New lawyers, few jobs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you were inventing a lawyer to join a state's attorney's office, how could you improve on Donald Bost?

Mr. Bost's credentials appear impeccable, from his solid law-school grades to the prestigious, post-graduate clerkship he landed with Judge Robert L. Karwacki of the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Then there's Mr. Bost's familiarity with the criminal justice system, acquired over 11 years as a Baltimore police officer.

But applications to Maryland's 13 state's attorney's offices yielded no job offers -- and only one interview. So, Mr. Bost has returned to his police job, his future as a lawyer uncertain.

"I get a lot of puzzled looks and inquiries [from other officers]," Mr. Bost, a University of Baltimore Law School graduate, said recently.

"I simply tell them I haven't found the type of work that interests me."

Mr. Bost's predicament is far from unusual. Throughout the country, quite a few newly minted lawyers are finding their job searches slow and demoralizing.

Nationally, 11 percent of new graduates are unemployed six months after they leave school. A full 30 percent are not working in full-time legal positions, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the National Association for Law Placement.

Once, new graduates held out for the best jobs at the most prestigious firms. Now, almost any legal work is considered good work.

"There are a few people who still are super picky, usually people who can afford to be -- top 5 percent of their class or law review," said Valerie Vadala of Attorneys Per Diem, a Baltimore firm that helps to place law graduates in temporary legal jobs. "But most just want a job. It's amazing, they'll take very little money to get one."

Unable or unwilling to wait for scarce legal jobs, many graduates are looking elsewhere. Some worked in other professions while attending school. Now, they're clinging to their careers as nurses, engineers and journalists.

For those who moved on to law school straight from college, options also can be slim. As many law firms continue to shrink, fewer are hiring entry-level lawyers. Those who cannot find work must improvise. It's not unheard of to find an attorney working a cash register at the supermarket.

"I assume there are lots of lawyers out there with part-time jobs tending bar and waiting tables," Ms. Vadala said. "Many don't want to discuss that."

Ms. Vadala's specialty is finding assignments for new lawyers. For those with less than three years' experience, she says, prospects are limited. The same is true of graduates who did not finish in the top third of their class, another Attorney Per Diem official said.

"It breaks my heart. A lot left lucrative jobs to go to law school," said Ms. Vadala. "Now they're unemployed and in debt."

Mr. Bost was fortunate not to have given up his day job. After taking a year's leave from the Police Department to complete his clerkship, the 35-year-old husband and father of two had his assignment waiting in the city's Northwestern District.

For others, the transition from law student to job applicant has been more jarring.

Saddled with $40,000 in law school loans, David Masci took a job as a sales clerk at Nordstrom in Bethesda.

He works three days a week in the boys' department, a job he says provides generous benefits and pays $10 an hour.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Mr. Masci's days off, he tends to a fledgling law firm he launched recently.

For now, Mr. Masci's office is a revamped bedroom in his parents' home in Kensington.

He hopes to develop the firm to the point that he can afford space in an office building. Already he is attracting business. Several of his first clients are his co-workers at Nordstrom. Mr. Masci has written a will for one and handled other routine matters.

Quitting the department store isn't in his immediate plans. But plans sometimes change, as Mr. Masci well knows. When leaving law school, he says, he never pictured himself in solo practice, much less working as a salesman.

"It's a good job to just to bring in money," said Mr. Masci, who graduated from the University of Maryland last year. "It beats throwing up packages for UPS for $8.95 an hour."

Some employers are busily recruiting new lawyers. But the jobs aren't in the legal field.

Locally, Prudential Preferred Financial Services, a company that sells life and health insurance, is trying to add lawyers to its sales force.

Since July, Prudential has been advertising for sales associates. Its ads encourage applications from lawyers.

Ellen Nusgart, the insurance company's human resource director, said Prudential hopes to woo a few lawyers who are tired of the legal grind.

Of the company's 12 sales associates locally, two are lawyers, she said. The ad campaign generated calls from another 14 lawyers.

"Lawyers like a professional work environment and they're looking to make a lot of money," Ms. Nusgart said. "We think it's a good fit."

Some lawyers accept nonlegal jobs, hoping their degrees will lead to promotions or qualify them for positions in a company's law department.

Lynn Bentancourt, a University of Baltimore graduate, answered blind newspaper advertisement for an insurance company. It turned out she'd applied for a job as a claims adjuster for State Farm.

Ms. Bentancourt was impressed with the company, and accepted the job. Her $32,000 starting salary isn't close to the $60,000 or so that junior associates can earn at Baltimore law firms. But Ms. Bentancourt isn't concerned. She didn't want the 90-hour workweeks that firms expect of their beginning lawyers.

"This is a long-term career that allows me to have a life," Ms. Bentancourt said.

Mr. Bost, the police officer, concedes that he is picky. He has applied for several dozen jobs with state and federal offices. But he has limited his search to positions as a prosecutor.

"It's a natural, based on my background," Mr. Bost said.

He won't consider applying for jobs in private practice.

"I really don't want to set foot inside a firm," he said, laughing. "It's not for me, the daily pressures of bringing in new business and the like."

But Mr. Bost is a patient man. Until the right job appears, he said, he'll remain with the Police Department. Now, he is assigned to the midnight shift at the Northwestern District.

That leaves ample time during the day for job interviews -- just in case.

"They all promise to keep my letter on file," Mr. Bost said. "So, you never know."

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