Bye Bye BigLaw: 4 Strategies for the Greedy Law Student

By Brian Kumnick on April 03, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

For those suddenly-terrified law students who until recently had expected to glide smoothly along the BigLaw track to a soft landing in the warm embrace and inflated salaries of associate life, the nonstop parade of bad news about law firm downsizing is particularly disconcerting.  Predictions of massive and fundamental change in the legal industry keep appearing, and always seem to boil down to some variation of fewer attorneys making less money.

(In case you missed it, the New York Times was at it again on Wednesday, suggesting among other things that starting salaries at top firms might drop all the way to $100,000 -- the horror.)

So, if everything has changed, where do you look now?  Here are four things to think about as you shift your focus.

1. Look to your school
No, you can't expect them to slash tuition to keep your debt under control.  Yes, they will from time to time inexplicably throw a job-search curveball like holding up your grades for three months.  But law schools are paying attention to the employment challenges facing job-searching students, and career services offices are trying to help, like by offering advice from alumni on how to break into the legal workforce in these challenging times.  In the end, you'll be doing the hard work of the job search on your own, but it can't hurt to avail yourself of all the support your school can provide.

2. Make the most of the opportunities you have
Summer jobs have been hard to find, and with firms anxious to control costs, post-summer offers are no sure thing.  So once you land that summer gig, make the best impression you can and focus on how you will land the permanent offer.  FindLaw Writ columnist Julie Hilden suggests a few strategies; some of them, like the tips on approaching research and writing, can benefit you even if you're spending your summer in public-interest or small-firm work rather than BigLaw.

3. Seek public interest, but be prepared to compete
For those feeling their BigLaw dreams being squeezed, switching tracks and aiming for public-interest jobs often seems like an easy, if less lucrative, alternative.  But be prepared to face stiffer competition than usual: many deferred or rejected BigLaw recruits will be gunning for those same jobs.  Some firms, seeking to avoid layoffs, are encouraging even current associates to take time off to pursue public-interest work.

4. Think small (firm) and nontraditional
Inevitably, you'll need to broaden your search and explore all the options.  Smaller firms are an option for some.  Although they may lack the prestige of the large firm, and although they are not immune to the downturn either, there are lots of them, they often hand student clerks or junior associates interesting and substantial work, and they can offer experience across a broad array of practice areas.

New arrangements like contract-based work are also becoming more common for new attorneys.  Ventures like Law Clerk Connection are aiming squarely at law students and recent graduates, looking to connect them with firms who need research, writing, and other outsourceable tasks performed.

Whether the legal profession is going through a lasting and fundamental change, or a sharp and temporary reaction to recession, current law students will be feeling the pain, with brand-new law school debt and relatively fewer opportunities.  Maximize the opportunities you have, be resourceful and flexible, and you will find that there is life beyond BigLaw.

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