August 1, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 12:28 pm

Area Law Firms See More Job Seekers

It was 2009 and Worcester native Amanda Silk and her fellow third-year Georgetown University Law School classmates were experiencing heartburn over the state of the economy and what it would mean for their job searches.

School administrators had promised from the outset that they would be able to land jobs with six-figure salaries once they graduated and passed the bar exam.

"We'd be Supreme Court justices and everything," Silk recalled with a laugh.

The economy had other plans, though. Firms were tightening their belts and hiring was slowing. The mood among Silk's classmates was dour.

"That summer was really stressful," Silk said. "You kind of just stopped talking about jobs."

Legal Wrangling

But things are looking up for Silk, who is getting married this month and will start work as an attorney this September back in her hometown at the Worcester-based law firm of Mirick O'Connell.

She had worked at Mirick for two summers in an administrative role. She said that getting a job offer from the firm was exciting and "a huge relief."

Silk is optimistic that attorney hiring is going to pick up again, but she said that some of her classmates still haven't received any job offers, which is troubling given the large loans that many law school students take out.

Those newly minted attorneys in Massachusetts and in other states are facing one of the toughest job markets in the past 15 years, according to a recent report by Idaho-based Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. (EMSI)

In Massachusetts, 2,165 people passed the bar exam that year. Meanwhile EMSI estimates that there will be only 715 total job openings through 2015, resulting in a surplus of 1,450 lawyers looking for work. That's the fifth-largest surplus of new attorneys in the country.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Legal Career Professionals paints a similarly dismal picture in a June 2011 report, which found that law students are facing the worst job market since the mid-1990s, with an overall employment rate of 87.6 percent.

That percentage conceals a more troubling trend, the report notes. Of those graduates for whom employment was known, only 68.4 percent obtained a job for which bar passage was required. That was down 2.4 percentage points from 2009 and is the lowest percentage the association has recorded.

Firm Perspective

The statistics are backed up by local law firms. David Surprenant, a managing partner at Mirick O'Connell, where Silk landed a job, said that a recent opening at his firm drew more than 200 applications, roughly three times the number that was typical a decade ago.

"I've never seen so many people send me résumés of colleagues, friends, neighbors, kids of neighbors," Surprenant said. "Everybody's trying to network to find an opportunity."

In addition, a job ad for a clerk position that required only a high school diploma drew an application from an attorney who had just passed the bar.

"Certainly you hear the stories of people starting in the mail room at corporate America and becoming CEO," he said. "But I think it's pretty unusual."

Robert Cox Jr., a partner at Worcester-based Bowditch & Dewey LLP, said that he too has seen an increase in the number of applicants for open positions, which number about five per year.

Though his firm has grown its staff over the past few years, Cox said that he has noticed more long-shot applications are arriving at the firm from new attorneys for job openings that require more experience.

"What I haven't seen so much in the past are people applying who do not fit within the job description," Cox said.

His advice for new attorneys: keep networking.

"Seek out any type of legal work they can get their arms around and continue to develop their skills," he said.

Though the job market may be tough for new attorneys, both Surprenant and Cox noted an upside for firms. They have their pick of top-quality applicants.

"We see value in hiring out of law school," Cox said. "The new ones have been great. We're happy to have them."

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