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Litigation is up, corporate and transactional work is down. The old reliables - tax, bankruptcy, labor and employment - are holding their own. And the nearest bet for a sure thing in today's market is intellectual property, particularly if you have the technical background and training to qualify as a patent attorney.
All that said, several leading legal recruiters say law students are best advised to decide what type of law they really want to practice and stick with it, regardless of industry trends when they graduate.
The corollary to that recommendation is that students should be flexible enough to consider positions in firms or locales that might not be their first choice, but may be the best route to long-term career satisfaction.
Plotting a thoughtful course through today's rapidly shifting legal currents may be even more important, based on employment statistics for the law school class of 2001. The National Association for Legal Placement (NALP) reported that employment rates for new law graduates declined in 2001 for the first time since 1993.
Granted, the 90 percent employment rate was still good, and much better than the 84 to 85 percent range of the early and mid-'90s, but the 2001 decline from the 91.5 percent of 2000 may signal a trend in light of recent law firm retrenchments.
The decline, however slight, reflects a change in the legal supply-demand equation. The sagging economy, the collapse of the dot-coms and the lingering effects of 9-11 have slowed legal hiring.
Layoffs have put a number of experienced attorneys back into the job market. As a result, the leverage has shifted to law firm hiring managers, who can now be more selective and take a harder line on salaries and perks with prospective new associates.
"Things change overnight in some markets and oftentimes kids get caught in a transition period," said Melba Hughes, owner of Hughes Consultants legal recruiting firm in Atlanta. "Employers in much of the '90s had to bite their tongue and were very open to increases and hearing about expectations, decreases in work schedules, etc., but that's not the case so much any longer. In the '90s, employers went deeper in the [graduating] classes, but they don't have to do that now."
Private practice remains the most popular selection for graduates. That avenue drew 57.8 percent of 2001 grads, a slight increase over 2000 but within the 55 to 58 percent range that has prevailed since 1993.
Public service jobs - a broad category that includes military and other government jobs, judicial clerkships and public interest positions - accounted for another 27.6 percent of jobs taken. Employment in business was 11.3 percent, down slightly from 12.5 percent in 2000.
Of major metropolitan areas surveyed by NALP, Palo Alto, Calif., was by far the biggest hot spot for private-practice choices - 98 percent of the 251 jobs taken by the class of 2001 in that city. Other big private-practice markets included Dallas (80.3 percent), San Francisco (73.1), New York City (72.4) and Houston (71.1).
Not surprisingly, Washington, D.C., was the leading market for public service jobs, at 37.1 percent. Other hotbeds of public interest employment were Indianapolis, Ind., Minneapolis-St. Paul and Miami, all at over 30 percent of legal jobs.
Minneapolis-St. Paul was a top place to find a judicial clerkship, with 20.9 percent of all jobs taken falling into that category. Boston and Philadelphia were even better in terms of total clerkships, although they represented a smaller percentage of all legal jobs taken there.
Perhaps due to the sagging job market, the number of J.D.s electing to pursue graduate degrees was 2.4 percent - a relatively small percentage, but the highest rate identified by NALP in nearly 20 years of tracking the total.
Some observers have pointed out that the gross employment statistics for law school graduates may be misleading, in the sense that they do not necessarily reflect legal employment. NALP's report, however, does show that 75.9 percent of the respondents were employed in jobs for which bar passage was required. Another 6 percent took jobs that listed a J.D. as preferred.
If there is a sure thing for a practice area in today's legal employment market, it is patent law. Intellectual property in general remains strong, but a J.D. with sufficient scientific or technical background to pass the patent bar holds a strong bargaining position.
Grantedi Birchfield, senior managing director of the Los Angeles office of the nationwide recruiting firm of Major, Hagen & Africa, said patent attorneys are in high demand. "But you either have that undergraduate technical degree or you don't at this point, although there are law students who have that degree and may not have thought about it," she said.
Bradley Wright, an intellectual property attorney with Banner and Witcoff in Washington, D.C., and a law professor at George Mason University School of Law, agreed that intellectual property as a whole has weathered the dot-com demise well. He also cast his vote for patent law as a sub-specialty.
"We have seen the number of patents issued and the number of suits filed regarding those patents increase," Wright said. "Attorneys who have experience in industry or an engineering background are in very high demand. It's a very interesting area of the law - in the I.P. world, especially with the Internet, there is new legislation and new technology coming out all the time."
Wright added that the average starting salary for new patent attorney associates is the magic $125,000, and that schools with good I.P. programs have extremely high placement rates.
Susan Robinson, associate dean of career services at Stanford University School of Law, also championed intellectual property.
