California Bar Journal
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Uptick in job outlook for lawyers
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Jameson said his firm, The Jameson Group, recently experienced a more significant demand for associates. He estimates that he received more calls in February than in the past six to eight months combined.

Bob Major, of Major, Africa & Hagen also senses an "uptick" in California. "It may be wishful thinking," he cautions. But he sees the economic indicators as heartening. And recently, he said, he has seen a fairly steady flow of new in-house clients. That, Major says, is "always a very, very important barometer of the economy."

Major and others also are quick to point out that law firms have not stopped hiring. While corporate associates may be out of luck, litigators, bankruptcy attorneys and intellectual property lawyers are still in demand.

And the market is strong, recruiters add, for partners willing to jump ship and bring clients with them. Firms are requiring a larger amount of portable business these days, some say, and are often seeking a group - a team of partners and associates - that fit into their future strategy. But given the economic climate, recruiters are finding some partners more open to switching firms now than they were during the boom.

Consultants and recruiters see similarities between the recent recession and the economic downturn of the early 1990s when law firms cut back dramatically. But this time, Jameson said, "you find the firms trying to react much more thoughtfully . . . . A lot of firms tried not to do layoffs if they could avoid them."

In the mid-1990s, when the market turned around last time, firms had far too few associates to meet their clients' demands. And when the technology boom hit, it was a "double whammy," Caravello says. "Law firms were turning away clients because they didn't have the associates to service their needs."

Caravello recalls that she could easily have placed 65 qualified corporate associates - if she had had that many candidates - in good jobs immediately in those days. But, she said, "the point is, no one had them."

These days, however, Caravello has plenty of highly credentialed, qualified corporate associates looking for work. "I think the hopes of a quick recovery have pretty much been dashed," she said. "As a result, people who have been holding on are seeing their severance packages dwindle out. I'm noticing a trend of more associates being open and willing to consider areas beyond their niche specialty."

She's seeing flexibility in salary demands as well. "What I'm hearing among the associate ranks is that everyone seems to be very flexible when it comes to compensation," she said. "Most would be quite thrilled to get a job with a great firm. It's very devastating to have worked so hard academically and professionally and to find yourself dumped out in a market with very few job prospects."

In the Los Angeles area, recruiter Joan Fondell of Russo & Fondell still sees "tentativeness" in the associate job market. "The market is still a little bit of start, then stop, start, then stop," she says. But she and others agree that Los Angeles is faring better than the Bay Area.

What Fondell also is seeing, however, is a convergence of highly qualified job seekers from northern California, New York and Los Angeles all "hotly" competing for the same pool of jobs in the Los Angeles area.

Her partner, she says, used to repeatedly point out that "you can't pry people out of northern California" for a job in Los Angeles. "But now, with the market having changed, you have people in northern California ready to leave at a moment's notice," Fondell says. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, she also has seen shaken New York attorneys - those with ties to California - seeking to move west.

There are some relative havens in the economic turbulence. Large, traditional, full-service law firms have held steady because of their diversity and, in some cases, their global practice platforms, consultants say. Some smaller and mid-sized firms may actually be well-situated these days to benefit from the current glut of job-seeking attorneys and a pool of potential clients with trimmed-down budgets. And forced into exploring alternatives, some laid-off attorneys, too, have found unexpected opportunities in the downturn.

 Take attorney Micah Jacobs, for example. The depressed economy actually led him to realize a dream. Laid off from Cooley Godward in August, Jacobs opened his own practice - Jacobs & Ferraro - with attorney Eric Ferraro.

"The layoffs, while disappointing initially, helped me see that it was the end of a seven-year apprenticeship at the large firms," he said. "It provided me with the skills and background necessary to succeed."

A graduate of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, Jacobs worked at two large firms before moving to Cooley in the spring of 2000. And while he wasn't privy to the firm's decision-making process, he suspects that his recent arrival at Cooley helped prompt his layoff. "Up until the end, I had good feedback frm the partners I was working with," he said.

Still, he credits Cooley with being "very open and honest" about the financial reasons for the layoffs. "They made it clear to the community that they were letting go some good lawyers," he said.

Before Jacobs opened his own practice, Ferraro, whose background includes working as outside counsel for a number of large and small businesses, briefly tested the waters as a solo practitioner.

"The economic climate actually provided numerous opportunities for us," Jacobs said. "What we've primarily noticed is that there seems to be a need in the business community for smaller firms that can provide big-firm experience and expertise at more reasonable rates."

And in light of the sluggish economy, Jacobs and Ferraro were able to find office space in San Francisco at a reasonable rate.

After working at large firms for nearly all of his career, Jacobs says he has come to realize "that they are just one small part of the legal community. Unaffected by the technology bust were small firms and medium (-sized) firms whose business remains steady."

Currently, Jacobs & Ferraro's workload involves business litigation, trade secrets, securities fraud and the potential filing of a large consumer fraud action. Even Cooley Godward, Jacobs' former employer, has sent some some work his way.

"I would hope someday to be in a position to refer work back to Cooley and to work with them," he says.

Hindi Greenberg, founder of "Lawyers In Transition" and author of the "The Lawyer's Career Change Handbook," says the opportunity to reflect and consider alternative choices does, in some cases, prompt displaced attorneys to find more fitting and fulfilling careers. These days, Greenberg has found herself working with more laid-off, once highly compensated attorneys who don't want to change their career focus. She often finds it necessary, she says, to give them a "reality check."

What Greenberg believes will happen now is what she saw happen in the 1990s. "There will be people who will be coming out of law school who will take any job they can get be-cause the market is tighter," she said. "They won't necessarily have thought out whether this is the right job or practice area or firm for them. And then three or four years later, they'll stop and go: 'What am I doing here?'"

At Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, Graham Sherr, assistant dean for career services, has seen signs of the economic downturn in the large firms' summer associate programs. Firms typically hire as many second-year summer associates as they envision hiring on a permanent basis, but that did not happen this fall. "They sent people back to school without offers," he recalls. 

Hiring decisions, in some cases, took longer than usual. "I had students sort of hanging in the wind," he said.

At Boalt Hall School of Law, Joanne Karchmer, director of career services, has noticed a "heightened anxiety" among first-year students, and has seen an increasing number of laid-off alumni - most of them out of law school for five years or less - until just recently.

And while the same law firms showed up on campus this fall to recruit would-be attorneys, she saw less interest than usual in the third-year students. The situation was better for second-year students, she said, but the overall number of summer associate positions still declined.

Karchmer said Boalt has "stepped up outreach to smaller and mid-sized firms, especially through our alumni that have been in practice for a long time." She sees it as an opportunity for such firms to hire from a great pool of third-year students and highly qualified, now-laid-off alumni.

What she has noticed lately is that the number of newly laid-off, job-seeking alumni seems to be leveling off - and may be turning around.

Caravello says she may finally be seeing some signs - though very small - of an upturn. She notes that she has plenty of litigation openings. And just recently, she was able to place two transactional attorneys in the same week.

"I don't think that I'm going to be deluged with openings in the next two or three months, but I have talked to some law firm clients who think things will pick up in the summer," she said. "Of course, everybody said that last summer."