Law Grads Face a Stern Market

Odds are, Grant Cofer has already heard more jokes about this than he ever wanted to. But between preparing for the bar at Harvard Law School, passing the bar in Alabama and finding a law firm job that requires bar admittance, he took an unexpected career step to a stint tending bar — just to pay the interest on his law school loans.

Allie Boller, who graduated from Cumberland Law School last year, won a coveted judicial clerkship with Mobile County Judge Michael Youngpeter.  But her plans have changed, too. 

Cofer and Boller are typical of the brand new lawyers facing one of the toughest legal job markets in memory.

When Cofer started law school, the expectation was that every Harvard grad would go to work at a big East Coast law firm. “It was sort of a given. You go to law school, you end up working for a big defense firm after your second year, they make an offer, you graduate and go to work there.”

But the economic meltdown struck in his second year. Of his group of 11 summer associates at a major New York City law firm, fewer than half got job offers.

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“In the fall of 2005, no one even knew anyone who hadn’t gotten an offer, ” said Cofer. Just a couple of years later, the job market was the opposite. Cofer was offered a summer associate job following graduation, but that would have meant an entire year without work before he started full time — an entire year while interest piled up on his student loans.

He made a practical choice, moving home with his parents in Huntsville and tending bar to keep his debt under control, then applied for a contract job with Beasley Allen.

Beasley Allen’s Tom Methvin says they were so impressed with Cofer’s work as a contract lawyer that they offered him a coveted spot as an associate and expect nothing but the best from him.

Boller, who chose law school because her father is a lawyer “and he loves what he does, ” has watched her expectations change with the market. She says, “I envisioned working at a large firm” after graduation and judicial clerkship. “I now envision myself working with my father.”

Her job as a clerk to a circuit court judge is a great bonus, but it will only last another six months, she says, and, while she thinks law school was a good long-term investment, in the meantime, she has “a lot of debt.”

Supply side — the schools

The market is affecting everyone — not only recent graduates but also the state’s five law schools and even the biggest of the law firms.

Cumberland Law School, at Samford University, has seen a big drop in applications, says Dean John Carroll, a retired federal judge. The number of applications peaked in 2004 and has dropped ever since, till this year the school received the fewest applications since 1977.

There is no drop in the quality of applicants, Carroll says, though there may be fewer from outside the Southeast. But with fewer to choose from, every school “from Harvard on down” is taking new students with slightly lower credentials than it would have accepted in years past.

All reputable law schools have to make sure they accept students who have the aptitude to pass the bar and get a job, he says. Cumberland looks at standardized test scores, undergraduate grades, activities since college, intellectual capacity and work ethic, seeking to maintain its reputation for a good bar passage rate and a good employment rate.

This year, Cumberland accepted about 550 students and took in a class of 121, which Carroll regards as typical. “You’re seeing a smaller capture rate than in the past, ” adding, “we’re all adjusting to that, to a new normal.”

And the school is working to make sure its curriculum prepares students for the practice of law – requiring not just theory, but also practical skills in negotiation, interviewing, counseling and the business of law.

Judge John Carroll, dean at Cumberland Law, called this “the best possible time” to start law school since students should graduate to a better job market.

Photo courtesy of Samford University

Cumberland graduates traditionally go to smaller firms, Carroll says, so its graduates aren’t being hit as hard as some others. Nonetheless, “a lot more are going back to their home towns, and a lot more are taking entry level jobs than would have in the past. We tell people to get a job and do well” and use that record to build mobility.

Even Birmingham School of Law, a nights-and-weekends school, where students can work full-time during their studies, has seen applicant numbers drop. Enrollment has been as high as 570 and now hovers around 500, says Dean James Bushnell.

Though not accredited by the American Bar Association, BSOL graduates can sit for the Alabama Bar exam and be licensed to practice law in Alabama.

From its beginnings in 1953, BSOL has offered legal education to students who can’t afford to stop working and attend traditional law school. A degree from Cumberland, Bushnell says, costs “north of $100, 000” while a BSOL degree costs about $20, 000. Classes are taught by practicing lawyers and only two deans are full-time employees.

Many students are sons and daughters of lawyers and judges. Others are in related fields like insurance or law enforcement. Graduates “often band together and set up small firms of their own, ” Bushnell says, and even those who don’t find a law job after graduation still have the job that put them through school, “so they’re not scrambling.”

“We’re in better shape than the others (schools), since we don’t have the overhead, ” Bushnell says. “I can expand or contract teaching staff depending on numbers.

“We’ve seen a dip, but we have the ability to control expenses.”

