At the start of the academic year, LL.M. students would have been relishing entering one of the hottest labor markets in decades. Then the coronavirus pandemic took hold. The legal job market was plunged into chaos. Hiring freezes mean delays in graduates starting their careers while bearing student debt.
The number of legal jobs in the UK market fell by 75 percent in March and April due to coronavirus uncertainty, according to an online job board. More than three-quarters of people in the UK legal sector are stressed about finding a new job, with many putting their career search on hold.
It is difficult to predict how the job market will shift in the months to come. However there are bright spots. “The virus has led to considerable changes and uncertainty in the job market, but it has created a surge in demand in some areas such as bankruptcy and restructuring work,” says Rebecca Moor, associate director for professional development at Boston University School of Law.
“Employment law is another area where clients are seeking more legal guidance,” she adds.
Some US bar exams have been postponed or cancelled
In the US, one problem for LL.M. students is that many states have postponed bar exams because of social distancing measures to stem the spread of coronavirus. Some have created online alternatives, but software glitches have in some cases caused further delays, with Indiana and Nevada pushing back exam dates.
In New York, which has cancelled its September bar exam, the deans of 15 law schools penned a letter warning that delays in admission to the bar would cause students “profound harm in a time already marked by suffering, intensifying financial hardship and exacerbating the unfairness of their plight”.
“Delays could impact employment opportunities, especially for foreign students seeking to practice law in their home countries after the LL.M. degree,” says Val Myteberi, associate dean of graduate programs at Cardozo School of Law in New York.
“But it’s also possible that passing the bar amid the challenges facing our communities right now could earn graduates recognition and respect from potential employers.”
It’s not only fresh graduates that face turmoil in the job market. Students beginning their classes next year could be stung by large law firms cancelling or shortening their summer internships, which can be a key route to a permanent job in big law. Summer associate jobs are mostly for J.D. students, but some LL.M. candidates also seek them out.
This not only leaves less time for students to impress hiring managers, but also means they miss out on several weeks of lucrative work. Summer jobs pay up to about $3,000 a week in the top firms.
Meanwhile, many elite law firms are slashing pay as their revenues shrink during the crisis. Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance, in the elite “Magic Circle” of firms, have cut pay to below £100,000 for fresh recruits after increasing them to six-figures only a year ago when the economy was booming.
Some law firms are running online summer internships as the bulk of their workforce continues to work from home amid rising cases of Covid-19 in major markets like the US. The problem is that fresh recruits may miss out on mentoring and networking opportunities that are crucial to their climbing the corporate ladder.
More flexibility for legal jobs?
However, with remote work likely to become more widespread even after the pandemic, the knock-on effect could be a better work/life balance in an industry renowned for a culture of long hours. “One possible upside for lawyers is the forced transition to virtual work could create more flexibility down the line,” says Myteberi.
With law schools themselves shut and classes next year likely to be taught at least partly online, current LL.M. students could also be deprived of vital networking opportunities with peers and professors on campus. This is a key reason why many LL.M. candidates have signed petitions demanding tuition fee refunds for what they argue is a devalued online experience.
However, Berkeley Law’s associate director of LL.M. professional engagement Tammy Dawson says: “This era of social distancing can actually be a great time for networking over Zoom. Many people are eager for human connection and — with courts closed, travel cancelled and meetings postponed — have more time than usual.”
Many students are facing disruption to their LL.M. programs, forcing law schools to adopt pass/fail grading systems rather than issuing letter grades. Many employers take grade point averages into account when making offers, but they also consider work experience and other factors beyond grades.
Berkeley Law in California switched to credit/no credit but does not expect that to dampen graduates’ job prospects. “It will simply mean that they need to rely on other indicators of value — like descriptions of using skills to accomplish a task, polished writing samples and involvement in leadership activities and professional associations — to make their case for being hired,” says Dawson.
Lesson learned from the 2008 Financial Crisis
The Covid-19 crisis stirs up memories of the last downturn in 2008 that decimated the legal job market. But companies will be keen not to repeat the same mistakes. “One of the lessons learnt from the 2008-9 economic crash is that companies that continued to invest in developing their talent pipeline were able to bounce back quicker and more effectively,” says Afua Kudom, careers consultant at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Law.
She says graduates need to consider a wider range of legal roles, but their previous experience will be an advantage in a battered job market. She adds that top skills employers are looking for include problem solving, communication and critical thinking ability. In the era of Covid-19, adaptability, flexibility and digital skills are also paramount.
The upside for law schools is that in 2008, like now, lawyers flocked to graduate education to shield themselves from the storm and upgrade their credentials for the eventual recovery. Like peer institutions, Queen Mary has already seen a slight uptick in applications.
Other institutions insist there are too many factors contributing to current demand to suggest a correlation with unemployment rates. It is too soon to tell, but the risk is that just like in 2008, a surge in demand for law courses will lead to a glut of graduates on a weakened job market, with high debt but fewer opportunities.