'09 Law Grads Offer Advice To Survive 2020 Job Search Chaos

By Michael Phillis
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Law360 (May 22, 2020, 5:24 PM EDT) -- DLA Piper partner Jamila Justine Willis knows well the knot of worry that has become a permanent fixture over the last few months for law students in the Class of 2020.

In 2008, she entered her third year at the University of Virginia School of Law with a job offer in hand. It was the culmination of a methodical job search and years of hard work. Yet her feeling of security transformed into anxiety that hung over her last year of law school as a recession took hold and forced major cuts and changes in the legal industry.

The Class of 2009 wasn't prepared to graduate into economic turmoil and neither was the Class of 2020, which faces the added stress of a global pandemic.

In the last few months, 2020 graduates have seen their long-held plans thrown into chaos by the coronavirus pandemic. Some have been able to secure job offers that employers have promised are still valid. Some will face pay cuts and deferrals. Others have seen offers melt away, the job landscape crumble, and their last semester of classes leaving them worried and unsure about what opportunities they will have.

But lawyers who navigated the twists and turns of 2009 want the newest crop of young attorneys to know that with flexibility and time, they'll find a place to start their careers.

Willis got the news in April 2009 that her offer to start as a litigation associate for Brown Rudnick LLP was being deferred for a year and that if she wanted to receive part of her salary in that time, she needed to take a public interest position. On top of that, her offer had shifted from litigation to bankruptcy.

The reassignment turned out well for Willis, now a partner focused on financial restructuring and complex bankruptcies.

"Understand that the pandemic may change a lot of the ways that we work, it may change things about the world, but there will always be new challenges," Willis said. "There are always going to be people who need the service of lawyers."

There's No Substitute for Networking

The old saying that it's not what you know but who you know rings truer than ever during a pandemic-induced hiring crunch. Lawyers who survived the recession say networking is crucial to landing on your feet.

Alexa Van Brunt graduated from Stanford Law School in 2009 determined to work in civil rights litigation. She clerked for a year for an Alabama federal judge focused on civil rights, delaying her job search. When she began looking for full-time work, she found the competition had become more intense.

Other young lawyers who would have gone into the private sector or those who lost private-sector jobs had turned their attention to the public interest world.

Van Brunt fought off the crowds by expanding her search. She was more flexible about the types of jobs she considered and where they were located, and crucially, she hit up "every possible connection" she knew as she worked to schedule informational interviews. Eventually, she met with a civil rights attorney whose friend had an entry-level civil rights position opening up in Chicago.

She got the job and stayed, and now serves as director of the MacArthur Justice Center Clinic at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

"It's kind of surreal," she said.

Networking is harder to do in a time of social isolation, but not impossible, said David Muraskin, a 2009 Stanford Law School graduate who is now Food Project litigation director at Public Justice and teaches at George Washington University Law School and Vermont Law School.

Muraskin said lawyers generally like hearing from students and encouraged them to continue to reach out. Delayed responses are likely an oversight — not a rejection — and students should still feel welcome to call and email asking to talk, he said.

For Sarah Fask, now a shareholder at Littler Mendelson PC, the experience of the recession and disappearing job offers revealed to her that as a law student without industry connections, she didn't know enough about law firms' bottom lines. As a result, it was hard for students like her to know if the firms they were reaching out to were stable, she said.

Fask, a 2009 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, landed a job offer from Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads LLP after working there as a summer associate. That offer stayed intact throughout her last year of law school even as her friends saw offers evaporate or transform into deferrals that required a year or more of pro bono work before they could join their firms.

She credits her network of law school friends as a big source of support during a year characterized by an undercurrent of uncertainty and worry. There was a feeling of camaraderie among her peers, who felt as if they were enduring something together. People tried to be more social and look out for opportunities not only for themselves, but for their friends too, Fask said.

"You just start to help each other," she said.

Embrace the Uncertainty of the Times

Willis wasn't expecting her legal career at DLA Piper to start a year later than she planned, or to work in a different practice group. But the advice she got at the time was to go where the work is, and it proved to be right.

"There might not be litigation work for you now; that doesn't mean you are never going to be a litigator," Willis said of the advice that has stuck with her. "You can be later, but you should go to where the work is because the most important thing to do as a junior associate is to receive strong training."

During her deferral year, Willis worked in Geneva, Switzerland, doing human rights work focused on African countries — an opportunity she says was extremely valuable.

Willis also shifted her mindset to be more open to bankruptcy work, looking at the practice as a hybrid between transactional work and the litigation she was eager to do. Willis realized bankruptcy was a good fit for her because cases move quickly and clients are frequently in court.

Adam Sparks, a 2009 graduate of Columbia University School of Law, dreamed of joining the U.S. Department of Justice or another government institution as a litigator. But he found that as a "wet behind the ears young lawyer" he was suddenly competing against recently laid-off attorneys with several years of experience.

His classmates, too, saw their careers take a circuitous route because of the downturn. Transactional law, for example, was especially hard hit and students had to refashion their skill sets and try to maintain their connections as best they could after graduation, he recalled.

Sparks had a deferred position in hand at Goodwin LLP, which helped him find a civil rights fellowship in Washington, D.C., during the yearlong deferral. The firm paid him a reduced salary and he got an education through the fellowship in trial and appellate work.

"It might take longer, it might be harder, you might see some different sites along the way," said Sparks, who is now an attorney at Krevolin & Horst LLC. "But the entire world did not turn upside-down to stay."

This Won't Define Your Career

Muraskin, who now helps with hiring at Public Justice, encouraged graduating students not to stress if the job they find immediately after school isn't exactly what they had planned. Organizations like his are understanding when a candidate hasn't taken a straightforward path, especially when their earliest jobs are in a different field than they decide to target later in their careers.

"We really appreciate the difficulties that people are going through and that people may take a less than optimal job because they have financial concerns," he said. "No one holds your job against you particularly at the early part of your career."

Fask encouraged new graduates to look for the opportunities that can come from an economic downturn. Congress has passed a flurry of new laws, such as the CARES Act, an economic relief measure aimed at easing the pain of the pandemic.

"If a new graduate has time on their hands, read the laws. Learn the laws and make sure your employer knows you are doing that. That is invaluable knowledge," she said, adding that everyone is starting from the same place on novel legislation. "It is a real opportunity to become an expert. And that is, frankly, what employers and clients need. They need experts."

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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