Demand side — a feast of great candidates

Sometimes, says Bryance Metheny — a recruiting committee member at Burr & Forman in Birmingham since 1999 — the hiring process makes him feel “hypocritical.” 

The feeling hits when he discards a resume from somebody who’s not as qualified as others in the pool, but every bit as qualified as he and others when they started work.

Resumes from prospective job candidates are more impressive than ever, showing a mix of great grades and interesting work or other projects between college and law school.

While the firm takes more new lawyers who are graduates of the University of Alabama and Cumberland Law School, it tries to diversify and also seeks candidates at schools like Duke and Virginia, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Columbia.

When Hand Arendall recruiting partner Chris Gill graduated from Alabama law in 2000, his firm would bring in 12 or 13 summer clerks — all destined for the partnership track if they didn’t stumble. This year, the firm has about five and is bringing only one new associate to the main office in Mobile.

The firm tends to pick people with a tie to Mobile. And students recognize the geographical nature of hiring, he says, usually picking either a very highly ranked school or one that’s in the part of the country they hope to call home.

A case for an upswing?

After five years, there may finally be some blue sky at the edge of the cloud. 

“Birmingham is starting to pick up, that’s true, ” says Burr & Forman’s Metheny. “Five years ago, we were carefully considering whether to make any job offers. We didn’t want to get forced to making layoffs, and we didn’t.”

But last year, hiring picked up at the firm, which has about 300 lawyers across the Southeast, because business has picked up. “There’s a greater need, ” says Metheny.

Floyd Gaines, a Birmingham-based shareholder and hiring partner at Baker Donelson — a firm with some 650 lawyers across the Southeast — does virtually all its hiring through the traditional summer associate program. It selects a group of students completing their first year of law school, invites them back after their second year if all goes well and offers a position as a beginning associate after graduation and bar passage. Firm records show a clear hiring drop in the recession years — from 26 in 2008 to 22, to 17 and then, this year, back to nearly two dozen.

“It’s still a very tough job market, ” Gaines says, “But we feel very positive that it’s on the upswing right now.”

Montgomery’s Beasley Allen has a different solution. Moving away from the traditional summer-to-associate plan, the firm now hires more contract lawyers. Young lawyers don’t get the job security they may want, but they can build resumes, says managing shareholder Methvin. And the contract systems allows law firms to draw good talent without an obligation to keep them in lean times.

Since his days as state Bar Association president in 2009-2010, Methvin watched the trend in his firm and others and says, bluntly, “Most firms are not hiring lawyers as associates to be on the partner track.”

Just too many lawyers?

Are schools producing too many lawyers? 

Many schools are facing enormous drops in enrollment, says Gaines, of Baker Donelson, and some schools will probably have to trim staff.

“Eventually everyone lands somewhere, ” says Gaines. “The market, over time, is able to absorb those law students, and they’ll benefit from the law degree.”

Students in the top 10 or 20 percent of their class “land softly and early, ” says Gaines. “Others languish a little longer and face more uncertainty, but eventually they land softly and get where they make a good living.”

Hand Arendall’s Gill isn’t quite so sure. He’s heard of too many recent graduates who are “hanging out shingles and starting from scratch as solo practitioners.” Not long ago, graduates who missed big firm jobs would take a government job or join a business as in-house counsel. “But those jobs now want experience, too, ” he says, and government hiring is slow. So he suspects many graduates are taking jobs that don’t require a law degree.

“Make sure you have a back up plan, ” Gill counsels prospective law students.

Methvin echoes the thought, advising that prospective law students should watch the market and be hesitant unless they have connections or expect to finish near the top of their class.

“But a law degree is always a good thing to fall back on, ” he says. “Even if you end up doing something else, it’s a good thing to have for the long run, for your whole career.”

If you had it to do over?

Says Cumberland’s Dean Carroll, “This is the best possible time” to go to law school. With so many fewer applicants — estimates are there are 25 percent fewer this year nationwide — those who really want to go to law school can get in, and this year’s class should graduate to a better job market. Says Carroll, law school “opens the door to a great career, but it’s expensive.”

Grant Cofer wouldn’t change his career path. He loves his work at Beasley Allen, a firm he describes as “great attorneys” who give a young associate “plenty of substantive law work from the get go.”

But he would probably pick a different law school. Harvard has a lot of prestige, he says, but “now I wish I had a less prestigious school with no debt. With the amount of debt I have, I could have gotten a really nice house down here.”

Nedra Bloom is copy editor and a senior writer for Business Alabama.

Nedra Bloom

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