Law degree not a sure job ticket for Sacramento-area grads

Erinn Ryberg spent three years running the gantlet at University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, graduated last year and passed the state bar exam.

Now she’s working a job that doesn’t require a law degree. Her annual salary is significantly less than McGeorge’s yearly tuition of roughly $45,000. She owes about $150,000 in student debt.

And she’s lucky. A large portion of recent graduates from California law schools – including McGeorge, the Oak Park law school that has been a cornerstone of Sacramento for almost a century – either aren’t working or have found temporary or part-time jobs.

“Right now, I’m not seeing it,” Ryberg said when asked if her law degree is of much use to her. She stressed, however, that she nonetheless likes her work as a junior legislative aide and thinks her professors provided an excellent education.

Even as the economy improves, the market for law school graduates in Sacramento and across much of California remains depressed. About 20 percent of the state’s 2013 law school graduates were unemployed and seeking work nine months after graduation, compared with 16 percent of the Class of 2012, according to new statistics from the American Bar Association.

Another 25 percent of 2013 law school graduates statewide were either working part time or in jobs that don’t require a law degree.

At UC Davis, the situation is brighter, with an unemployment rate for recent graduates that is less than half the statewide rate. About 8 percent of graduates from the Class of 2013 were unemployed but seeking work nine months after graduating, up from 6 percent for the Class of 2012.

McGeorge, by comparison, is struggling. About 32 percent, or one in three, of McGeorge graduates from the Class of 2013 were looking for work but couldn’t find it nine months after graduation, compared with 19 percent the previous year, according to the ABA report.

Only three of the 21 law schools in California accredited by the American Bar Association graduated a higher rate of unemployed students last year than McGeorge.

The economy and law schools themselves are to blame, students and experts said.

During the recession, many law firms in Sacramento and across the state cut back hiring or laid off attorneys. At the same time, a significant number of college graduates thought they could wait out the recession by attending law school. Most law schools expanded enrollment, some dramatically.

The result was a near-record number of new law school graduates entering a tight job market – and supply greatly exceeding demand.

“There are people who have been out of school for two or three years and have not found their first law job,” said B.J. Susich, an attorney at Boutin Jones and president of the Sacramento County Bar Association. “It’s a bottleneck.”

Firms, businesses and government agencies are starting to hire lawyers again at a faster pace, but not fast enough to put a huge dent in the rank of unemployed and underemployed law school graduates, especially as new graduates compete with prior graduates still hunting for a job.

The state Employment Development Department anticipates that California will see about 2,500 job openings for attorneys each year until 2020. But more than 5,100 law students graduated from California law schools accredited by the American Bar Association last year alone.

“Just because hiring is better than it was, it doesn’t mean that you can burn through the inventory” of would-be lawyers, Susich said.

Broader hiring shift cited

Recent law school graduates broadly fall into three categories: those who can’t find work, those working at jobs that don’t require a law degree and those working as attorneys.

Graduates with a high class rank at most law schools generally still are finding jobs as attorneys, several experts said. Graduates with a low class rank at more prestigious law schools also tend to do well.

In California, one clear example of that pattern is Stanford Law, one of the nation’s most competitive schools, where only 2 percent of the Class of 2013 was unemployed but seeking work nine months after graduation.

UC Davis has done better than many other law schools, too. It generally ranks among the nation’s top 40 law programs in national publications – and enrollment remains relatively small so it doesn’t flood the market with graduates.

“The quality of our students has stayed the same throughout this period,” said Craig Compton, the law school’s assistant dean of career services, adding that the school is still concerned that the number of unemployed graduates rose slightly for the Class of 2013.

UC Davis itself funded 30 positions — 20 short-term and 10 long-term — for Class of 2013 graduates. That number has increased during the last several years as the job market for new lawyers has tightened.

The biggest struggles – and changes – have come at schools historically ranked in the middle tier like McGeorge. Their students compete with graduates from higher-ranked colleges for a shrinking number of jobs.

The Class of 2013 was one of the largest in McGeorge’s history, school officials said. About 320 students graduated, and many planned to stay in the Sacramento area. But there wasn’t enough local market demand to absorb so many McGeorge students all at once.

“It was a grim time for me,” said Alexi Antoniou, part of the McGeorge Class of 2013, describing several months after passing the bar when he couldn’t find work. “I heard the word ‘no’ occasionally, but most of the time I heard silence.”

