With legal market in flux, job seekers require creativity

BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS

As the leaves change and October ripens, the job hunting season has entered full force. But in the last year, the legal world, much like the rest of the economy, has undergone a major upheaval. Frozen credit markets halted the flow of the commercial transactions that have been the lifeblood of many large firms, and the result has been a tight contraction in their workload and hiring needs. Combined with the acceleration of the interview process affected by the introduction of the Early Interview Program, the dearth of available jobs has put HLS students in an unexpected position of entering this October uncertain of their job prospects. With as much as 20% fewer interviews conducted on campus and call-back results that are rumored to have been unsatisfying, many are being forced to construct back-up plans on the fly.

The first group affected was the rising 3L class, many of whom entered the summer confident of their position having already been hired at a law firm or public interest organization where they would accept employment after graduation. To the shock of many, highly qualified students returned from the summer with no offer of future employment, not because of their own failure to perform, but as a consequence of a general aversion by firms to a further backlog of incoming labor. Many of these outcasts from the private sector have turned to government service as an alternative career path. For those who remain dedicated to work at a law firm, changes in the nature of the legal profession promise to make the job market extremely challenging.

According to Prof. David Wilkins, Director of the Program on the Legal Profession, hiring at law firms is a lagging indicator of the economy and will likely remain depressed until associates at firms are pressed to capacity. But even once macro-level growth presses the legal market out of its slump, hiring practices will likely change to reflect the growing trends of outsourcing and the use of contract attorneys to complete routine tasks. “As companies and firms disaggregate legal tasks and send commodity work to other providers, that will reduce the need for Harvard Law School graduates,” Wilkins said, adding that the pay structure at firms will likely shift away from lockstep compensation of associates toward a competency-based system. He says that this will be a response both to the internal pressure at firms to reduce salary costs and the external pressure from clients to provide the lowest possible billable rate for a job.

In the short-term, job seekers will be under pressure to develop a creative strategy and to enter the next stage of the process free from doubts and negativity. The Office of Career Services advises students to look beyond the major markets and traditional private sector track and to pay attention to every application and every opportunity for networking. Mark Weber, Assistant Dean for Career Services, has warned that the bar for applicants has been raised this year, and firms will be looking to understand how each prospective hire can bring value to their organization. The OCS website has been bolstered with numerous webcast programs aimed at specifically addressing the needs of students that are changing their employment strategy in mid-course, but OCS advisor Jennifer Perrigo encourages students to come into the office and talk to the staff. Overconfidence in one’s state of preparedness or negativity about the course of the job search process can ruin an applicant’s opportunity to make a good impression with a prospective employer.

 

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