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The Legal Job Marketplace

published January 25, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 4 votes, average: 3.9 out of 5)
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Who has not heard that there are too many lawyers? Part of the reason that the legal job market has continued to expand may be attributed to the increasing complexity of society and the concomitant demand placed upon it for legal solutions to problems.

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The job market for lawyers has expanded as lawyers have moved into non-traditional but law-related fields. Although lawyers have always worked for trust departments, title companies, accounting firms, and educational institutions, the interest in the legal talent from these other quarters has mushroomed. Interestingly, the rapid increase in legal salaries among large New York law firms was fueled by competition for legal talent with investment banking houses during the heyday of mergers and acquisitions practice.

Because the job market has fractionalized over the years, there is not one job market for lawyers today, but many. The job market for lawyers entering private practice may be the predominant market, but it is not the only one. All this makes job hunting significantly more complicated, although ultimately it means more opportunities for more people.
What are the prospects for now? Is the job market infinitely elastic?

There is evidence that certain segment of the market already may have become saturated in some geographical areas and some areas of practice. There is also evidence that the increased size of the profession has increased competition and reduced law firm profitability.

This means that less successful practitioners may be driven from the market because they cannot make a living practicing law. In addition, the market may contain an underbelly of marginal practitioners and underemployed young lawyers.

Aside from the question of how the legal profession should deal with these developments, there is a more personal question of how you should cope. Some individuals, who have difficulty finding a job, may use the job market glut as an easy excuse. The reality is, however, that despite many problems you can find a job. The simple answer is to plan carefully and remain flexible. Beyond doing homework, however, you must have confidence that hard work and competence will pay off in the end.

Note that there is a difference between naive doggedness and savvy dedication. More than a few lawyers have learned the hard way that long hours and blind loyalty do not assure success. In these volatile times, a constant self-awareness and sensitivity to the external environment are prerequisites to long term success.

The following sections briefly describe some of the more important job markets for lawyers. They represent jumping off points rather than final words on the topics covered.

Private Practice

The broad heading of "private practice" encompasses work in organizations that provide legal services to clients, from sole practitioners to firms of over 1,000 lawyers. Within this category of law firm employment there are numerous variations, such as small, medium, and large firms, as well as sole practitioners. Given such diversity, the advantages and disadvantages of each group must be assessed separately. Each private law office, however, is an entrepreneurial venture and it must be profitable to be viable.

Small Firms

Small firms of two to ten lawyers often attract graduates who hope to avoid the pressures and impersonal demeanor of larger firms. The small firm also has lure for those who are tired of the problems and inconveniences of urban life, and prefer living in small towns or rural areas. Whether or not this is an attractive option for you will depend on several factors. Whereas some individuals might consider small town life to be appealing, others might feel stifled by the lack of cultural opportunity or professional recognition. Clearly, the type of legal work that you would handle in a small town would differ markedly from the work you could expect in an urban setting.

Many small firms are not able to specialize because the available clients require a more general service. Generally speaking, smaller firms lack adequate resources to sustain a specialized practice. Some small "boutique" firms, however, have successfully achieved such narrow specialization.

Just as it is difficult to define a small firm by size, so is it by organizational structure. A small firm may be a true partnership with a written agreement. Or it may be a handshake partnership, often resting on a longstanding and well-understood relationship. It may be a group of sole practitioners sharing offices and such expenses as secretarial assistance, libraries, and legal assistants, with each practitioner keeping his or her own clients and retaining fees on an individual basis.

There are two special aspects of small firm recruiting that students often fail to address. First, it is often essential for the candidate to be admitted to the bar. The potential for full utilization of the lawyer from the first day of employment is often a vital consideration, so do not be surprised if you are not a viable candidate until you have passed the bar exam. That is an economic dictate, not a rejection of you personally.

The second consideration, one that both you and the employer share, is the high degree of visibility in a small firm. If you and your colleagues are not compatible, there is no back room in which you can hide. Being aware of this fact, small firms are extremely careful in their selection of new lawyers. You owe yourself the same carefulness.

The very closeness of a small office, however, also provides distinct advantages for a graduate. Because of your high degree of visibility, you will meet clients earlier than you would in a larger office.

As you prove capable, you will receive additional responsibilities. It would be a mistake to make generalizations about small firms without knowing specifics. Young lawyers whose professional goal is intellectual stimulation sometimes assume that it can be found only in very large firms. They eventually may realize they have misjudged the situation when they spend time in the real world.

