Recession and Attorneys and Law Firms and Economy and Law

Challenging job market trips up new attorneys

July 10, 2010

Delivering pizzas and moving furniture isn’t what Greenwood attorney Justin Cook thought he’d be doing once he earned a law degree.

Although he graduated from Ohio Northern University College of Law in May 2009 and learned in October he passed the Indiana bar, the 28-year-old is just now starting what he describes as a “real job” practicing law. Before that, he took whatever came his way.

“My graduation was the most anti-climactic achievement ever because I had to come home and start studying for the bar here, and then I was looking the best I could for a job since late last year,” Cook said.

Justin Cook Cook

His search paid off in May, when five months of non-compensated work finally evolved into a paid position that used his legal skills. He’s consulting with a Zionsville solo practitioner, a part-time role he hopes to parlay into full-time work.

“With the market and economy the way it is, it took quite a while to develop any type of relationship to get paid to do anything,” he said.

The same reality applies to Cook’s graduating classmates and many of the hundreds of recent graduates from Indiana’s four law schools.

It’s a tough time to be starting in the profession when established lawyers struggle to keep up their practices and client lists.

For Cook and his classmates, the reality check came just before they obtained their law degrees in 2009: Their valedictorian learned the law firm where she had planned to work had yanked the offer and left her without a job.

“Everybody wakes up a little bit and starts to see the reality that, ‘Just because I made it through law school, that doesn’t mean anything except that I have enormous debt over my head,’” Cook said.

While he was searching for a legal position, Cook said, a high school friend got him a job delivering furniture for a few months to pay bills. He was fortunate to have had the chance to live with his parents.

Cook said he thought for a while about starting his own practice. But the costs of doing that and maintaining his own insurance were too high, he said, and limited his options.

Thirty-three-year-old Indianapolis attorney Shawn Richter, who graduated with Cook, also had no luck finding an attorney’s job during law school or once he passed the Indiana bar.

Richter is a non-traditional law student who completed his undergraduate studies at Indiana University after spending two years on active Army Reserves duty.

When a job as a lawyer failed to materialize, Richter returned to clerking for Johnson Superior Judge Kevin Barton, for whom he clerked during the summer after his first year of law school.

Judicial clerking was all he could find, even though Richter said he continued his job search in full force.

“I found it to be exhausting as I lost opportunities several times because of budget cuts or the large amount of unemployed lawyers with experience gunning for the same jobs,” he said.

That led him to explore state and federal positions, mostly because he had a family to support and needed benefits such as health insurance.

Large firms pay well and offer benefits, but allow little family time or the flexibility he wanted, he said, while small firms offer more time but usually offer lower pay and fewer benefits.

After about seven months of searching, he started a position early this year as an administrative law judge with the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. He mostly hears unemployment appeals at hearings in Indianapolis.

“It’s a nice job that offers a lot of flexibility, good benefits and great opportunity for advancement while helping out honest folks in need,” he said. “So, it all worked out in the end. But it was tough going for a while.”

Some of their other classmates had contacts during law school and carried on clerkships or internships to get in the door for a job post-graduation, Cook and Richter said.

One of their fellow graduates took a position with a family friend who runs a practice in Greenfield, and that enabled him to get started quickly. But those types of opportunities aren’t as common as they were when the market was better.

Cook said he was lucky enough in December to find a solo practitioner who was willing to take the new attorney under his wing. Now, Cook handles elder-law matters—something he finds more fulfilling than criminal cases or even regular courtroom work.

He’s not yet working 30 hours per week. But the Zionsville attorney agreed to put Cook on the insurance plan, and he gets consulting fees working on estate planning and asset-protection issues.

“I’ve seen enough in DUIs and divorce cases to know that, as lawyers, at best you’re fixing a crisis,” he said. “That’s not as rewarding for me because you don’t know that people are happy with my work. Elder law is different; there are smiles and people are happy.”•

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