Shrinking market concerns attorneys

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Matt Blanchard’s competitive spirit as a college football player shows – he’s taking on the legal world by himself in a job market still reeling from the nation’s economic downturn.
“I just always wanted to help people,” the 26-year-old Guntown native said about why he decided on law school.
His new office on Jefferson Street is just a stone’s throw from the Lee County Justice Center, where trials are waged and legal documents are stored.
Since graduating from the University of Mississippi’s law school a year ago, he’s looked for a job, despite intern experience with the district attorney’s office and a clerkship at an established Oxford firm.
Enough waiting, Blanchard’s decided.
May 1 he put out his law shingle and rolled up his sleeves to his life’s dream.
“I always knew I wanted to have my own practice,” he admits.
Now he does.
Roughly 45,000 students are expected to graduate from U.S. law schools across each of the next three years.
When the U.S. economy tanked in 2008, the country lost more than millions of manufacturing and retail sector jobs. Legal firms lost customers and began what the rest of corporate America saw as necessary – they downsized.
Even once-secure law-firm partners were sent packing.
In recent years, many lawyers and law professors have argued that the legal market will either stagnate or shrink as technology allows more low-end legal work to be handled overseas and as corporations demand more cost-efficient fee arrangements with firms.
So, how does that affect law schools, where these legal careers begin?
Cary Lee Cluck, acting dean of admissions at the University of Mississippi’s School of Law, says applications are down nationwide about 14.5 percent for a variety of reasons.
In the South, she said applications are down about 10 percent with Ole Miss off about 7 percent.
“I think students are choosing to go into other graduate programs,” she notes, “and they’re taking a hard look at the cost compared to what their post-graduate incomes will be.”
National Jurist magazine lists the Ole Miss law school among its Top 60 Best Values nationwide. The ranking takes into account in-state tuition, debt and the percent of graduates employed nine months after graduation, in addition to bar-exam passage.
Traditionally, Ole Miss’ law school accepts about 25 percent of its applicants. This year’s 1L, what the freshman class is called, will be 155-165 strong, down from the 175-180, Cluck says, because of the faculty’s desire to take fewer students.
Mississippi’s other law school at Mississippi College in Jackson also reports plans for a smaller first-year class this fall.
The latest information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while legal employment is one of the smallest sectors – less than 1 percent of the total workforce – it’s also one of the highest paid.
Wage estimates show the lowest 10 percent earning $54,120 per year, while the top quarter earn more than $166,000 per year. BLS’ latest reports also show incremental growth in the number of legal jobs from 2007 to 2011.
Legal jobs range from law firms and government to corporate settings.
Nationally, the District of Columbia reports the highest concentration of lawyers at 45 per 1,000 jobs, compared to Mississippi’s 2.69 per 1,000. D.C. also reports the highest mean wage at $161,050, compared to Mississippi’s $96,170.
In Northeast Mississippi, the concentration is less than one lawyer per 1,000 jobs – 0.45 – compared with 1.11 per 1,000 jobs in the Jackson region.
Law school observers predict the biggest fall-off in applications for schools with rising tuitions, concerns about crushing student loans and bleak job prospects.
Many would-be attorneys are asking themselves if it’s worth the money.
Blanchard admits he picked Ole Miss because his debt would be relatively low – about $60,000 for the three years.
Latest reports by U.S. News ranks Yale Law School No. 1 at $52,225 a year and all schools in the Top Five at more than $47,000 a year. Columbia Law School at No. 4 is highest with $59,902 tuition per year.
Ole Miss’ tuition is $11,283 per year for in-state students while Mississippi College in Jackson charges $29,150 for everyone.
Bar involvement
Job-market concerns aren’t just issues for students and their law schools.
Last January, a committee of the American Bar Association adopted proposed changes to require law schools to post far more detailed consumer information on their websites than they are required to now, including bar passage rates and employment outcomes for graduates by job status and employment type.
Full ABA approval is required before this change becomes policy.
Kristin Flierl, director of Law Career Services at Ole Miss, says her office works with students and alumni seeking jobs.
“Our approach to the job search remains fairly standard in good and bad economic times,” she said recently. “Finding a job involves preparation, self-awareness and making sure you present your credentials professionally. We prepare students to position themselves for a successful search and guide them to career environments where they will be most successful.”
Ole Miss’ law Class of 2011 totaled 151 with more than 83 percent of the class reporting employment within nine months of graduation.
Just 57, or nearly 38 percent, found full-time work at a law firm. Some opened solo practices like Blanchard and others decided to pursue a graduate degree. Most of those working are in Mississippi.
Flierl notes that the majority of Ole Miss law grads who want to enter private practice do so in firms of 2-10 attorneys, or they start their own practices.
At Mississippi College’s School of Law, career services director Deborah Foley agrees, saying a majority of their grads work with small firms or on their own.
MC’s Jackson location is an asset for students, Foley says, because professional networking is a natural product of its downtown campus. It also affords students proximity to internships and expanded opportunities for graduates.
Her recent employment report to the ABA shows MC at 92 percent, which is grads with jobs or going on to graduate legal studies. Foley said she’s increasingly optimistic about jobs for new or recent law grads.
“Things are really picking up,” she admits. “We’re fielding lots of inquiries from firms about jobs rather than from lawyers looking for positions,” which often was the case after the rocky economic times of 2008.
In Tupelo, Blanchard is mostly settled into his new office.
“I really thought things … jobs … would be better by the time I graduated,” Blanchard said.
But after being out a year and still helping his dad with farming, he says he’s seeing an improved job market from his friends’ reports, especially in Jackson. The former football center at Northeast Community College and Nichols State University exudes a youthful confidence about his burgeoning career.
“I’m cut out for this kind of work,” he said. “I want it to grow.”
He’s busy marking his calendar for courthouse plea-days, where so many new lawyers find their first clients. To would-be attorneys, Blanchard offers blunt advice: “If you want to go to school and find an easy job and be a rich lawyer, you’re going to be disappointed.
“But if you want a challenging and rewarding life, this is it.”
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com