Sole Practitioners

In the professional use of the term, a sole practitioner is a lawyer who practices entirely alone with only secretarial or legal assistants in the office. As soon as an associate lawyer is added to the office, the lawyer cannot be said to be practicing alone. This situation becomes confusing because of office sharing arrangements, and work for space agreement.

Hanging out a Shingle

Some brave souls would argue that the most effective way to achieve valuable experience in actually practicing law is to plunge into private practice immediately upon graduation from law school, and hope that experience will indeed be the best teacher. This has both rewards and inherent problems, both of which should be given careful consideration.

One answer may be the rise of institutional law firms that offer more jobs than in the past. Why have more and more lawyers chosen to practice in larger and larger firms? And what lawyers are more likely to be happy as individual practitioners than as employees or owners of a law firm? First, large law firms have grown up to meet the needs of clients. Individual practices serve individual clients. Larger business organizations frequently have a large volume of complex legal problems that cannot be dealt with by a single lawyer. A very large firm essentially serves the legal needs of very large corporations. Smaller firms serve smaller business entities. It is no accident that more of the lawyers whose work involves representing individuals choose to practice by themselves.

A second factor that has promoted law firm development has been economics. Economies of scale work in the legal services industry the same way they do in other businesses. The economical practice of law more and more requires the use of sophisticated equipment, which represents a substantial capital investment for a sole practitioner. Overhead has taken an increasingly large percentage of firm profits in recent years for all firms, but the bite is particularly painful for individual practitioners.

A third factor is specialization. The renaissance lawyer is dead. Lawyers increasingly must become experts at one, or at most a few areas of law. In order to offer potential clients a full range of legal services, it is increasingly necessary to bring together a group of lawyers with different specialties in order to have a full service law firm.

Some law school graduates are more likely to succeed opening a practice than others. Desire and determination are not the controlling factors.

Probably the most apparent factor in succeeding as a solo is competence. Although competence is difficult to define, it is clearly more than legal knowledge. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct define competence as "sufficient knowledge, skill, preparation and thoroughness to adequately represent the client." It is often said that when you pass the bar exam you know more law than at any other time in your professional life. Yet, those contemplating solo practice often express fear about their competence. This fear may be rooted more in the absence of necessary skills to practice competently than the lack of substantive legal knowledge. When you practice alone, you can look up the law if you are unsure of something, or associate with another attorney if you lack expertise. But knowing how to handle a case, run an office, and collect your fee are much more elusive skills which are generally not taught in law school.

The prospective solo practitioner should have experiences in two distinct areas: running a small business and working in a small law firm. The principles of running any business are similar, and the skills transferable from one experience to another. If you lack business acumen built upon practical experience, you should be wary of opening a law office. You also should have experience working

Opening a law practice may be a legitimate career option for some people, but a disaster for others. Entering a solo practice right out of law school should be an affirmative choice and not a selection of last resort. For the right kind of person, however, hanging out a shingle remains as a viable option.

Medium and Large Firms

The patterns of practice at larger firms have been well documented in a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Some discussion concerning the recruitment practices of very large firms, however, may be helpful.

These firms recognize that their continued growth and vitality depend upon the recruitment of highly capable people. Consequently they undertake sophisticated recruitment programs that include on-campus recruiting, deadlines for offers, a careful selection of schools for maximum potential results and the use of recruitment coordinators.

Large firms are aware that they must hire far more associates than can possibly be expected to become partners. Such firms, however, are also aware that the training they provide and the standards they require are such that those who do not attain partnership within the firm are sought after candidates in other firms.

Larger firms tend to provide greater opportunities for specialization, and also, of all the legal jobs, it is probably the large firms that provide the highest initial starting salaries, and provide not only a sense of security but also a chance to practice law with other attorneys who are generally quite competent, and therefore able to provide the benefit of valuable experience.

The problems of being an associate with a big firm cannot be overlooked either, and in recent years these problems have been a source of increasing concern to law school graduates who want freedom in both the hours they work, and the kind of clients they handle. The decision is a difficult one, and the advantages and disadvantages must be weighed carefully.

Medium-sized firms are in a sense transitional organizations. When a firm reaches a size of about 10 lawyers, it begins to become institutionalized: it hires more regularly; it departmentalizes; it becomes more structured administratively. Such a firm will become more and more like a large firm as it grows, even though it may try (usually unsuccessfully) to retain its small firm attributes.

Business Organizations

The number of attorneys employed by a corporation will vary widely with the size and type of the corporation. Many smaller and some larger corporations farm out all their legal problems to private law firms. Many others have in-house counsel for only certain matters. Other corporations have a legal staff large enough to handle most legal problems in-house.

