Twenty-seven-year-old Jesse White is a temporary staff attorney at a domestic-violence nonprofit in the South End. She graduated from the Northeastern School of Law this past May, and — after months of pounding the pavement — snagged the temp job, which ends next month. In fact, she declares, she's been lucky to have a job at all. White reports that someone in Northeastern's career-services department told her that about 50 percent of her classmates were unemployed six months after graduation.
"The job search has been very difficult," she says. After passing the Massachusetts Bar several months ago, White took a job at JP Licks. "I think [the economy] is making people who would be relatively competitive a lot less competitive, competing with people with a lot more experience or from Ivy schools. If you haven't done something absolutely exceptional, it's hard to get an entry-level job." She also says that lawyers with years of experience are settling for entry-level positions, closing out recent graduates.
As a result, White's post-law-school ennui set in shortly after graduation. "I was making minimum wage," she says. "No benefits. You go to law school, you put in a lot of time, energy, money to get trained to be a professional — and then you come out. There's an expectation that I had set myself on a stable, career-oriented course. But I'd been making more money before law school." Before Northeastern, White worked for the AmeriCorps VISTA program and helped to manage a dog day care. "Why did I drop $120,000 on an education when I can't get a job?"
While seeking permanent employment, White has been able to postpone the majority of her federal loans, thanks to an economic-hardship deferral. But deferred loans are one thing — deferred dreams are quite another. "This economy creates an environment where you have to postpone your goals," she says. Many of her classmates are temping or "got in under the wire," she says, just before hiring freezes were put into effect.
Indeed, since January 2008, according to the popular Web site lawshucks.com, 10,540 attorneys and support staffers have lost their jobs. Meanwhile, institutions such as WilmerHale, Winston & Strawn, and Baker & McKenzie are pushing back start dates for first-year associates as a cost-saving measure. Others are shortening their summer associate programs. Similarly, public-sector and nonprofit jobs are instituting hiring freezes until the economy stabilizes.
One Brookline-based third-year law student, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he's currently awaiting word on a job offer, said the mood among his about-to-graduate peers is "nervous and depressed. People are questioning their decision to go to law school in the first place." Law school, already a competitive and high-stress environment, is now even more of a pressure cooker. And let's face it: this is a place where goal-oriented students are used to hard work paying off. Delayed gratification, for many, is a new concept.
Crowded playing field
College career centers want to put the most soothing spin possible on a difficult situation. Boston College recently ran a program on deferred starts. "Students may not get their 'dream job' right at graduation. Yet we will work with our alumni throughout their careers to make appropriate decisions that eventually lead them to the 'dream job,'" a college spokesperson demurred in an e-mail.
In the meantime, compromise is a necessary evil. Brian Aune, 32, started at Harvard Law after managing a Barnes & Noble outlet for nine years. Now a second-year student, he's currently student-government president. This summer, he's slated for an internship in Washington, at Sheppard Mullin, which has laid off approximately 25 attorneys since the beginning of the year. They've also scaled back their 11-week summer associate program by one week to cut costs, he says. "I feel like I have a little bit less leeway and flexibility because of this."
Oh, boo hoo, you might say, go on a cruise for a week. But in many cases, internship recruitment used to look like outtakes from Less Than Zero, with wining and dining par for the course. Scaling back by a week is a subtle reminder that those bacchanalian days are over.
Even Harvard is being forced to adjust. The school now aims to give its students an edge by scheduling on-campus recruiting in late summer, instead of late September, which, explains Aune, had been customary, since many firms hold slots for Harvard graduates anyway. This year, that notion failed them, since students at comparable schools completed on-campus interviews in late summer. Harvard students were then left to negotiate for fewer positions — after the economic tsunami had hit, no less. They're not taking a chance on the same thing happening next year.
"It's a combination of both the trend in that field and also the economy — it impacted us pretty hard last year, so we're trying to be on par with a lot of our peer schools that are doing early interviews," says Aune. Harvard deigning to compete with other schools? Is this a sign of the apocalypse? For the time being, yes. "My sense of it, from talking with people, and from trying to talk with career services, is that people are more concerned than in years past," he allows.