Let's call her Nancy: a young woman with driving ambition who belongs to California's lost generation of lawyers. Despite impeccable credentials and an exemplary work ethic, she is a post-2008 law school grad who remains entirely unable to find any legal job, to say nothing of a coveted position at one of the state's largest legal firms.
For many recent graduates, a job in "big law" was the dream that brought them to law school in the first place. Tempted by both high pay and the prospect of representing marquee clients in highly complex legal disputes, theirs was a well-trodden career path that came with a lot of hard work and considerable debt - but could still pay off handsomely. However, since the Great Recession, that payoff has failed to materialize.
Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. Nancy, a first-generation American, is bright, articulate, and self-possessed. "As far back as I can remember, I wanted to become a lawyer," she told me. And everything about her résumé says as much. As an undergraduate at UCLA she was president of the school's pre-law society. After graduating cum laude, she moved on to a law school in the Los Angeles area where she did everything she was supposed to: She was a dean's scholar and sat on the moot court board. She clerked. She volunteered at the district attorney's office. Then, starting in her third year, Nancy sent out résumés to hundreds of firms, and she contacted every one of the 130 firms that interviewed students at her school. She didn't receive a single job offer.
How is this possible? The numbers tell at least part of the tale. Since 2008, the nation's 250 largest law firms have shed more than 10,000 lawyers. The numbers also show that law graduates in the class of 2011 suffer from the highest unemployment rate of any class since 1994. According to the ABA's 2011 Law School Employment Summary Report, after nine months only 45 percent of graduates from California's 20 accredited law schools had secured a full-time, long-term legal job that required bar passage. Moreover, just 5 of those 20 schools saw a majority of their 2011 graduates employed in such jobs, and at only 2 - UC Berkeley and Stanford - did 80 percent or more land long-term legal jobs.
I'd love to be able to say that the worst is over. But it doesn't look that way at all.
And in the scramble for scarcer jobs, minorities, immigrants, and first-generation professionals are being hit especially hard. (From 2008 to 2011, according to the professional advocacy group NALP, the share of black associates at big firms dropped from 4.75 percent to 4.29 percent.)
Commentators speak of the legal industry's permanent transformation, how going forward there simply won't be as much demand for attorneys in the United States. At the same time, applications are way down at law schools across the country, and more than a few are downsizing in response.
Who's at fault? Law schools have been accused of obfuscating the employment rates of their alumni and misleading applicants about their chances of professional success. Pundits complain that the government has made education loans too available. Law firm partners are blamed for striving to maximize profits at the expense of the next generation of attorneys they would in other times hire and develop. Even law students themselves are said to be naive, or taken with a false sense of entitlement.
None of this, however, takes us even one step closer to a solution.
So what is to be done? First of all, law schools must become more conscientious gatekeepers to the profession. This means telling applicants up front what their eventual job prospects are. It also means teaching students more real-life lawyering skills than they've received in the past.
For their part, would-be lawyers should think twice before even applying to law schools. The legal profession can be noble and rewarding. Yet it is also demanding, and not immune to the same economic forces that have thrown so many other industries into turmoil. Law school hopefuls should apply because they want to become lawyers, not because they can't figure out what else to do - and especially not because they see it as an easy path to a lucrative career.
Law firms, in turn, must take steps to ensure that meaningful opportunities to compete for these scarce jobs are available to individuals who traditionally have been underrepresented in our profession, such as minorities, women, immigrants, and first-generation professionals. Beyond their own hiring practices, firms should also support nonprofits and other public service organizations that can provide coveted job opportunities to the next generation of California's lawyers.
Systemic reforms can repair and conserve the legal profession. But Nancy and her contemporaries are naturally preoccupied with more immediate concerns. When I asked one 2008 graduate from a Northern California law school whether she was embittered by what she described as her "nightmarish" job-hunting experiences, she said: "No. I'm mostly hopeful that someone will give me a chance." And then she repeated, almost in a whisper to herself, "All I need is a chance."
Litigation partner Dan Grunfeld co-heads Kaye Scholer's Los Angeles and Palo Alto offices. Formerly a top policy advisor to LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, he also was Public Counsel's president and CEO.