Is it a bad time to be in law school?

    Given that law firm culture and law firms jobs are two of the "white collar" industries most affected by the Great Recession, I've been asking myself when law students would feel the pinch. Although they are potentially safe within the haven of academia and student loans, they are still at the mercy of the economic meltdown when it comes to summer jobs and term-time employment. How is this downtown affecting current law students?

    To that end, I saw an interesting post on today's Wall Street Journal Law Blog:

    We recently had occasion to chat with a second-year student at a large second-tier midwestern law school. When we asked what she was planning to do this summer, there was silence on the phone. She had no idea.

    Now, it wasn’t like this 2L was waiting to hear from a flood of employers. No, all those folks had already dinged her. Nor was she readying to send out a new batch of resumes. What was the point? She was just standing still, it seemed, and had literally no idea what she was going to be doing this summer. She dreaded having to move back in with her parents for the season. After the call, we were of half a mind to send the poor girl a check for $100. We’re sorry this has befallen you, we would say in our condolence note. We feel for you. Buy yourself some new running shoes. Or splurge on some sushi.

    Ah, it’s grim. The recession is officially over, the stock markets have largely rebounded on news of strong earnings, and law firms are slowly regaining their footing. But the jobs just haven’t returned yet.

    If statistics are your thing (and not just isolated anecdotes of woe), we’ve got some this morning, courtesy of the NLJ. The paper reports a reality as grim as the tales. The median number of offers by U.S. law firms for 2010 summer associate positions was seven, according to statistics released Tuesday by NALP. The number, reports the NLJ, was down from 10 offers in 2008 and 15 offers in 2007.

    The offer rate was the lowest NALP has reported since the organization began gathering offer statistics some 17 years ago. The falloff was even more dramatic for firms with 700 or more attorneys. Their median offer rate was 30 in 2007 but only eight in 2009.

    We’d be inclined to think, however, that the storm may be passing. If it is, however, it’s passing slowly, perhaps reflective of the job situation in the economy at large.

    NALP Executive Director Jim Leipold told the NLJ: I don’t think anyone expects recruiting volumes to pick up significantly during 2010, though the worst does seem, we hope, to be behind us.”

    It was Director Leipold's thoughts that most struck me: "The worst does seem, we hope, to be behind us." That got me thinking: For law school students, is it really behind them yet? If 2Ls are having trouble getting summer jobs, then it stands to reason that 1Ls are also having trouble. If 1Ls are having trouble, then they'll have trouble again next year, even if the market picks up, because their résumé will show an unsightly gap in summer employment during law school. It will also deprive 1Ls and 2Ls of networking opportunities and future connections, which will in turn affect their employment opportunities after 3L.

    The horizon can definitely be a grim one. What can you do to stave off this bleak alternate universe?

    Thankfully, there are options:

    1. Summer school. Yes, it's summer, and you're supposed to be having fun, or at least be out of the classroom. But what happens when there isn't anything for you to do outside the classroom? Then stay in it! There are many advantages to summer school: You'll get classes out of the way (which will then result in you having lighter schedules during 2L, and maybe even 3L). You won't have to worry about subletting your apartment (and you won't have to worry about getting a temporary place in a potentially more expensive new city). You'll also get the undivided attention of your professors; summer classes are much smaller, and you'll be able to connect and bond with them (which will come in handy come rec-letter time later).
    2. Summer programs abroad. So many law schools offer either study or work (or, sometimes, work/study) programs all over the world; why not take advantage ot them? Just in the last two weeks, I've heard of students going to England, Greece, China, Australia, and France to study and work at international law firms. Of course, competition of these can be high, and there may be a lot of nooks and crannies you have to take care of, but that's where your school's Career Services Office can come in very handy. Reach out to them, and ask them for help. Get your applications for these programs in early, and you may end up on exciting international shores for the summer--which certainly beats a cubicle summer even in the most exciting U.S. city.
    3. Research. Use your professors for more than just office hours. Ask them if they have research or writing projects they are working on over the summer, and ask them if they need help. These opportunities won't often be advertised, and profs will jump at the chance of having help. Yes, these opportunities are mostly unpaid. However, the experience and résumé-building cred you will earn can often be priceless. Be proactive! Reach out to your favorite professors and ask. You may end up doing incredibly interesting work for one of your favorite people--it's a win-win!
    4. Unpaid internships and volunteer work. Yes, it's unpaid. Yes, the hours are long. Yes, it's not everyone's first choice. However, what you can get here is experience (invaluable) and a demonstrated commitment to the profession (also invaluable). Yes, you may have to take out additional loans, work an food-and-beverage job to make the bills over the summer, or live with your parents to make it work. However, you will also be doing very rewarding work for those that need it most; at the risk of sounding cliché, that can be payment in itself.

    So, you see, all is not completely lost. If you're dead-set on doing law firm work over the summer and your hopes aren't materializing, then perhaps you need to broaden your horizons and seek the slightly less conventional. It may not be your #1 choice, but it can still be rewarding, interesting, and ultimately better for you than a intern job could ever be.


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