Conway Ekpo couldn’t help but feel lucky. Even before he set foot in his BigLaw firm as an associate in the fall of 2007, he had already received a raise, from $145,000 to $160,000, thanks to a market rate increase for first-years.
It seemed like a fortuitous start to his legal career. But over the next year at Heller Ehrman LLP’s New York office, there were plenty of signs suggesting otherwise.
Ekpo was helping the bankruptcy group restructure collateralized debt obligations made up of subprime mortgage-backed securities, which were starting to fall apart. Some fellow associates had departed with partners before even finishing their first year. Then a group that included 14 intellectual property partners left in 2008 for Covington & Burling LLP.
Rumors of a potential merger were afoot.
On Sept. 15, 2008, the same day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Heller’s chairman called an emergency meeting with the entire firm, stating that merger talks had failed and the firm was going to dissolve.
After the meeting, Ekpo returned to his office and sat down, stunned. He had about $150,000 in law school debt — and no job.
The economic meltdown in 2008 set the stage for firm implosions and unprecedented layoffs, casting a generation of associates out to face a historically difficult job market. It forced several classes of young lawyers to improvise — pursuing different avenues for job leads and working any and all connections. Over the last 10 years, some have regained their footing in the legal industry. Others have struggled to claw their way back. Then there are those who have left the law altogether.
While the legal industry job numbers are brightening, experts say many lawyers whose careers were sidetracked by the recession are still feeling its effects to this day.
Trial by Fire
With law school applications and associate salaries trending upward, the legal market is showing signs of improvement, and some attorneys who graduated during the recession may be more marketable than if they had graduated during a better economy, said William Magnuson, a professor at Texas A&M University School of Law.
“My colleagues and people who have graduated around that time seem to have succeeded, and that may be because it was a difficult time, and they had to think through their priorities and what kind of jobs they have,” he said.
They also had experiences they wouldn’t necessarily have gotten in times of prosperity. As companies were collapsing, some young lawyers gained opportunities early on by making important strategic decisions for businesses and helping explain legal ramifications in an era of uncertainty, Magnuson said. And as mergers and other deals fell apart, those failures gave lawyers an up-close look at what went wrong.
After Andrew Sodl was laid off in 2009 from a real estate transactional boutique in Jacksonville, Florida, it took him a couple of months to find a new job. He was a polygraph test away from working for the FBI when Akerman LLP made him an offer. Upon starting there, he was surprised to learn he would be working for the bankruptcy and reorganization group, handling foreclosure suits and distressed debt matters.
The attorney whose job he was taking over began briefing him on 30 cases pending in various stages of litigation, but he had to tell her to back up: Where was the courthouse?
After the fundamental questions were out of the way, Sodl slowly began teaching himself the nuts and bolts of the statutes related to foreclosures. He also relied on a veteran paralegal to ensure the motions he was drafting were on point. He eventually transitioned to the real estate practice, but it turned out to be a worthwhile detour.
By seeing the distressed side of real estate, getting in the weeds of distressed loans and workouts, and familiarizing himself with commercial litigation and discovery procedures, it reinforced his overall understanding of the law and transactions.
“The work I’m doing now mirrors the work I was doing in 2007, but I’m doing it from a much better understanding of the whole animal,” said Sodl, who is now a partner.
One difference between associates who lived through the recession and those fresh out of law school is the former group has a more business-oriented view of the profession, said Michelle Fivel, a partner at legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa.
“They have a true understanding that law firms are trying to run a business, and it’s about the bottom line,” she said. “And they know they have to be adding to the bottom line on a continual basis or their position is not secure.”