Even Law Firms Are Hit

The poor economy has hit the legal industry hard. Several large law firms have dissolved in recent months and others are laying off staff. For law school graduates, it's a difficult time to get into the field.

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From NPR News, this is Day to Day. Well, in this bad job market, you certainly want to be as employable as possible, and that could mean having a bunch of letters after your name, letters like J.D. Law students about to graduate, though, also have a bunch of debt, and they're looking at law firms that are laying off attorneys. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: Layoffs are the big topic on the Above the Law blog this days. Editor Elie Mystal says a couple firms even went out of business recently.

Mr. ELIE MYSTAL (Editor, Above the Law): Heller, Ehrman, and Thelen were the two big San Francisco firms that just completely dissolved. They were mainly San Francisco-based law firms, and they did a lot of work out there. They're very old firms, had very respected names.

BRADY: Mystal says, even the granddaddy of law firms, Cravath, Swaine, and Moore, announced its bonuses this year will be cut in half. Your typical auto industry worker might have difficulty feeling sympathy for legal eagles getting their financial wings clipped, but George Washington University law student Adam Alba says the news about Cravath came as a shock.

Mr. ADAM ALBA (Law Student, George Washington University): To hear that they were really cutting back was, I think, a surprise to a lot of people. Like, wow, the untouchable firm is actually being touched by this economic crisis. They have concerns, too. So, I think that signaled the gravity of the situation to a lot of people.

BRADY: Alba is paying about $40,000 a year to attend law school, and it's common for students like him to graduate with more than $100,000 in debt. The prospect of layoffs at the very firms where many students hope to land a six-figure job is more than a little unsettling.

Alba says students are doing everything they can to gain an advantage in the application process. He sent out 102 unique cover letters and resumes, and he says it's important not to forget even the smallest details, such as taking down a silly Facebook page.

Mr. ALBA: Don't have anything that someone can find that makes you at all look unprofessional. You don't want a picture of you, you know, drinking with your friends on a weekend available to the public.

BRADY: Alba did not get the plum East Coast job he was looking for, but he's quite happy with the position he landed back home in Salt Lake City. His experience is something that worries Phylis Myles. She directs the career services department at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon.

Ms. PHYLIS MYLES (Director, Career Services, Willamette University College of Law): Our concern is what will happen to recent grads back East or students who can't get jobs back there. Are they going to be looking West, and how will that affect our students and grads?

BRADY: Myles says extra competition already has prompted more graduates to start up their own law firm right out of school or take up temporary work until they're offered something permanent. So far, we've talked only about lawyers, but there's also a lot of administrative assistants and paralegals who work at law firms. Elie Mystal at the Above the Law blog says those workers are suffering even more than attorneys.

Mr. MYSTAL: The staff is taking such a beating in this market. You know, for every 30 lawyers firm is - they're going to lay off 50 staffers.

BRADY: Mystal says, for him, there is one upside to all this - his readership numbers reached record levels in recent months. That as law students check back again and again to find out which firms are laying people off now. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Washington.

COHEN: There's more coming up on Day to Day from NPR News.

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