When the Detour Becomes the Destination
How 5 grads survived a recession—and how you can too
Posted Jan 1, 2010 11:49 PM CST
By Barbara Rose
The year Laura Tharney entered law school, the legal market boomed with opportunity. But those good times ended before she could finish. The week she graduated from Rutgers School of Law-Newark, the New Jersey firm that had offered her a job eight months earlier rescinded that offer.
A snapshot from the class of ’09? Think again.
Tharney, now deputy director of the New Jersey Law Revision Commission, graduated 18 years ago into the early 1990s legal recession, which hit hardest on the East Coast. Then as now, firms cut associates, canceled summer programs and rescinded offers as part of their expense-cutting strategy.
She recalls feeling horrified when her offer evaporated in June 1991. “I didn’t know how I was going to survive,” she says. “It felt catastrophic. [But] I ended up having this unusual and varied career. I can’t say I regret it.”
Not everyone in the law school classes of 1990-93 coped equally well. There were those who abandoned the law entirely, dropping off the radar of schools that track where their grads land.
But the overwhelming majority, whether they graduated from top-tier or lesser-known schools, landed jobs that made use of their legal degrees, according to annual surveys by the Washington, D.C-based National Association for Law Placement. Their varied experiences suggest that even in the worst of economic times, graduates who are determined and flexible can lay the groundwork for long-term success. And even people with the most carefully planned careers sometimes benefit from being tossed off course, however painful the process.
Photo by Dan Nelken
This recession “absolutely will change people’s careers,” says NALP Executive Director James G. Leipold. “Some of these deferred associates who go to public service, they’re going to find out they really like it. People who can’t get jobs—it doesn’t mean they’ll have worse careers, but they’ll have different careers than the ones they thought they’d have.”
Leipold himself is a case in point. A magna cum laude graduate of both Brown University and Temple University School of Law, he planned to specialize in tax law and employee benefits. But when he got out of law school in 1993 without an offer from the firm where he had worked as a summer associate, he returned to teach law at Temple, where he later became director of law school admissions. He joined NALP in 2004 after working as assistant director for education and pre-law programs for the Law School Admission Council.
The recession “absolutely changed my career, and for the positive,” he says. “I’m much happier in the nonprofit sector.”
The economic downturn lasted only eight months, from July 1990 to March 1991, but it triggered a severe legal recession that lingers in many memories.
Employment rates for new grads, after peaking in the late 1980s, did not begin to rise again until 1994, three years after the recession ended. Employment nine months after graduation hit highs and lows not achieved since then, falling by nearly 9 percentage points from a peak of 92.2 percent in 1987 to 83.4 percent in 1993, according to NALP’s data through 2008.
Fran Bouchoux, associate dean for academic and student services at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, recalls the tough environment in January 1993. That’s when she joined the university from Wall Street, where she had worked asa commercial litigator.
“There were people in the class of 1992 still job hunting,” she says. “There were [class of ’93] students who had worked summer jobs in 1992 who had not received permanent offers, which in a good economy can be very damning to your career. But in a bad economy, we know there are a lot of firms making those decisions for economic reasons.”
Photo by Dan Nelken
Big employers canceled on-campus interviews. Judges and small-to-midsize firms were inundated with resumés. Yet the worst wasn’t over.
As the decade wore on, several large and prominent employers closed their doors—Shea & Gould, Lord Day and Bower & Gardner in 1994; Mudge Rose in 1995—leaving students they had recruited without jobs.
“That was shocking then,” Bouchoux recalls.
Tharney is one of many who were forced to learn that career setbacks and detours sometimes become worthwhile journeys to good destinations.
“I knew I ultimately wanted to have my own firm, but I did not want to do so right out of law school,” she recalls. “My thought was, it makes the most sense for me to work for a small firm. It was a firm in central New Jersey. Around Thanksgiving of my final year, the attorney I was working for offered me a position. The week I graduated from law school, in early June, the offer was rescinded.”
