Verdict is in: Legal job market tightens

Even the legal industry is not immune to the downturn, leaving recent graduates with hefty student loans and no jobs.

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By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Employment opportunities for legal professionals have traditionally been plentiful - and lucrative. But as the economy has dried up, so too have those jobs.

The employment market for new law graduates has remained relatively strong and stable since 1997. And last year was the sector's strongest showing in 20 years, with 92% of graduates finding jobs in their field, according to the National Association for Law Placement. But that's beginning to change.

The legal industry lost 1,100 jobs in October, the eighth consecutive month of decline, according to the Labor Department's most recent data. Which means the 150,031 students who were in enrolled in law school last year face a job market that is contracting for the first time in recent history.

"Law firms are caught up in the same reversionary concerns that everyone else is," explained John Challenger, chief executive of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"There's a lot of legal work generated by the economic growth engine and the financial industry," he added, and with both the economy and the financial industries stalled, the need for law firms shrinks.

"Large firms are cutting back because of a lack of merger-and-acquisition activity," added Michelle Pierce Stronczer of Pierce Stronczer Law in Cleveland.

In the past several months, some of the nation's largest law firms, which also recruited and hired the most aggressively, have started laying off lawyers and staff members. This fall, San Francisco firm Heller Ehrman shut down all together, putting nearly 700 attorneys out of work.

That means recent graduates not only face experienced competition for limited jobs, but also hefty student loan bills. "Recent grads are going to have a hard time," Pierce Stronczer said.

Law school graduates get benched

Andrew Magdy, 27, is already under pressure. He graduated from Michigan State Law School last year and received an LLM in taxation from Washington University in June. He has been looking for a full-time job since the spring, but "there's not much out there right now," he said.

"Every day I send out resumes, both electronically and through the mail, and every day I receive responses that the law firms are not currently hiring," Magdy said. "Roughly 300 resumes have landed me one job interview."

In addition to his living expenses, Magdy has about $150,000 in student loans and the first payments are due in the middle of this month.

With $166,000 in loans and no legal job in sight, Rob Cox, 33, is beginning to question his decision to go to law school. He has expanded his job search to include other industries, but he sometimes finds his schooling works against him.

"My resume, which consists mostly of schooling and volunteer positions I held during school, is less than appealing to the type of companies I'm aiming for," he said.

There is concern among law students that getting a job after graduation may be more difficult this year, said Kim Fields, director of career services at Wake Forest University School of Law.

"I do think the jobs are out there, you just have to look harder for them. You have to dig," she said.

While hiring is slowing in certain areas, including real estate and M&A, there are other opportunities for lawyers that are flourishing in the current climate, Pierce Stronczer said, specifically, "litigation, intellectual property, white-collar crime and bankruptcy, of course." To top of page

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