The job market for lawyers, hit hard by the recession, seems to reach new lows every day. But that has not done much to discourage the thousands who are lining up to become the next generation of attorneys.
In seeming defiance of logic, many law schools are surging in popularity. At Washington and Lee University in Virginia, for example, law-school applications are up 29% this year over 2008, while Yale Law School and the University of Texas School of Law both enjoyed an 8% increase in applications. Nationwide, the total number of applicants is up by 2% over last year, with the deadline to submit applications having passed at most schools.
College graduates, educators say, are seeking refuge from the economy in the relative tranquility of higher education, hoping that the job market will improve by the time they graduate. Law schools also have been aided by the long-held belief that the legal business is relatively immune from recessions.
“In up and down times, economies as complex as ours need a lot of legal services,” says Rodney Smolla, dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law.
In the past, the legal profession has been relatively immune to economic downturns. When times are bad, after all, companies still need lawyers for such tasks as bankruptcy filings.
But the legal industry now is feeling the pain every bit as much as the rest of the economy. Some legal specialties, to be sure, remain relatively robust, including bankruptcy and litigation, but those practices have not made up for substantial declines in mergers, corporate finance and other staples of the business. Firms across the country are firing lawyers by the hundreds, slashing salaries and even rescinding job offers to law-school graduates. Last month, Latham & Watkins, a marquee firm with large New York and Los Angeles offices, laid off 190 lawyers.
In short, it is the worst job market in modern memory at large corporate law firms, which have long been the employers of choice for top graduates.
Public-sector law jobs also are harder to come by these days, according to James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches the legal job market. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, for example, recently rescinded about a dozen job offers to law-school graduates due to start in the fall.
“Law school is not as safe a bet” as it once was, says William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, where applications so far are up 8%.