In a small corporation an attorney may have responsibilities other than the legal affairs of the business. An increasing number of corporations are seeking young lawyers to handle legal problems and assume management duties, as well. If there is a legal department or a full-time lawyer employed by the corporation, the individual is often referred to as the general counsel.

Some corporations hire lawyers outside their regular legal departments. Oil companies typically have exploration or land departments totally distinct from their legal departments. Some companies hire attorneys in tax departments, in research and development, and in other capacities which require an ability to deal with the law.

The starting salary in corporations tends to be higher than small firms but less than the highest paying large firms. Also, an attorney's first year in a firm may necessitate working 60 or more hours a week where a corporation may follow a typical 8 a.m.-5 p.m. schedule. Finally, the fringe benefits and working conditions are often more generous in a corporation than in a firm.

In business, as in government, many management decisions such as those involving the number of lawyers and salary ranges are made outside the legal department. Top leadership has relatively little turnover, so variations in form and procedure remain relatively stable.

Once again, however, there is a wide range of opportunity, depending upon the nature of the legal work of the individual organizations. Although form and structure may be dictated by outside forces in both government and business, each legal department nevertheless has a unique personality formed by the individual viewpoint of the general counsel and senior staff of the department.


The tremendous variety of work found in private law offices is not nearly so evident in government employment. Many of the miles, not to mention the budget, are decided upon by a legislative body rather than those within the immediate office. Differences among government agencies depend upon the scope and jurisdiction of each agency. For example, work in a district attorney's office will provide early exposure to criminal litigation, while work in the Office of the General Counsel of the Environmental Protection Agency offers exposure to environmental litigation.

Federal Government

Opportunities with the federal government are as varied as the department themselves, and the departments are as varied as the problems facing the country today. For almost every facet of American life there is a government agency designated to deal with it. Within this framework, the opportunities for employment are virtually endless.

The diversity of activities within the broad scope of "government service" necessitate the careful investigation of each individual department, as each is a unique entity with its own particular advantages and disadvantages. The same person who would not be at all interested in dealing with laws of consumer protection and anti-trust law with the Federal Trade Commission, or the Tax Division of the Justice Department might enjoy dealing with the problems of rural America in the Department of Agriculture.

Although many would criticize the federal government for its "bigness," this is, in terms of employment, not always an accurate perception. Each department retains a certain degree of autonomy and self-sufficiency with a group of people all working in the same general direction within a department, whether it be admiralty, tax, transportation, communications, anti-trust, banking, patents, communications, labor, or an almost infinite list of other possibilities.

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Your placement office may collect pamphlets and brochures from many of these different agencies. Some federal agencies interview on campus, but you must contact the majority of them directly.

State Government

For graduates seeking jobs with state agencies, the road to employment may seem strewn with obstacles and at times impassable. A plethora of agencies exists in each of the fifty states. In many states there is no centralized organization or bureau, such as the U.S. Civil Service Commission, which coordinates the hiring of personnel. Yet, despite this, it is possible to traverse the course and find the way to gainful employment.

Local Government

Jobs with governmental entities below the state level are often hard to find because there are so many potential places to look.
District, County, and City Attorneys' offices often hire recent graduates. In larger cities, these offices have regular openings as well as more coordinated hiring policies.

There are also many opportunities in fields such as land use planning, utilities law, etc., in departments within city government and in special districts (e.g.—water, school, regional planning). Local government agencies are more likely to recruit from the local bar than to solicit applicants from law schools. Since there is no comprehensive list of such local government jobs, you should discuss your plans with a member of the placement staff for personal guidance.

Military Service

Each branch of the military service has its Judge Advocate General's Corps or equivalent. The salary, benefits, and relative security of military life may be attractive to many graduates.

Significantly, the military services represent one of the largest employers of law graduates in the country, and despite the fact that the military legal system is different from the civilian one, military legal alumnus testify to the excellent preparation for law practice that they receive.

Judicial Clerkships

Because of the unique opportunities judicial clerkships offer, these positions are prized not only for their current value but also for their worth in providing valuable experience for future positions. Because clerkships are of limited duration, they are not generally considered as career paths in and of themselves but as gateways leading to future career options.

Perhaps more than any other type of legal position, a clerkship, interns of the quality of the experience, is strongly related to the personality and values of the judge with whom it is served. Rare is the judicial clerk who does not find the experience a rewarding one.

