graduating class in 2009 found law-related employment, only 88 percent of the class of 2010 was hired in legal positions, she said.

Employment included private practice, judicial clerkships, business and industry, government, public interest, and academia, according to Bouchoux. Placement in jobs where a law degree was not required also increased during those two years; for example, 17 percent of the school's 2009 graduates were employed in business and industry, compared to 22 percent of 2010 alumni, she said.

Part time, or hourly, workers made up about 6 percent of the graduates in both years, but that percentage "is high compared to the typical year," where it may be 2 or 3 percent, Bouchoux said.

A law degree seemed to make a lot of sense when Chris Marchesano entered Rutgers School of Law – Newark in 2007. The common response from counselors, family, friends and family friends was that "it was a good decision," he said. "Even if you don't practice, a law degree's always good to have."

After studying criminal justice and film at Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus, Marchesano, 25, became interested in environmental law. "I figured law school would give the leverage to get a job to work in that field," he said. At law school, he interned at the Queens District Attorney's investigations division and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office in New York, and also did paid work at a smaller private law firm in Hackensack.

But in terms of finding work post-graduation, "it's been a rude awakening," he said. Marchesano said he "would love nothing more than to work for a nonprofit," but environmental organizations have taken a massive hit in the down economy.

Meanwhile, the district attorney's offices in New York have severely cut or canceled their recruitment classes all together, he said. And cutbacks in the private sector don't help, as new attorneys who have had their offers rescinded or postponed at law firms are now competing for government positions, Marchesano said.

"It's spillover," said Jarryd E. Anderson, 24, who graduated in May from Rutgers School of Law – Newark, and is pursuing a career in economic or monetary policy. "The private sector is so tight that it restricts the public sector." Candidates who in better times would have been hired at the largest law firms are pursuing positions at federal government agencies such as the Department of Justice, or financial regulatory bodies — the same jobs Anderson is seeking.

The recession has only exacerbated the problem, as people who have struggled to find work in other sectors have opted to go to law school, he said. "Lots of people who can't get jobs hide out in law schools for three years," Anderson said. "It's the trickle-down effect, because there are no jobs to begin with. If there were more jobs, less people would stay in school."

That doesn't mean those who are still in law school aren't worried about the job market. "I'm trying to (be) hopeful," said Ashley Gagnon, an incoming second-year law student at Rutgers School of Law – Camden. "I know it's pretty bad out there."

After seeing her friend, a third-year law student at Rutgers, struggle to find a job, "I started to get really scared," said Gagnon, 22. Prior to enrolling in law school, she hadn't been aware of how tough the job market was. As an undergraduate at Rowan University, her pre-law professors never brought up the issue, and while she met others who told her not to go to law school, they never explained why, nor did she question them. "I just thought, I'm going to do it, this is what I want to do."

Young attorneys who have been able to secure jobs said academic performance and previous work — not to mention luck — make a difference. "People distinguish themselves in school and prior experience," said Jason Cotter, a patent attorney who worked as a summer associate at Haddonfield-based law firm Archer & Greiner, in 2006, and joined the company upon graduating in 2008.

Prior to his law career, Cotter worked as a biotech researcher, enabling him to apply for the patent bar, which — unlike the state bar exam — requires industry experience, but not a law degree. As a patent agent, he was able to represent clients even before enrolling at Rutgers School of Law – Camden, in 2005.

Aside from doing well in school, Cotter said he also benefited from good timing. When he graduated, the legal job market "was starting to get bad, but I don't think it was nearly as bad as it has been in the past year or so," he said.

Meanwhile, new attorneys and law students facing a dire market have been forging ahead. Gagnon is working without pay for two solo practitioners in the Philadelphia area while also taking a summer course in advanced legal writing, and working 20 to 25 hours a week as a waitress to help support herself. She plans to apply to work for a judge for the upcoming school year, and also meet with the school's career services department to discuss applying for summer associates programs.

"I'm hoping if I make the best of it, work hard and do my networking, that it will pan out for me," said Gagnon, who hopes to get a clerkship after graduation and eventually work at a midsized law firm. If it doesn't, she's thinking about getting her doctorate and teaching on the university level.

Anderson, meanwhile, is actively networking while also studying for his bar exam, and most recently interviewed at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "I've cast my net as wide as possible," he said. "If you knock on enough doors, hopefully one will eventually open."

Even in a tough job market, Anderson said he has remained somewhat selective, turning down a clerkship position in Philadelphia that paid $38,000, wanting to focus instead on getting a job at one of the Federal Reserve Banks; he interned at the Philadelphia location for four years during college and law school.

He's living on loan money he received for law school, but the loans will have to be repaid starting in August, after he takes the bar exam. He's confident he will find a job by then, but if not, he said he will likely live in Jersey City with friends and look for opportunities in the financial industry in New York.

Marchesano also is pursuing jobs at financial institutions, which appear to be "the only places routinely hiring." While he would love to be a lawyer, "I have no problem working in another career."

He recently finished a nine-month stint doing document review work at a law firm in New York, and continues to seek temporary work while also looking for long-term, full-time employment. While he has about $95,000 worth of loans to pay back, "I've been really good at saving, and I'll have enough to live off of for a while."

Marchesano said he would warn college students thinking about going to law school to "take a step back and assess the situation," in terms of the significant financial and time commitment, as well as the currently dim employment prospects.

A law degree "doesn't hold the same weight it did 10 years ago or 20 years ago," he said. "People should balance the pros and cons, because it's not a sure thing anymore."

E-mail to: elee@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @EvelynNJBIZ

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