Pushing aside feelings of panic, she set out to find contract work. “The attorney was able to give me work on a per diem basis, and I found some other attorneys who did the same. I got help from friends and contacts I made in law school to cobble enough work to stay afloat,” she recalls.
“I taught criminal law at night at a local college. That was so much fun. If I had had a really absorbing, 60-hour job, I never would have had time to do that.
“I had wonderful experiences doing legal work I never expected to do,” Tharney says. “If someone said, ‘Hey, can you do X?’ I was happy to do X. It enabled me to work in a whole variety of areas and with a variety of people. Was it stressful? Yes. But it’s like anything else—it’s just putting one foot in front of the other.”
Within a year she landed an in-house position as deputy counsel in New Jersey’s Middlesex County, where she worked for two years. Tharney started her solo practice after working at two small firms. “I discovered in law school I loved appellate work, the research and writing, and I ultimately transitioned strictly to appellate work for other attorneys,” she says.
But that turned out to be only the beginning of her story. An attorney Tharney met while in law school remembered her when an opening developed at the New Jersey Law Revision Commission, an independent agency charged with clarifying and modernizing state statutes. She joined as a part-time staff attorney in early 2002, went full time eight months later and was promoted to deputy director in 2008.
“It was my dream job,” Tharney says. “If you’re a law geek, this is definitely the job you want to have.”
PLUNGING IN, PLUGGING THROUGH
Brooklyn Law School graduate Caroline Krauss-Browne recalls the challenges she faced while finishing her degree in 1991. “There were certain people who had gotten clerkships or the prized summer associate jobs, but the average everyday law student, the new grad, had nowhere to go,” she says. Now a partner in Blank Rome’s New York City office, she is grateful for her experiences. “I would never be where I am today but for the people I connected with. I’m working with a great group of people whom I absolutely adore.”
Her third year in law school she took a job working 25 hours per week as a research assistant to a litigation group at a midsize firm in Manhattan. “It was actually very burdensome getting up at the crack of dawn” to juggle the job and school work, she says, “but it actually was the smartest thing I could have done.”
Krauss-Browne graduated in 1991 and after taking the bar exam, she telephoned the firm’s litigation division chief to say, “I’m done. Do you have a spot for me?” There were no openings, but the attorney suggested she stop by Monday morning.
“I showed up on Monday, and I just kept showing up,” she recalls. “I did research and writing as it came along”—for $20 per hour, no benefits—“motion papers when they needed them, the usual work you’d do as a first-year associate. There were days when I had very little to do.
“I showed up for four months. Finally they said, ‘I guess we should hire you.’ It was certainly a lesson in persistence.”
She worked in commercial and bankruptcy litigation until she was asked to fill in for an associate on maternity leave who practiced matrimonial law. “I read McKinney’s [on New York domestic relations law] at night and I taught myself,” she recalls. “I really liked it. I felt I could have a real impact on someone’s life.”
Eventually she joined Tenzer Greenblatt Fallon & Kaplan, which later merged with Blank Rome. Today she’s a seven-figure originator in Blank Rome’s matrimonial group and a member of the firm’s partner board.
Her rocky start in a tough economy was a blessing in disguise, she says. “The majority of people who succeed in law school are hard workers, but I was really driven to go over and above whatever it was that a normal person would do because I needed that job.”
Gary E. Schuler, Rutgers class of 1993, learned the value of flexibility when the recession pushed his career plan off track. A University of Michigan business major, he planned to practice corporate transactional work at a firm in the Northeast. He started his law degree at Emory Law School in Atlanta in 1990, but firms from Northeastern states stopped visiting Emory for on-campus recruitment after the economy tanked. So he transferred in January 1992 to Rutgers.
When he found himself without an offer after graduation, Bouchoux, the Rutgers dean, suggested a clerkship. Although he was skeptical, he nonetheless clerked for a year for a superior court judge in Mercer County before following another job lead from Bouchoux to a firm in Princeton, N.J.