An increasing number of students are taking advantage of opportunities to serve as clerks to federal as well as state judges. Former clerks almost always remember their days working for the judge with fondness, as a time of growth and learning and often an opportunity to develop a close relationship with another person. Clerking may not be the ideal job for everyone, but if you think that you might be interested, you should begin to investigate the possibilities early. When preparing the application, remember the criteria that a judge is likely to use: reputation of the law school, academic record of the applicant (practical employment experience may compensate for lack of journalistic endeavors), and personality of the applicant. To avoid becoming lost in the endless pile of resumes, try to arrange an interview with the judge. Some judges select their clerks without conducting personal interviews, but you should make every effort to schedule a face-to-face meeting anyway. A follow-up thank you may well provide a valuable reminder of who you are.

If you are interested in learning something about what a law clerk will be doing, it might be beneficial to contact graduates presently clerking or talk to a faculty member with fairly recent clerking experience. Many placement offices offer programs on what to expect and how to apply for clerkships.

Several members of your faculty undoubtedly have very good contacts among the judiciary. If there are judges you are particularly interested in, you may request faculty members to write a personal letter on your behalf. On the other hand, if you are sending letters to a large number of judges, it may not be wise to ask faculty references to send out mass recommendations.

Federal Courts

Federal judges may be contacted by writing to them at the United States courthouse in the city where their court is located. A listing of federal judges is available in the front of each bound edition of the Federal Reporter.

A clerkship for the court of appeals tends to involve less action and more scholarship than a clerkship for a federal district court. A major portion of an appellate clerk's time is consumed in research and writing. When a case comes to the court of appeals, most of the routine questions already have been ironed out in the district court, and the difficult questions are left for the appellate court to consider. Thus, the appellate clerk is afforded an opportunity to study fewer questions, but more in depth.

The range of legal problems encountered in a federal court of appeals is quite wide. A sampling would include habeas corpus, criminal law and procedure, labor, administrative procedure, tax, admiralty, antitrust, securities, bankruptcy, civil rights, poverty,

Social Security, and welfare.

In addition, because of the federal court's diversity jurisdiction, a federal court encounters the normal range of common law matters, including contracts, torts, and occasionally real property matters. The clerk always attends oral argument, and therefore learns a great deal about what to do and what not to do, as a lawyer presenting a case orally to a judge.

While an appellate clerkship does not offer much direct contact with trial practice, it does provide opportunity to pick up a great deal of information about trial practice from the study of trial records which are always included in an appeal. By reading all the motions and pleading filed in the trial court, and studying the trial transcript, the clerk learns how to prepare a record for appeal.

The duties of a clerk for a federal district judge are somewhat different and quite varied. Individual judges utilize their law clerks a valuable adjunct to the judicial decision-making process.

State Courts

Although much of the attention at law school is placed on federal judicial clerkships, at least in part because the faculty considers such appointments prestigious, every jurisdiction has a system of state courts that utilizes judicial clerks to some degree. Some states only provide funding for clerkships at the appellate level. Others offer trial court clerkships just like the federal system. In either case, state courts offer an excellent opportunity for graduates interested in judicial clerkships, but who may not be successful finding a position in the highly competitive federal system.

The procedures for applying to judges at the state level are similar to those in the federal courts, although the specifics will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The timing for applying to the state courts is generally, but not always, later than for the federal courts. If you are interested in a state court clerkship, consult with your placement director or the court administrator in your state.

Administrative Courts

Students who want clerkship experience should also consider opportunities in the administrative courts, including the Tax Court, Court of Claims, Court of Patent Appeals, to name a few. The number of applications for these positions is often less then for the regular courts because not as many students think about them, but you should keep the administrative court in mind as one of the possibilities for clerkships.

Academic Positions

A relatively small number of law school graduates enter academic positions as teachers, administrators, librarians, or editors. The ranks of academic lawyers increase somewhat for experienced lawyers. These positions, however, retain an aura of exclusivity and appeal to many, in part because lawyer career satisfaction surveys have found this group to be the most satisfied in the legal profession.

Law Teaching

Law school teaching tends to be very exclusive, and entry into this profession, difficult. Although this varies from school to school, recent graduates are invariably law review editors, number one grads, U.S. Supreme Court clerks, and the like. For those not so fortunate as to possess these credentials there are two basic ways to find a position.

The first is to develop expertise or recognition in some field, to be considered a leader in that field. This recognition typically takes ten years or so to gain, but not necessarily.

The second is to do graduate law work at a school which has a program oriented toward teacher training, like NYU, Harvard, Columbia or Yale. The better programs have seminars on teaching law. You also have the opportunity to continue to write and develop your professional area. Many schools use LLM candidates to teach the first year legal research courses.

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) sponsors both an employment register and an annual recruitment conference. If you are interested in law school teaching, however, you should speak candidly with your dean or a member of the faculty about your chances.

