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Investigating the Legal Job Market

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The law-job search begins with information-gathering. Assemble as much information about your areas of interest as possible. Unpredictable, but useful, information sources for the general job market in a particular locale are state and city bar association directories and journals. Investigate also your college alumni journals and placement offices, as well as alumni clubs in your cities of interest. You will probably focus on a certain part of the country or particular cities. Most cities contain the following general areas of legal practice: private law firms, corporate legal departments, government legal staffs, public interest organizations, and a judiciary providing clerkships.

Law Firm


The private law firm is the most prevalent source of employment for law students. Law firms can provide the best and the worst of law practice, often affording the new lawyer opportunities to work in numerous fields of law or to focus on a particular area of interest, but also often limiting drastically the new lawyer's scope of responsibility. A good source of information about law firms is the Martindale-Hubble service, the standard reference describing, for each state and locality, areas of law in which each firm practices, and the names, professional histories, and educational backgrounds of the lawyers in each firm. Most law firms and virtually all law school libraries and placement offices contain a set of Martindale-Hubble volumes.

Law firms vary in style and working atmospherics as much as individuals because a firm consists of individual people acting as lawyers. It is difficult to gauge the style and nature of a law firm until you join it. If you know lawyers working there who can inform you, find out from them as much as you can. Do not make a hasty choice based on only the prestigious name of the firm.

Name, however, is not insignificant. In most economic markets, among law firms of basic integrity, the bigger name is the better choice. It can bring you deference when working with outside lawyers and businesses and, in the same way, can help when you change employment. Often students shun a "name" law firm because "all big firms work too hard" or "I am too noble for that mercenary endeavor (money hunt)." Here's the bottom line: most law firms are similar in feel, because all engage in the practice of law. Most operate similarly, in terms of billable hours required, financial benefits, libraries, resources, personnel, working atmosphere, and office space. Because, however, most are similar, investigate carefully each major detail one positive difference could tip the balance. The best method of investigation is interrogating personal contacts either working with or at the firm.

A law firm is a knit (loose or tight) of lawyers with primary goals of making money and enhancing professional esteem. Secondarily, that group may believe in a collegial atmosphere and work together to create better, more efficient legal work. Usually, however, certain groups within a law firm litigation, trusts, antitrust, real estate are philosophically weakly linked. They develop personal client lists and greedily monopolize students' and beginning associates' time in disregard of the needs of their colleagues. A law firm is normally not a passive, compromising arrangement, but a movement in constant flux, causing confusion for students and associates, who have little power to direct their own daily course. A young lawyer is usually buffeted from assignment to assignment, from lawyer to lawyer, in the same day or the same hour, always in conflicting schedules.

That confusion is also a benefit for you. It is useful to learn the art of partner-balancing, of juggling the heavy balls of competing assignments, of smoothing over ruffled client feathers, of battling deviously for quick(er) word-processing help. A bigger law firm is not necessarily crazier than one smaller. Your personal satisfaction will likely hinge on the individuals you work with daily; therefore a law firm of any kind basically differs little from any other professional group.

Corporation

Corporate law departments are perhaps the fastest-growing law employers, mainly because private legal fees have escalated so dramatically that in-house counsel is less costly and provides, in some areas, more efficient service. The institutional nature of the corporation provides an atmosphere different from that of a private firm, and the nature of the attorney-client relationship corporation and not outside party as client lends a different perspective to the practice. The publications of Standard and Poor's and Moody's Investor Services describe activities of domestic corporations, their various departments, and their officers and general counsel. Additionally, individual cities and states often publish (through chambers of commerce or business and commerce associations) directories of corporations.

The Office of the General Counsel, the Legal Office, the Law Division are labels applied to a group of lawyers working within a corporation. Probably no significant differences exist atmospherically between a private firm and a corporate law environment. The chain of command differs in form, but the pressures are familiar.