The firm wanted to hire him, but it needed a litigator and couldn’t promise him another opportunity. Again, Bouchoux urged him to be flexible. Eight months into his employment, after his first review, he reminded the firm of his interest in transactional work and was reassigned.
“It was pretty stressful,” recalls Schuler, who now works in Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft’s Charlotte, N.C., office. “The way the economy was, I had to go with an opportunity I had and work from there. In hindsight, it all worked out. Looking back from where I am now, they all turned out to be good decisions.”
THEN AND NOW
The period leading up to the current recession, now well into its second year, was not unlike the boom years of the late 1980s. Employment rates for new law grads hit 91.9 percent in 2007, near a 20-year peak, and students enjoyed an extraordinary recruiting season.
“Things were going gangbusters,” Bouchoux notes. “Big law firms were going deep into the class to recruit talent. Lots of our students had lots of opportunities.”
Her first inkling that hard times lay ahead came when law school applications shot up the last year—a sign that more undergrads were deferring job-hunting to pursue more schooling. Another signal flashed when a larger number of summer associates than usual came back without offers for permanent jobs. “We knew the other shoe was about to drop,” Bouchoux says.
The global downturn that economists say began in December 2007, deeper than any since the Great Depression, is reflected in the employment rate for new grads. The rate fell by 2 percentage points in 2008, to 89.9 percent from the previous year. Data for 2009 is not yet available, but the recession’s impact on hiring is unprecedented, experts say, and many question whether large law firms will ever return to hiring as many graduates as they did during the years leading up to the recession.
“The rate of deferrals, the number of canceled programs for next summer, the volume of people and firms affected is larger than I’ve seen it,” Leipold says. “This recession is different because it originated with the credit crisis, and the biggest firms had so much work tied to the credit market.”
Yet taking a long-term view, Leipold is sanguine. “It’s remarkable how steady the employment market has been, particularly for entry-level lawyers” over the decades, he says. “The broad patterns haven’t changed that much.”
Each year 50 to 60 percent of new grads go into private practice, according to NALP data since the 1970s. During recessions, fewer go into large firms and more start solo practices.
“We would expect a smaller percentage going into the very largest firms because law firms are very different now; there’s been so much consolidation,” he says.
“Interest has focused a lot on the big firms, but there are lots of other opportunities. A lot of firms actually are thriving in the middle range.”
Photo by Dan Nelken
Grayson Barber, Rutgers class of 1991, says many from her year “had to follow alternative career paths. ... Some have done quite well,” she quips, “like the president of the United States.” (President Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991.)
Barber attended Rutgers at night while working for the state of New Jersey in telecommunications and information systems. She grew interested in the law after her boss asked her to learn about privacy issues arising from the use of mainframe computers.
“I was just thrilled to learn how to argue; it was very empowering,” she says. “And I was good at it.”
Barber felt lucky to land a federal clerkship when she graduated, even though it meant taking a 40 percent pay cut from her state job. “Most of my friends were trying to get high-paid positions at New York law firms, but it was not a friendly market for recent grads,” she recalls. “I was one of the few that got a job.”
But when her clerkship ended the following year, jobs still were few and far between. “I must have interviewed at 20 firms. I wasn’t getting offers. I was getting phone calls from firms saying, ‘We would love you to come and work with us but none of our associates is moving on. We don’t have any openings because we’re not seeing our usual attrition.’ ”
Finally she landed a job at a Princeton, N.J., firm specializing in insurance coverage litigation. She started in September 1992, but there wasn’t enough work.
“It was very frightening,” she says. “Every associate feels extremely vulnerable even in the best of times. When there’s not enough work, you feel even more vulnerable.”
Eight of 10 new associates were let go, but Barber made the cut. “I couldn’t fill my billable hours requirement,” she says. “My firm carried me for a while. They were extremely honorable about it.”