"I.P. is definitely still hot - not the high-tech business so much, but pure I.P. - patents and that sort of thing," she said. "Students with a technical background or a science degree are in more demand."
Bill Sonne, CEO of the Alexander and Sterling recruiting and consulting firm in New York City, said that if he was choosing a field of law as an associate, he would pick intellectual property.
"Particularly if I had a technical background," he said. "Over the last 15 years, intellectual property has held out. There would be even more litigation today if companies could afford it."
NALP statistics revealed that government, nonprofit public interest and military positions accounted for 16 percent of jobs taken by 2001 grads, with government positions making up the vast majority. That segment of the market appears to be more stable and less affected by economic cycles.
"The opportunities in public interest law and government are really consistent," said Lisa Taylor, an attorney with the Department of Justice and former president of student members of Equal Justice Works (formerly the National Association for Public Interest Law). "The difference between government and nonprofit public interest groups is that nonprofits have less resources. I think public interest is growing. I see a lot of lawyers branching off from the government and developing their own nonprofits to take on a lot of issues that haven't been addressed by the usual suspects."
Mary Birmingham, assistant dean for career services at the University of Arizona College of Law, said government opportunities may be on the rise.
"I think there will be large growth in the next few years - the state and federal freezes will be lifting, I think - particularly in the federal government," Birmingham said. "It's a great way to start, especially if you want to specialize in a particular area."
Once the "what" has been determined, students must consider where they want to practice it. In the present climate, there do not appear to be any geographical areas that are notably hotter than others, but there are some that seem to be cooling or leveling off. Major, Hagen & Africa's Birchfield and Stanford's Robinson agreed that the bursting of the high-tech and dot-com bubble hurt West Coast hiring, particularly in the San Francisco Bay.
Alexander and Sterling's Sonne agreed. "The East Coast seems stronger than the West Coast, based on partnership activity," Sonne said.
Robinson noted that recruiters from the Washington, D.C., area seemed more prevalent at Stanford this year, while New York City law firms had a smaller presence than normal. Arizona's Birmingham said the Phoenix and Tucson markets seem to have flattened and are holding stable.
While the major metropolitan glamour markets may seem more attractive, there may be a bigger payoff elsewhere for grads more interested in learning their craft than handing out a prestigious business card. Hughes said job seekers should, above all, be flexible.
"I would not necessarily look to the traditional places - big cities - to increase my opportunity of getting a very meaningful first job," Hughes said. "I encourage law students to consider a broad geographic area. To the best of my knowledge, there is no hot geographic area right now."
Although Aaron Williams, president of Aaron Consulting Inc., a nationwide attorney recruiting firm in St. Louis, Mo., characterized the current legal hiring market as dead, he said it's not all bad news.
"Don't get me wrong, there are jobs out there, and you want to go with the highest quality environment you can get your hands on," he said. "But don't worry about where it's going to be - you can always move later in your career."
While intellectual property and its patent law pacesetter were the popular consensus as to today's hot practice specialty choices, each of the experts consulted had other picks as well. All agreed that litigation is much more promising these days than corporate legal work, although several cautioned that the trend is likely to be cyclical and shouldn't necessarily factor into long-term career planning.
Sonne said bankruptcy workouts and reorganizations are benefiting from the recessionary economy, anti-trust litigation should be a growth area, international trade offers a bonanza to the limited number of firms who specialize in it (particularly in China and other Asian markets) and tax is always reliable.
Birchfield characterized bankruptcy, labor, employment and tax as steady areas. She added that if a student's more general choice is between a corporate and a litigation position, he or she should always stick with what appealed to them most in school.
"Perhaps you got re-directed into corporate and now that's dead, but it's three years later and very hard to go back to the litigation you really wanted to do out of school," she cautioned.
Hughes cited bankruptcy, employment and commercial litigation as promising areas. She also suggested that this might be a good time to put off the decision for a few years until economic indicators improve.
"If I were a law student today, I would look at a wide variety of employment opportunities," Hughes said. "Those would include government opportunities or clerkships, which would give the person an additional couple of years for the economy to turn around before making a decision."
Arizona's Birmingham also included tax as an old reliable, but said in her view, business transactional work has definitely fallen off. She said one group of students that are particularly in demand is foreign students or attorneys who come to the United States to earn an LL.M. in international trade law.
Virtually all agreed, however, that choosing a legal specialty is similar to choosing any other career - or a mate: It's best to make up your mind what you like and do your best to make it come true.
"I never recommend trying to time the market," said Aaron Williams. "Be passionate about what you want to specialize in and stick with it. If you want to be a litigator, be a litigator. Don't chase the money - there's a risk and reward factor for everything."
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