You will never meet an independent client: "client contact" as such does not exist. Other corporate divisions are the clients. Your public image as a lawyer is not at risk in this environment. You must meet the same personal challenges, however. Greater ease of relationship and trust are achievable between the law sections and other corporate divisions than between a private firm and client. Lines of communication and efficacy are possibly more available. The resources of the client, including relevant documents and people, are closer at hand.

The variety of work is limited only by the business avenues of the company. As private-lawyer costs rise ever higher, all types of legal work relating to that business may be brought inside. Litigation matters, because they often require large staffing and space, are still mainly kept at private law firms.

You will find one glorious advantage here: "billable hours" do not exist (usually). Private firms charge by the hour and pressure you to run up large numbers of monthly hours, as a basis for the bills. The necessity of accounting for your daily time, perhaps in slivers as narrow as six minutes, is one of the most burdensome features of private-firm life. Corporate law divisions are part of the business in general, regulated by budget constraints. Their costs and benefits to the business are not measured in hourly segments. The same economic concerns plague the managers of all law departments and firms, but the beginning lawyer's concerns are far different. If you are less for a day or so, no one will know from computerized billing sheets. That petty-sounding concern assumes major implications at a private firm. Much time is spent strategically stretching assignments and hiding free hours. The ability to concentrate on substantive work and not the time spent doing it, strangely enough, is a major boon to you in corporate-office life. One possible disadvantage of corporate-law departments is the strictly pyramidal structure. A company will employ, titularly, a (Chief) (General) (Boss) Counsel, (Assistant) (Associate) (Deputy) (Underlying) Counsels, and many more lawyers who perform actual work. A partnership structure, in contrast, allows more people to share power and income, as partners. You may not be able to rise as quickly (or at all) through the ranks in a corporate setting because fewer good positions exist. At a corporation, paths tend to lead sideways into other areas of the business and out of the law department. That process is not necessarily bad, but you should consider whether you hope for a more orderly progression as a lawyer up the hill.

Government

State and federal government agencies, before the advent of today's fiscally conservative administrations, were ever stable and fertile areas of employment, maintaining youthful legal staffs. Following the federal government's general restrictive reorientation to hiring practices, federal agencies are today a more difficult plum to pick. For government agencies and organizations, every state publishes, through the Secretary of State, information about all agencies within the state's government system. The Congressional Directory describes, in addition to all offices and committees of Congress, federal agencies' functions and staffs. Martindale-Hubble contains a section on United States Government Lawyers. The Law Student Division of the American Bar Association publishes Now Hiring, a periodic guide to federal legislative, judicial, and executive branch entry-level positions, in Washington and regionally.

Federal and state regulatory agencies are often less restrictive in atmosphere than private firms and corporations and give more latitude and authority to beginning lawyers. Public budgets are relatively smaller, allowing fewer attorneys and requiring bigger workloads. Decision-making is less centralized, seemingly more ad hoc. Quick response is necessary from an agency lawyer who might deal with dozens of business applicants for similar advice or licenses, the circumstances of which differ widely. Salary levels tend to be a bit lower but fairly competitive with the private sector for the first few years.

Regulatory agencies are often free-wheeling work places. Resources are inadequate; secretaries are scarce and condescending. Hours, however, are usually not burdensome, unless you are a litigator that work involves endless document drumming. You might make policy, develop implementing regulations, or enforce government law. There can be in agency surroundings an air of power that is exciting. Those interesting aspects of legal practice are largely absent from private law practice.

These aspects exist also in state and federal legislatures. Positions on the personal staffs of state or Congressional representatives or on their legislative committees can be fascinating. That kind of work is not legal practice as most people recognize it. Certainly statute drafting or dredging up legislative histories on arcane subjects for debate have dull sides, but providing legal positions to a senator or a committee on important issues has its sharp corners. As in other public agencies, however, the amenities are few and the income not overwhelming.

Your client here is the relevant governing body, executive or legislative. As in corporate-law life, no outside client must be dealt with, although in many agencies your public image is important and molded daily, as it is not in a company. You will acquire a certain reputation because your work is out in the open. You are public every day.

