Law students feel the pinch of recession


THE NEXT TIME you go into a restaurant, you'll have a good chance of being served by a new breed of starving waiter: the unemployed law student.

A local law school career counselor and a recruitment officer at one of Baltimore's largest law firms say opportunities for "summer associates," or interns have dwindled because of the recession.

And some law students are complaining that local summer jobs were awarded to blue chip Ivy Leaguers who were chased out of opportunities in their Northeastern cities because of lawyer layoffs.

"Certainly on campus at law schools the mood has changed -- there is a lot of anxiety and pessimism about the future," said Lujuana Treadwell, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a Washington agency that matches students at 170 law schools with jobs at 800 law firms.

Each year, about 35,000 law students graduate nationwide, Treadwell estimated. But starting last year, many graduates had difficulty finding jobs. Many had to scale back their expectations and take lower-paying positions.

This year, law students are feeling the pinch. When they applied last fall for summer jobs, many were told, "We're very impressed but try again next year," said University of Maryland law student Cheryl Roberts.

"A lot of people just gave up," said Roberts, who has taken a summer clerical job at the Walter P. Carter Center, a state psychiatric hospital. "For the first-year students, there are no jobs because of the economy -- a lot of firms thought they would get more for their money if they hired a second-year student."

In the golden days of the 1980s, summer law associates could command salaries as high as $1,000 a week.

Those summer jobs frequently were entrees into permanent jobs with high starting salaries upon graduation, but the recession has slowed the demand for lawyers. In many cases, summer jobs are going to young, unemployed attorneys instead of students.

"A lot of people are talking about taking alternative careers that -- you can use a law degree with," said Macgill James, 26, of Chestertown, who just graduated from the University of Maryland law school and is fretting about where he will find a job.

"I think luck's going to play a role. A lot of people are pulling strings and calling people and asking them to make calls for them. My salary expectations have changed considerably. With a law firm, I thought I could make $40,000 but if I go to work for a bank, I will get about $30,000. People don't feel sorry for themselves, because making $30,000 and not $40,000 is still good compared to the guy at Bethlehem Steel who loses his job and has a wife and children."

Grace Cunningham, recruiter for Venable, Baetjer and Howard, one of Baltimore's largest law firms, said she received 5,000 resumes and applications for summer jobs this year, compared with 3,000 last year. Many of this year's candidates were from out of town. The firm, which employs 287 attorneys in six offices, hired 26 summer associates, two fewer than last year, she said.

"Students are casting their nets wider and there is a lot more networking done this year," said Cunningham. "When we interviewed them last fall, students were very interested in hearing about the security of the firm. When before it was concerns about the quality of life and compensation, now they seem concerned about institutional security."

The job market is likely to remain tight, said Roberta Kaskel, assistant dean for career services at UM's law school. The problem is particularly acute for students who will have to repay expensive student loans after they graduate.

"On the good side, students are being very creative and looking for summer jobs in the private sector, with grants and at law school clinics," Kaskel said. "But this really came on hard and fast. People are worried and they are cautious."

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