Monday, March 7, 2011

Young lawyers scrape to find work, internships

Taiyyaba Qureshi graduated from the law school at University of North Carolina -Chapel Hill last year bursting with ambition. She would soon be righting wrongs and improving people's lives. Her idealism knew no bounds.

But the job market had other plans. Nine months later, Qureshi is a lawyer without a full-time employer, the victim of a job market weakened by the recession. So she's cobbling together part-time assignments and has offered her fledgling legal expertise for free.

"We have this save-the-world complex, and we're so pumped and motivated," Qureshi said. "It's hard to reconcile the big ambitions with the reality that you can't put that dream into action."

The recession has hit law firms hard, experts say, particularly those tied closely to banking and other industries at the forefront of the economic collapse. The result has been a marked slowdown in offers for new lawyers and a dearth of the summer jobs that are critical for law students hoping to make initial contacts.

Though not totally immune to economic ebbs and flows, the legal industry has traditionally offered plenty of entry-level jobs to new attorneys. Many had work lined up long before graduation day, while law students often had their choice of summer jobs.

The recession changed the rules. Suddenly, government jobs dried up in the face of budget cuts, while private law firms scaled back or consolidated services and cut staff in response to lesser workloads.

"The law firm economics have changed drastically," said Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association. "You see major law firms disappear overnight. And as businesses and industries consolidated, so have their legal needs."

But these lean times don't mean there are too many attorneys, law school officials argue. Universities say they don't shrink enrollment when the job market tightens up, in part because of the lag time — law school takes three years — and in part because not all graduates become practicing attorneys.

"You're not just creating lawyers," said Linda Spagnola, North Carolina Central University's assistant dean for career services.

Some new grads are weighing whether to work for free in the legal field or find paying work temporarily doing something else. Though they need experience, many grads leave law school saddled with debt.

Qureshi feels lucky because she has no debt and her husband has a steady job. That has eased her stress over the past nine months, during which time she has done a two-month, unpaid internship and now earns $20 an hour doing part-time case work for two separate law firms.



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