Teaching Law-Related Subjects

Teaching legal subjects extends far beyond teaching in law schools. Universities and colleges, community and junior colleges often offer legally-related courses like business law, jurisprudence, individual rights, paralegal training, law enforcement, and others.


Many lawyers assume responsibilities in the areas of educational administration, student personnel administration, financial aid, placement, admissions, and legal advisement for school districts, colleges and universities, as well as law schools.

The administrator, even though he or she does not actively practice law, is called upon almost daily to deal with legal questions. In areas such as equal employment opportunity, educational privacy rights, and countless others, legal training is invaluable.

Law Librarianship

Continuing accumulation of court decisions, rapid expansion of government regulation at all levels, and new legal problems caused by social change have produced a need for legal information management specialists. Law librarians must possess both knowledge of and management skills regarding the materials that are the lawyer's basic tools. Computer science, too, is having an impact upon libraries, both in management and research aspects of library service.

Law library positions exist in courts, bar associations, law schools, international agencies, law firms, government offices, and businesses. The American Association of Law Libraries also has a guidebook on careers in law librarianship as well as information about placement assistance.

Public Interest

The term public interest means many things to many people because there are many visions of what constitutes the public interest. Traditionally, public interest positions include legal services programs for indigents, and the law reform activities of civil rights organizations. In recent years, the definition of public interest law has broadened to include private associations with broad social or political agendas, as well as special interest groups.

Private Associations

Citizens in the United States in recent years have begun to view the law as a vehicle for promoting the public interest instead of a tool of special interests. Or one could say that new special interests have evolved to represent groups that have not tended to use the judicial system to protect their rights in the past. No matter which view one takes, the fact remains that more people than ever before are getting involved in the legal process.

Just as in legal services, public interest law may involve legal advice and representation or law reform. Groups may secure someone in a law firm to represent them, hire a staff counsel, or rely on volunteers to handle their legal work.

Lack of government support, tighter foundation budgets, and economic woes on the part of ordinary citizens have combined to make good-paying jobs in the public interest field scarce and competition fierce. But for persons willing to make the commitment, the need is there. It is exciting to view the significant numbers of good law students who find the problems impossible to ignore.

Non-Traditional Alternatives

Increasingly, traditional types of practice are to be found in areas that have not employed lawyers in the past. Among these new employer groups are such organizations as foundations, labor unions, trade associations, bar associations, universities, consulting firms, and other organizations that have found that having a lawyer on staff is sound business.

The phenomenon of lawyers in non legal positions emerged without fanfare. Apparently it grew out of the need of business and industry to have people with legal training in strategic positions, where potential problems could be spotted long before they became major issues.

For example, an advertising account executive with legal training can alert management and the agency's counsel that certain ads under preparation pose probable legal problems long before they reach media distribution. A contract administrator with legal training can more easily spot the failure of a supplier to meet contract specifications long before expensive problems and delays develop.

The first group of non legal jobs includes that broad category of things we generally term as business. The most logical place to go to get information would seem to be a business school placement office. This is both true and untrue. First there are a number of areas where the law school has some information. Secondly, business placement offices may be unwilling or unable to assist law students.

As in the case of legal jobs, there is an over representation of corporate giants, conglomerates, and so on, forcing those who would choose a small business enterprise to look on their own.

Some of the areas in which law students have expressed an interest include the following:
  • Accounting
  • Banking
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Insurance
  • Business planning
  • Management
  • Real estate
  • Securities
  • Titles companies
  • Systems analysis

There are many non legal government positions for which legal training would is an asset, including federal, state, and local positions. Federal jobs can be investigated through the U.S. Civil Service Commission and the U.S. Government Organization Manual.

For state employment, try to contact a placement office in that state or write the governor's office. Due to the myriad of local governments and special districts, local jobs must be researched individually. Government-related work includes:
  • Research
  • Land use planning
  • Police work
  • Administration
  • Politics, campaigning

Communications is yet another area where lawyers are apt to do well with their verbal and cognitive skills. In fact, a perusal of the biographies of famous authors will show that a significant number were or are attorneys. Here, as in the education field, specialized training may be necessary. Communication includes:
  • Advertising
  • Creative writing
  • Journalism
  • Law-related publication
  • Radio-Television
  • Film

The graduate who pursues a non legal path, however, must realize that there may be no return. As non legal skills are acquired, and as the distance from day-to-day legal practice increases, it becomes virtually impossible to match current earnings with salary levels of law graduates in their first positions.

Professionally speaking, it is back to square one. There are exceptions, but no return remains the general pattern for non legal careers.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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