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Lost and Found: The Long Road Back for Lawyers Waylaid by the Recession

MP McQueen LAW.COM

Jennifer Katz remembers heading to work that day, but not much else.

She was an associate at Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles, six months into the job on that Friday morning in late February 2009.

“I remember getting an email asking if I was coming in and being very nervous as I drove in, but after that it’s like a blur,” she says. “I couldn’t for a million dollars tell you what happened in that meeting.”

Like many of her associate colleagues, Katz was laid off that day, part of a wave of separations at law firms as the credit crisis segued into the Great Recession.

Though it wasn’t the first firm to make a mass layoff in the souring economy, Latham’s cuts ran so deep—190 associates and 250 staff, all at once—that they spawned a new verb. To “Latham,” in the parlance of the crowdsourced Urban Dictionary, means “to kill, destroy, fire without cause or dash one’s hopes and dreams.”

“It wasn’t a total shock,” Katz says. “I certainly didn’t expect it, but there were rumors going around for weeks, and everyone read about the layoffs at other firms. I don’t know that I thought it would affect me personally.”

But it did. Losing her job threw her off the path she’d so carefully prepared to travel: top college (University of Pennsylvania), top law school (UCLA Law Class of 2008), summer associate at Latham, then hired as a first-year associate. All was going according to plan—until it wasn’t.

Aspects of Katz’s unpredictable journey were shared by thousands of law school graduates from the years during and immediately after the recession, roughly 2008 through 2013. The percentage of grads who found work as lawyers right out of school in that period tumbled to the lowest levels in decades, causing many to question the value of a legal education. That, in turn, caused law school enrollment to drop and forced schools to be more transparent about their employment outcomes.

Years later, the effects are still being felt by those who graduated during the recession. The displacement of top graduates had a domino effect, as everyone downshifted to whatever work they could find, including solo practice, long-term contract review and foreclosure processing. Lawyers from less-selective law schools and those with the most debt were even worse off, forced to take low-level employment and sometimes to abandon the law altogether. For all the young lawyers who were affected by the crisis, success became a matter of perseverance, flexibility and, to some extent, luck.

Katz recalls going back to UCLA for help finding another job, only to find that the school wasn’t prepared to assist students after their first clerkship or associate placement. (UCLA Law career services has since boosted its capacity for career assistance, the school says.) With student debt to pay back, she found herself scrambling for any work she could find as a lawyer. She was relieved to land at a small Beverly Hills, California, firm a couple of months later doing employment defense and general commercial work.

Katz’s law school classmate and now-husband, Alexander Chemers, had better luck. His federal clerkship was unaffected by the downturn, and after completing it one year after graduation, he transitioned smoothly into an associate position at an Am Law 100 firm. He sent Katz job leads and she eventually was hired at employment law giant Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in June 2011, where she was promoted to of counsel in April. Chemers joined her at Ogletree, where he is a shareholder, in 2015.

“Honestly, it was a really hard couple of years, but I feel like I ended up in the right place in the long term,” Katz says.

As far as her experience at Latham, Katz says what most bothered her at the time was the firm’s decision to defer the hiring of the class behind her for a year while firing associates in her cohort with no chance of being rehired.

“That was the only thing I felt a bit bitter about,” she says. “Why did they allow people to come a year later? Why couldn’t they give us that option?”

Shifting Focus

Meanwhile, Stephanie Biderman, a New York-based managing director of Major, Lindsey & Africa, the legal recruiting and consulting firm, graduated from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2008 and had started her career as a real estate associate at Paul Hastings right as the recession hit. She was laid off after 16 months. By 2010, though, she had found her current career in the adjacent field of legal recruiting.

“It is a tough feeling when the plan doesn’t go the way you think it is going to go, but even at the time I was well aware of the realities of the market, particularly in the real estate field,” Biderman says. She also realized she didn’t have a passion for the work.

“I quickly realized that this could be a blessing because it enabled me to take a step back and do what I wanted to do in the legal profession,” she says, “but probably not in the original way.”

Burdened by Debt

Shannon Murphy, the managing director and Midwest office leader of interim legal talent at MLA in Chicago, graduated in December 2010 from Pepperdine School of Law. As a search consultant, she’s seen firsthand the difficulties employers often have assessing recession-era law school graduates.

“Prerecession, there is an idea of what a person in eight to 10 years would have done, and their resumes look similar and follow a similar path. But during the recession they were not gaining that experience,” Murphy says. “We have to dig down with the client as to what skills they are looking for, and similarly discuss with candidates the experience they actually gained. It makes it hard to make clear comparisons.”

 

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