Katy Hopkins

In the midst of one of the gloomiest legal employment climates in history, a top research analyst warns: The worst is yet to come for some law students and recent graduates.

Though official statistics will not be released until next May, the class of 2010 is likely to have lower raw employment numbers than the class before it, says Jim Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement. The employment for the class of 2011 will likely also be "very compromised," he says.

"The Class of 2012 will be the first class for which we might see some kind of uptick in employment," Leipold says. "I'm not making a prediction that it will recover in 2012; I'm saying it probably won't recover much before then."

A recent NALP study found the class of 2009 had an 88.3 percent employment rate, an elevated statistic due in part to temporary jobs and school job programs that offer grants and other stipends for work.. The classes of 2010 and 2011 may see a lower rate because firms look to hire years in advance, Leipold says.

Law students interview for large law firm summer programs in August just before their second year of school. This is a make-or-break time, Leipold says, because scoring a summer position is often still a fast-track to a job after graduation Law school graduates without previous ties to a firm face an even tougher employment market, as only 3 percent of firms in 2009 reported recruiting third-year students who had not been summer associates, down from 25 percent in 2008, according to the NALP report.

The 2010 and 2011 classes faced a narrowing window for summer opportunities, as law firms drastically scaled back or cut their programs entirely. This summer, close to 25 percent of firms have canceled their programs, Leipold says.

At the Houston office of Baker Botts, a 750-member law firm with 13 locations worldwide, the summer program was cut by more than half to better fit the office's future capacity, according to hiring partner Cristina Rodriguez. There are currently 27 summer associates, down from 67 in 2008, at the global firm's largest office in Houston.

"It's an inexact science...but we have just really tried to calibrate what we're doing to what we perceive our needs are," Rodriguez says. She expects next year's summer program to be about the same size.

Theoretically, since students in the class of 2012 will interview in August for programs next summer, more opportunities could be available, Leipold says.

"This was the most difficult year that I've seen in 20 years," says Paul Mahoney, dean of the University of Virginia law school. "Our students were successful given the challenges that they faced, but they had to put much more effort in than they would have had to in a given year."

For more seasoned legal professionals, recent studies show the job outlook may be brightening ever so slightly.

In a telephone survey of lawyers at 200 firms, 33 percent said their firms will increase hiring this quarter, according to placement firm Robert Half Legal. Fifty-eight percent of lawyers said their firms will not hire, and 2 percent of lawyers said their firms plan to cut back in staff.

And 300 jobs were added to the legal sector in May, according to the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics employment report released on June 4. But the small boom does little to offset the 1,600 jobs lost in March and April combined, and the thousands more jobs cut over the past year and a half.

"The short answer is: [The job climate] is better than last year, but it's still very, very problematic," says John Jameson, founder of the Southern California-focused partner recruiting firm The Jameson Group. "At this point, firms have cut most of the fat."

Jameson says the market for senior-level lawyers with books of business has remained high, though partner decisions now face more careful scrutiny. And although he doesn't specialize in associate placement, Jameson says he has been getting some calls from firms looking for younger lawyers as well.

"Last year, I would say that the associate market was dead and buried," Jameson says. "This year, they're digging out of the grave. We are seeing firms looking to bring in associates on a very limited basis."

And for the sector as a whole, Labor Department reports over the past few months showed a gradual slowing of job losses before May's first employment uptick, Leipold says.

"We need to see more than one month to call it a trend in terms of job gains," he says. "But it's better than job losses."

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