The Job Market Has Declined—What Now?
The legal community is going through challenging times right now, and the legal market is following suit. Nationwide, we’re seeing layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, job postponements, and the cancellation of new positions. Lawyers at every level of experience are being impacted, including new lawyers who have had their start dates postponed and their positions rescinded and law students who have seen the job market dry up. This short article focuses on these two groups, providing concrete steps new lawyers and law students can take to increase their marketability while weathering the current economic downturn.1
The Bar Exam
If you haven’t taken the bar exam, this should be your primary focus. There’s been a lot of debate across the nation about the impact of COVID-19 on state bar exams, including policy discussions regarding whether such exams should be canceled, postponed, taken online, or taken in person. Colorado recently held in-person exams, but against the wishes of some test-takers. Whether you agree with the policies or not, taking a bar exam is a necessary step to practicing law. So you should prioritize studying for the exam and, if you’re able, sign up for the next scheduled test time.
Taking on too many activities between now and the next exam date (including the actions discussed below) is not advisable. Set aside sufficient time to study for the bar exam and hold that time as sacrosanct.
The Inevitable Question
Whether you’re searching for a job or have had your start-date postponed, you’ll inevitably be asked, “What have you been doing between graduating law school and now?”
You’ll be answering this question in many different contexts—certainly in job interviews and during mentoring sessions. But you’ll also need to respond to it in some unexpected places: your parents, brothers, sisters, and friends will raise the question over dinner, and you will need to explain your employment gaps on job applications and in your LinkedIn employment timeline. In other words, this question is going to arise many times and in different contexts, so you should carefully consider what you want your answer to sound like and look like in each of these arenas.
We recommend that you include some additional education, some practical experience, and at least one recreational or nonlegal experience in your response.
If you’ve already taken the bar exam, consider adding some continuing education to your résumé. This is a good way to advance your career and help explain any employment gaps.
The Colorado Bar Association offers excellent CLE opportunities in many different areas of law. Take some topical classes in your area of interest, along with some legal writing classes. Once you start practicing, you will quickly realize that improving your writing skills is never a waste of time.
We’re occasionally asked about the value of nonlegal classes or pursuing an additional advanced degree. Nonlegal classes are a good idea, especially if you’re interested in pursuing a unique area of law like finance, bankruptcy, or tax. For example, you might consider picking up a class or two in quantitative analysis and basic finance if your goal is to become a finance lawyer, or in basic accounting if you want to be a tax lawyer. And you can never go wrong increasing your language skills if you want to focus on international issues. Being a successful lawyer requires more than just knowing the law; it’s also important to understand your clients’ business operations and to have a basic understanding of the language and terms they use. Taking classes toward these ends can be invaluable to your career.
An advanced degree can also benefit your career. Certainly, a graduate degree in finance or business will help you become a better corporate lawyer because it gives you a better understanding of your clients and their businesses. But other degrees can also be helpful. For example, we know a tax lawyer with a Ph.D. in classical philosophy. He’s stated on many occasions that the degree is useless when it comes to his tax law practice, but it has helped him get his foot in many doors that would otherwise have been closed. If you’re interested in an advanced degree, we recommend pursuing your interests, whether that’s accounting, finance, business, Latin, or post-modern literature. You’ll be more likely to finish the degree if you’re deeply invested in the topic.
But a word of caution: Don’t let pursuing a degree get in the way of your first two or three years of practice. Those initial years will provide you with the greatest learning experience you will ever get as a lawyer, and you should dedicate most of your time during those years to working hard, learning, and growing as a practitioner.
Being an adequate lawyer requires experience; being a good lawyer requires a lot of experience. Seek out professional experience wherever you can get it. Volunteer at clinics, assist on pro bono cases, or work as an intern. There are many opportunities to gain experience, and you should take advantage of at least a few of them. The CBA or your local bar association can help you locate these opportunities.
These experiences will do more than just provide professional development; they will also showcase your work ethic. Potential employers want to know that you’ll work hard for them, and these experiences will give you an opportunity to talk about your hard work and commitment to the profession.
At Least One Notable Experience
Good interviewers, quality mentors, and potential team members are not just interested in you as a lawyer—they want to get to know you as a person. So, in responding to the “inevitable question” about what you’ve been doing, you should be able to discuss at least one notable nonwork experience. While you’re looking for a job or waiting for one to start, climb a big mountain, volunteer for a medical mission, learn to surf on O‘ahu, walk the Pacific Crest Trail, or attend cooking classes. Do something interesting so that you have an interesting story to tell. Being a well-rounded person makes you a more appealing candidate and employee.
Keep in contact with your current connections and make new ones. Your professional contacts will play a key role in your employment and career development. They are good sources for references, job information, and insights on who is hiring. Reach out to them on a regular basis, even if it’s just to pass along a greeting. A monthly email or note card explaining how you’re doing in your job search or educational endeavors is a great way to maintain these connections and friendships. And never be afraid that you’re bothering your contacts. Most lawyers enjoy hearing from colleagues, future colleagues, and students.
You should also work hard to make new connections. Attend professional and social groups where you can meet judges, lawyers, and others working in the legal profession. If you’re not comfortable with large group gatherings (which many other lawyers also dislike), ask your current contacts to make introductions to other legal professionals. This can be done through lunches, over coffee, or at your local wine bar. Intentionally make these new connections in whatever way works for you.
Handling a Job Postponement
If your job has been postponed, it’s important to stay in contact with your employer, whether it’s a firm, governmental entity, or private corporation. There’s probably someone in your assigned practice group who can serve as a primary point of contact. Check in with that person with some regularity. This will help you keep a pulse on what’s going on in your place of employment, and it will keep you in the forefront of the practice group’s mind. We know a couple first-year associates who were brought on before the 2008–09 deferral period ended because their practice group needed more new lawyers to work on a large deal.
Be sure to check with your employer before taking on other employment (paid or pro bono) during the deferral period. You don’t want to end up creating a conflict, or even having to discuss potential conflicts, when you start your new job. Use this time to make connections through professional activities. Time spent networking is rarely wasted, even if everything goes as planned and you’re able to start at your new place of work after the deferral period.
Finally, if your new employer gave you a deferral stipend, spend as little of it as possible. You don’t want to end up on the hook for the stipend if the job falls through.
Mental Health Support
We’re living in extreme times, and sometimes life gets to be too much. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or overly worried about employment, seek help.2 This can come in many forms. Talk to a friend, confer with a family member, or schedule an appointment with a mental health counselor. But don’t navigate the difficulties alone. Reach out.
We’ve found that most CBA members are compassionate people who want to help their colleagues. And this is generally true of bar members throughout the various states. If you need someone to talk to, call your state or local bar for assistance.
Don’t Just Take Help, Give Help
While you’re working through your job search or enduring your own deferral period, remember that some of your friends and colleagues are doing the same. So reach out to them and assist them in their search. Introduce them to your contacts, send them potential opportunities, and talk to them about their challenges and difficulties. In short, be a good friend. Helping others always benefits both the person helped and the person doing the assisting.
We hope these thoughts are helpful to you in your current job search and career development. If you need someone to chat with, please reach out to the authors at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re happy to discuss these issues with you.
If you’re interested in an advanced degree, we recommend pursuing your interests, whether that’s accounting, finance, business, Latin, or post-modern literature. You’ll be more likely to finish the degree if you’re deeply invested in the topic.