When the economy turned around she had more work than she could handle, especially after the birth of her daughter, now 12. She and her husband, a physics professor at Princeton, decided it was time for her to begin the work she loved, and she hung out a shingle as a privacy advocate.
A former fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton, she does volunteer work for the American Civil Liberties Union and chairs the privacy committee of its New Jersey affiliate. “It’s extremely rewarding,” Barber says.
Photo by Dan Nelken
Alexandra Duran, a lawyer and founder of Career Transitioning in New York City, counsels that launching a career during a recession is not necessarily a calamity.
“Having [a recession] change where you end up at the beginning may not be as harsh as you think,” she says.
Duran draws on her personal experience to help lawyers and other professionals through transitions. She also attended law school in the early 1990s—at night while working as associate director of personnel for the City University of New York. She saved up eight weeks’ vacation to accept a position as a summer associate at LeBoeuf Lamb in 1991, which hired her after she graduated.
“I had worked so hard to figure out what would be a good fit for me that I didn’t actually experience the recession,” she says. “I slipped into a good role for me, having done all my homework.”
She reminds those facing the current recession that in the best of times, “people end up working in practice areas that may not be a good fit, but they stick with it because they’re generating revenue. Firms don’t actually want you to keep learning and moving; they want you to keep generating income.
“Often people choose the things they think are the least risky,” Duran says. “When circumstances force them outside their comfort zone, they can discover things about themselves that are fabulous.”
The Dip That Didn't Die
Employment rates for new law school graduates show the effect of the "legal recession" that began in 1990. Full-time legal employment included any full-time job in the legal field. The percentage of graduates hired by law firms hit a high of 64.3 percent in 1988, and was 56.2 percent in 2008, but that year's results were reported before the most recent recession affected hiring.
|Year||Employed Legal Full Time||Not Working||Jobs in Law Firms|
Source: NALP—the Association for Legal Career Professionals.
Advice for today's law grads from those who've been there
One of the hardest lessons in graduating during a recession is facing failure. “You’ve graduated, you’re a success and everybody’s proud of you,” says lawyer and career consultant Alexandra Duran. “But then you can’t get a job.
“For some of my clients there’s shame involved. They talk about the recession, but if you listen carefully, it’s the first time they feel they’ve failed at something. It’s a public failure; everybody knows you’re not working.”
Duran advises focusing on practice areas that are starting to come back—and remaining flexible.
“If you can’t get a legal job,” she says, “at least get yourself into the industry so when things come back you have experience in the business, which only translates into making you more marketable.
“Don’t listen to all the doom and gloom. Stay focused on what you can do. Think of it as a time to gather your resources and learn something new.
“No one will hold it against you for having made unusual employment choices. They will focus on the fact you were nimble and creative and took care of your obligations.”
And despite the legal market’s contraction, eventually most graduates will land work, says Joel Berger, president of the recruiting firm Meridian Legal Search in New York City.
"Those that even in a good economy would have had to scramble for a job, a certain percentage of those will just get frustrated and assume nonlegal careers. But I think the majority who really want to be lawyers will find something. They will get into the law eventually, and they will be OK.”
Lawyers who made their way through the 1990s downturn in legal business also have some words of advice for this generation of law school graduates:
• Laura Tharney, deputy director of the New Jersey Law Revision Commission: “Don’t panic; maintain your connections. The attorney who rescinded my job offer has referred me so much work over the years, I’m deeply in his debt.”
• Gary E. Schuler, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft: “I leaned heavily on the career development office. Rather than putting your resumé out to 100 firms, you can have a much more targeted approach.”
• Caroline Krauss-Browne, Blank Rome: “So much of where you end up is about who you develop and maintain relationships with. You could do public service and get some good experience. It could be your life takes a twist or a turn, and it’s a blessing.”
Barbara Rose is a freelance journalist in Chicago.