Antoniou graduated from UC Irvine during the recession, when “the world didn’t look that good,” and decided to try law school, knowing that it might be hard to find work as an attorney. Like several others interviewed, he lauded the caliber of instruction McGeorge provided, though he has sometimes felt conflicted about his decision to attend law school. Antoniou, who received significant financial aid, graduated with about $40,000 in student debt.

He recently found work as an independent contractor in a job that “doesn’t really require bar passage … The firm is nontraditional – somewhere between a tech startup and a law firm,” he said, adding that he likes the work. “I review all their contracts. It’s entirely computer-based.”

About 30 percent of McGeorge graduates from the Class of 2013 are either working temporary jobs, working part time or working in jobs that don’t require a law degree, according to the American Bar Association. They reflect a broader nationwide shift in hiring practices at U.S. law firms: Frugal clients want cheaper services, so law firms hire young graduates as contractors instead of as full-time associates.

“Lawyers need help for contract work, but not so much that there is a huge need to hire a new attorney,” said Tori Sundheim, another McGeorge Class of 2013 graduate.

Sundheim wanted to graduate and focus on water resources law – and that’s what she is doing, as a full-time contractor. She’s excited by the challenge and the job. But contract law work often pays less than permanent employment and usually does not come with health benefits.

“You basically set up your own business,” she said. “You have to figure out how to be on your own early on.”

The shrinking government sector also has hurt recent Sacramento-area law graduates. A significant number of McGeorge and UC Davis students see law school as a path toward working in state and local government.

Ryberg is glad to have a job as a legislative aide in the Assembly. But some of her co-workers in similar positions, she said, spent the last three years gaining work experience, while she spent the time in school.

During her time at McGeorge, Ryberg racked up about $150,000 in student debt – a typical amount as law school tuition in California regularly tops $40,000 annually. She hopes to take advantage of a federal government program that forgives law school debt for those working in the public sector. She wants to move eventually into a position that will fully use her legal education.

None of which means that all recent graduates of local law schools struggled to find work as attorneys. About 70 percent of UC Davis’ Class of 2013 and 37 percent of McGeorge’s Class of 2013 were employed in full-time, long-term jobs requiring a law degree nine months after graduation.

“The first one that I applied to hired me,” said Haley Norton, who moved back to her hometown of Las Vegas after graduating from McGeorge in 2013 and quickly found a job at a small law firm. “I’m definitely on the road to becoming a partner.”

Law schools retooling

Several California law schools have made significant changes in the last few years, largely in response to the changing job market.

McGeorge has slashed enrollment for its entering classes by about 50 percent since the Class of 2013 started school in 2010, laying off multiple staff members. By not saturating the local job market, McGeorge officials hope to give their graduates a better chance to find work.

“In that nine-month time period, there were only so many attorney jobs available,” said McGeorge Dean and Professor of Law Francis J. Mootz III, describing the struggles faced by the Class of 2013. “Then there were more people than ever looking for jobs.”

McGeorge has put more focus on helping students find jobs after graduation, Mootz said. The school also is retooling and improving its program to prepare students for government law work.

Other schools have taken similar steps. UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco recently cut its enrollment, though not as dramatically as McGeorge, and instituted several programs to help new graduates. A new effort this fall will entice small law firms and businesses to hire Hastings graduates on a short-term basis with the option of making a permanent hire.

“The job market is very, very tough,” said Sari Zimmerman, UC Hastings assistant dean for the Office of Career and Professional Development. “We want to get them in the door.”

Several law school officials expressed optimism that the job market for the Class of 2013 will be a low point and that hiring of lawyers already is starting to improve.

“Everything goes in cycles,” Mootz said, adding that he is especially encouraged by some recent government hiring in Sacramento. “We see a real positive.”

But McGeorge and several other California schools will need to dig themselves out of a hole. Applications are down. Some schools are admitting students that, based on median test scores and grade-point average, likely would not have been accepted a few years ago.

In the influential U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, McGeorge dropped 22 places to 146th in the country this year, largely due to its employment numbers. UC Davis is ranked 36th, and Hastings is ranked 54th.

Several law school officials said that, even as the job market improves, no one is expecting a quick return to the days when law firms snatched up a huge proportion of their graduates for permanent, full-time work.

“The structural changes are going to be happening for a while,” Zimmerman said. “We have to adjust to it rather than wringing our hands.”