Another benefit of public agencies is the opportunity to cultivate possible future employers. Young lawyers commonly spend a few years in the public sector and then move into private practice, bringing with them valuable knowledge of an agency's intricacies. You can set up that move by developing contacts who seek your aid in the public arena. Numerous businesses and law firms that work with regulatory agencies daily in a particular field will come across your work. Acquaintance-making in this way should be carefully nurtured.

Public Interest Organizations

Major cities abound with public interest organizations, all of which provide collective representation for specific public issues. Like government agencies, public interest groups employ many young lawyers, affording immediate front-line experience in litigation and client contact. The Center for the Study of Responsive Law, in Washington, DC, publishes Goodworks, which briefly describes numerous such organizations.

Public interest organizations are generally not-for-profit. They include "pure" public interest outfits, like the Sierra Club, government-funded groups like public defenders, and legal assistance firms. Trade associations are odd amalgams, pushing goals of large sectors of society, but often comprising many companies within a single industry that share private-sector goals.

Public defenders and prosecutors face off adversarially. Although it might be logical that they would work at times along the same lines, the higher stakes of criminal law force them far apart, philosophically and emotionally. Federal Defender offices, which exist in many cities at the district-court and appellate-court levels, handle "higher-class" crime (mail and wire fraud, interstate drug transactions) than state offices. When you enter detention centers to interview your client, it is more pleasant(?) in federal than state surroundings, and your client may be so, too. Lawyers as defenders are a tough lot that turns over quickly. You won't win often because, especially at the federal level, prosecutors use extensive investigative resources to build cases and bring to trial only those they feel certain of winning, to enhance their chances for political careers. Defenders follow a noble calling but burn out rapidly. Prosecutors have a necessary calling, and certainly nobility of purpose exists, but the position lends high visibility and attracts a lawyer with that in mind.

Legal aid/legal assistance firms are usually funded by state or federal government for the purpose of providing legal service to indigent people. You will learn a basic broad general practice, taking everything that walks in the door. You will become a quick thinker and reactor, adept at compressing result-oriented work into tight time frames. The practical aspects of the law business will be second nature, propelling you far ahead, on this level, of contemporaries in private practice. The money stinks, however, and budget cutbacks threaten thoroughly this interesting avenue for young lawyers.

Analogous to legal aid firms are a number of privately owned legal-services firms, phenomena of this decade. This general practice approach attracts the "man off the street" who can afford relatively low-priced stock legal work. These firms will grow in prospect for you in the next years, as costs of traditional tailored law work escalate. You will become familiar with varieties of civil and criminal law work and have more client contact than you want, but because the client charges are so low, you will not be able to devote as much time as desirable to individual problems. You and standard computer-software generated legal forms will be fast friends. This is steady employment, however, with decent money.

Trade associations are located mainly in the District of Columbia but exist wherever regional interests are sufficiently strong to demand local representation. Chicago, for example, is a center for health-related associations. Trade associations represent every conceivable interest and employ increasingly large numbers of lawyers to act in legislative and litigation capacities. Columbia Books, Inc., Washington, DC, publishes National Trade and Professional Associations of the United States and Labor Unions. You will perform much varied work at many associations. Real-party-in-interest and amicus litigation is possible, as is effort to modify executive and legislative policy. Unfortunately too present are research and writing duties for trade and academic publications. Association work is useful, but get out after a couple years.

Judiciary

Judicial clerkships represent a different type of job opportunity. A clerkship involves strictly research and writing. Federal appellate court positions are regarded most highly and are most competitive. State courts tend to favor clerks from law schools in their own states. A clerkship, probably more than any other postgraduate job opportunity, depends on law school numbers grades, law review, published writing, highly ranked law school, excellent job history, excellent faculty recommendations, etc. Apply by the end of your second year, for a position beginning after your third year. Many judges still peculiarly expect a chosen applicant to accept automatically the offer, without debate or time for comparison with other offers. A source of information about federal judges is the United States Court Directory, published by the Administrative Office of the United States, in Washington, DC. The Secretary of State of each state publishes a directory, mentioned above, that describes the judiciary.


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