When Studio Arena closed its doors amid a financial crisis in 2008, Audrey Herman, a production assistant with the theater’s stage department, went to law school. She figured it would be a stable career.
Herman soon realized she’d entered a field where stability was increasingly elusive.
With firms cutting back on hiring due to the economy and law students aplenty, new law school graduates continue to face tough competition for limited positions.
“We have seen much more applicants available to us – very-well credentialed applicants,” said David McNamara, managing partner at Phillips Lytle. “It’s very much a hirer’s market.”
Additionally, firms have reduced the number of summer internships they offer and increased hourly positions rather than traditional salaried, partner-track positions. And when they do hire, they often seek lawyers with two or three years of experience.
Herman started her job search during her first year at University at Buffalo Law School. She took internships and became active in local legal organizations. When she graduated in 2011, she landed an hourly position at Gibbons and Stadler in Buffalo.
“At no point did I get a job offer as a full attorney with full attorney pay. That never came,” said Herman, now 34. “I started working hourly. If there was work, I worked. It was as-needed, so when there’s nothing for me to do, I didn’t work.”
At least Herman was able to practice. Some new lawyers don’t get that opportunity.
“I definitely wanted to practice as an attorney, but this is where I find myself,” said Kelly O’Brien, who graduated in 2012 from UB Law School and now works in compliance management for local banks.
During her third year of law school, she sent out 250 resumes and got no response.
“You’re not only competing with UB law grads, but also people from NYU and other schools who want to come back to Buffalo,” she said. “You work hard, and the jobs are not there. It’s really frustrating. If you think someone is just going to hand you a great job making $120,000, it’s not like that anymore.”
UB Law School’s placement rate for 2012 was 86 percent, with a large proportion of graduates landing at small to medium-sized firms, said Lisa M. Patterson, the school’s associate dean for career services.
“Our placement rate has tracked with and almost always been higher than the national rate year over year,” Patterson said.
Patterson said the rate has dropped since the boom year of 2007, when it was at 93.5 percent and the national rate was 91.9.
She said forecasts call for the legal job outlook to improve.
While some firms have reduced staff, some are still hiring. Phillips Lytle added 13 lawyers in 2013.
It has seen growth in certain areas of its practice and continues to hire lawyers to fill positions. And with the abundance of qualified candidates, the firm sometimes has difficulty choosing, McNamara said.
“We’ve maintained hiring levels throughout the recession,” he said. “Our business has held up pretty well.”
Michael McCabe, a Western New York native and a 1998 Yale Law School graduate, is one of the Phillips Lytle’s new hires. He started in September. McCabe, who was a federal and state prosecutor for many years, began his job search in the summer. He only applied to Phillips Lytle and was hired within a couple of weeks.
“It was fairly straight forward,” he said. “I was working at the Department of Justice before I came here, and I was looking to broaden my legal skills.”
Harris Beach hired eight attorneys statewide during the past two years, including an associate who will be starting this fall in the Buffalo office, said Brad Townsend, managing partner of the Buffalo office. He said the firm has always attracted top-notch grads.
Herman is now a salary lawyer at Gibbons and Stadler, with a full case load, focusing mostly on family law.
O’Brien, 30, has worked as a compliance officer at First Niagara Bank and was recently hired as a compliance manager at M&T Bank, which is a promotion, she said. In her positions, she’s been able to use her legal and analytical skills. And with her focus on finance and corporate law, her alternative career is still in line with her degree, she said.
“I have a great job, and it’s a higher step up, career wise,” she said.