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Job market unkind to incoming attorneys

| Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014, 10:50 p.m.

About 8,600 lawyers practice in Pittsburgh, much to Andrea Weaver's dismay.

Weaver, 28, of Monroeville graduated from the prestigious New York University School of Law in 2011, but got no job offers despite sending out hundreds of applications and going on several interviews.

“I still want a legal career, but I don't think there is any hope that I will ever have one,” she said.

Law school classes start on Monday at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University, and industry experts say Weaver's experience echoes the reality of many recent graduates: There are more young lawyers than there are jobs available. The student debt they carry further raises the stakes.

Nationally, the average law school debt is $140,000, according to a New America Foundation study based on Department of Education data. The median salary for 2013 law school grads was $62,000. For recent grads who landed jobs at law firms, the median is $95,000 a year, according to the National Association for Law Placement.

“It's a tough time,” said David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County Bar Association. “New graduates are facing a lot more challenges than attorneys 10 years ago.”

Nationally, the overall employment rate for new law school graduates has fallen for the sixth consecutive year, according to the Association for Law Placement. Although there were signs of improvement in 2012 and 2013, signs of weakness remain.

“The entry-level job market reflects that mostly flat business environment for the legal sector generally,” said James Leipold, the association's executive director.

Several Pittsburgh law firms said they have been hiring fewer recent grads in the past five years. They are reducing costs by using paralegals and legal assistants instead of lawyers, while others said they are looking to outsource some work overseas.

“I get resumes probably every week or two from all over the place,” said Downtown attorney Michael Kraemer. He started his own firm two weeks after passing the bar exam in 2012.

In a survey this year of 238 U.S.-based law firms, Altman Weil, a suburban Philadelphia-based legal consulting firm, reported that managing partners and chairmen said the profession faces long-term financial pressures, and firms will adjust, in part, by hiring fewer inexperienced lawyers.

“There are still traditional jobs, but you're finding that it's harder and harder for young attorneys to obtain those positions,” Blaner said.

Locally, 56 percent of Pitt Law's 2013 graduates found jobs for which passing the bar exam was required within nine months of graduation. That's up from 54 percent in 2011, according to statistics reported to the American Bar Association. At Duquesne, 53 percent of the Class of 2013 found jobs for which passing the bar was required, up from 45 percent in 2011.

Lower-paying jobs in the fields of document review, compliance officer, health care regulations and human resources keep recent graduates in the legal profession and can be good stepping stones, Blaner said. Young lawyers often are hired for such jobs with six- or 12-month contracts.

“I always encourage recent graduates who can't find employment to do something like that because it can sharpen their skills or keep them sharp,” Blaner said. “They also prevent gaps in employment.”

Sarah Rethage, assistant dean of enrollment at Duquesne School of Law, said there is “cause for cautious optimism.”

“The unique availability of positions within the energy and compliance fields in Pittsburgh has allowed our students to obtain positions that they might not otherwise have had if they were in another area of the country,” Rethage said.

George L. Stewart II, managing partner of Reed Smith's Downtown office, said first-year hiring there has been relatively flat during the past two years, but slightly higher than the average of the past seven years.

“The hiring uptick in Pittsburgh is attributable to three factors: the growth of Reed Smith's platform, the overall health of the Pittsburgh office and the improving regional economy,” Stewart said.

Since 2009, Cohen & Grigsby has hired 27 law school graduates as associate attorneys, said Christine Mazza, the Downtown firm's chief marketing officer.

Mazza reported noticing an increase in the number of applications from new law school grads, suggesting that there are more looking for jobs than there are openings.

“The majority of our new law school graduate hires were prior participants in our summer associate program, and we have also noticed an increase in applications for this program,” Mazza said.

Kraemer, too, said he hired a couple of recent graduates and might offer full-time positions to some of his summer interns.

Weaver, who works as a political researcher, said she, like Kraemer, eventually might start out on her own.

“There is no security in working for anybody but yourself,” she said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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