And there's a law of supply and demand

February 09, 1992|By Norris P. West

The Maryland Bar Association calls these the worst of times for young lawyers and law students.

Sharon L. Tasman is convinced.

She ranks in the top 20 percent of her class at the University of Maryland School of Law. She has studied law in France, and she's an assistant editor of the law review. Her undergraduate grade-point average at UM was 3.9, out of a possible 4.0.

In ordinary times, her biggest problem might be deciding which offer to accept. Not in 1992.

"I've sent out 400 resumes. Literally, 400 resumes," she said recently between classes. "I've had 340 flat-out rejections, 50 firms have told me they'll keep my resume on file. At this point, there are 10 others I haven't heard from. I've had three interviews -- no job."

Ms. Tasman and other third-year students are stunned at how rapidly the job market has deteriorated since their legal studies began in 1989.

Students at their school use black humor to camouflage their disappointment, events such as parties celebrating 500th rejection letters. They say law firms that once sought people from the top half of their class are limiting their choices to the top 10 percent.

Ms. Tasman said she has contacted every firm in Maryland, Virginia and Washington that does work in labor, high-technology, copyright or international law. Now she's thinking about areas of the law that don't excite her as much -- or about moving to another state.

"When I started law school, never in a million years did I think it was possible that I wouldn't have a job at this point, especially with my being on the law review and being in the top 17 percent of the class." she said. "It's really, really, really, really bad."

Janet Stidman Eveleth, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Bar Association, said the recession has hit the legal profession hard. It's not just a case of cutting back on hiring; many firms are laying off young associates. Usually, it takes about seven years for an associate to make partner in a law firm. Those who have been there four or five years are finding themselves without jobs."

The bust comes after a legal boom in the 1980s, when the demand for lawyers and law school openings was fueled by corporate mergers, real estate deals and even a popular television series, "L.A. Law." In Maryland, the number of legal professionals has risen sharply in the past two decades. According to the Clients' Security Trust Fund of the Bar of Maryland, the admission of 1,038 people to the state bar in December drove the number of attorneys to 21,638 -- the most ever, and nearly quadruple the 5,500 lawyers in Maryland in 1968.

Law students elsewhere evidently are faring no better.

"What I hear is that students, even at Ivy League schools, aren't getting their first pick of jobs now," said Tracy A. Giles, chairman of the American Bar Association's student division.

Mr. Giles said that bankruptcy, environmental and public-interest law are virtually the only areas of the profession still growing, and that just about every geographical part of the country is experiencing cutbacks.

Roberta A. Kaskel, assistant dean for career services at UM Law School, said that she realizes students are panicking, but that she reminds them most major employers of lawyers don't start hiring until March, April and May.

She acknowledges, though, that the profession is changing.

"We may not yet have come to terms with the fact that the 1980s were an aberration and that the legal profession in the future may look more like it did in the 1960s and 1970s," Ms. Kaskel said.

She also said she encourages students to network with attorneys rather than rely on mass mailings, which she called the least effective way to land employment. Even then, finding a firm or organization that is hiring will prove difficult.

David W. Skeen of the Baltimore firm Wright, Constable & Skeen says that unlike some larger firms, his medium-size firm of 25 lawyers has not laid off people. "Unfortunately, I can't say that we're going out and hiring, either." Despite the atmosphere of uncertainty, second-year UM law student Jeff Lippman said he believes that most graduates eventually will find jobs. "They find themselves having to look a little harder," he said.

He also said he remains optimistic that prospects for lawyers will brighten by the time he's ready to graduate in 1993.

Sue Roche, 24, a first-year student at UM, said she still believes enrolling in law school was a good decision. "I think there's a need for good lawyers," she said.

Mr. Lippman and Ms. Roche raise the possibility of working in public- interest areas of law. Another option is seeking work as a judge's law clerk.

That seemed like a good move to Deborah Kravitz, now serving a one-year clerkship for U.S. Magistrate Deborah K. Chasanow in Baltimore.

"I think it makes me a more valuable employee, but there's not an active market looking for people in my situation," Ms. Kravitz said.

Elizabeth A. Jung, who graduated last May from Catholic University Law School in Washington, considers herself lucky to be working as a paralegal at the federal public defender's office in Baltimore.

She has tried without success to find work in Washington, where she lives. "The competition is there without the problems in the job market, so I knew I would be up against measurable competition," she said. "But I didn't think it would exclude me from working as a lawyer totally, which it has done."

She said she spent $2,000 to send 40-page writing samples to judges for a law clerk job in Washington before she landed the paralegal position. And she wouldn't dare complain about the daily commute to Baltimore.

PD "I would have driven to Mexico, for that matter," Ms. Jung said.

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