March 17, 2021
Given the change of course that has happened in the world, we wanted to provide expert opinions on what aspiring graduates can do to start off their careers in an uncertain economic climate. We wanted to know what skills will be more important, where the economy is doing relatively well, and if there will be any lasting effects on the job market.
Companies are looking for candidates that can handle the new responsibilities of the job market. Recent graduates actually have an advantage because they are comfortable using newer technologies and have been communicating virtually their whole lives. They can take what they've learned and apply it immediately.
We spoke to professors and experts from several universities and companies to get their opinions on where the job market for recent graduates is heading, as well as how young graduates entering the industry can be adequately prepared. Here are their thoughts.
The University of Illinois at Chicago
California University of Pennsylvania
University of Iowa
University of Houston - Clear Lake
University of California - Davis
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
New England Law | Boston
Mark Wojcik: The economy is in a "K-shaped recovery." Some businesses and industries are in the upper part of that "K," and they're doing well. Other businesses and industries are in decline -- the lower part of that "K." Law firms that represent clients in the upper part of that K are succeeding. These client companies are expanding and have legal work for firms.
Law firms also did well when their clients were able to take advantage of pandemic relief funding. These clients were often larger companies that benefitted from that government support.
I recommend that students and new lawyers get involved in bar associations. You'll be able to network and learn about which firms are doing well. Be active in a visible way -- volunteer to speak at an upcoming meeting or write an article for the bar journal or a committee newsletter.
Mark Wojcik: New lawyers need to have good communication skills. Even in an age of Zoom meetings, new lawyers have to be able to pick up a phone and be comfortable having a phone conversation. Law firm partners tell me that their associates know how to text someone but they don't know how to call someone. If you're a law student or new lawyer and you recognize that you're uncomfortable making phone calls, pick up a phone and practice!
When lawyers do text or email, it's important to read that message before you hit send. You might be surprised, for example, to see that AutoCorrect changed the name of your client. Read that message before you click send. And if you can't read it, why should anyone else?
Mark Wojcik: Some firms have skipped or reduced year-end bonuses, but that may be a temporary reduction during the pandemic. Other firms, however, did give bonuses and some even gave double bonuses, particularly where the firms had lower office overhead when attorneys worked from home.
Public sector salaries have stayed constant. Some salaries may have risen slightly to keep up with cost of living.
And at small-to-midsize firms, salaries are similar to what they have been for over a decade. Salaries at those firms are more dependent upon practice area, experience level, and volume of business. And even at small firms that may start new grads at $50-60K, there are usually opportunities to add to that salary by developing business for the firm.
Brian Kohlhepp: I think that many folks have taken advantage of workplace flexibility and have sought additional education. This increased enrollment in Master's degree as well as post-graduate certificate programs.
Brian Kohlhepp: Largely, this would be acquiring a Master's degree. Many folks obtain this degree for an advancement at their current employer or in order to make themselves a more attractive candidate to the overall job field.
Brian Kohlhepp: Salaries have definitely increased especially for those with advanced degrees. We have seen a rise in need for those with advanced degrees in Legal Studies, Criminal Justice, and Homeland Security.
University of Iowa
College of Law
Bram Elias: Yes, definitely. (What will the enduring impact be? Ah. I have pretty much no idea. I happily defer to the wisdom of Melissa in Career Services!)
Bram Elias: So much of legal work is research, analysis and writing - so any job that involves learning new things and synthesizing what you've learned into a written final product is helpful, especially if you have to get work done on tight deadlines. Journalism is great. Advocating on behalf of others is great. Policy advocacy, politics, non-profit work - all great. Doing something you care about. For folks who haven't had any exposure to lawyers in their life, it can be useful to have some time seeing what lawyers really do all day so you know what you're getting into - so working as a paralegal, an investigator for lawyers, a translator for lawyers, or for a court system - all great. Really, any job at all is great, as long as it's a job you care about and want to do well. And no job at all is fine too! The most important thing is knowing why you want to go to law school in the first place.
Bram Elias: Building good professional networks always helps. The best way to do that is to make friends and be a good colleague to your fellow law students. The main reason to do that is because it is the decent and pleasant thing to do - but I guess it's nice to know that not being a jerk is a good career strategy, too.
Katie Atkinson Overberg: The legal market is learning a little later than others how remote work can be successful. Hopefully this will allow attorneys to better balance their professional commitments with personal needs. Remote work can also help law students, for example, if they can remotely compete for an internship that may have otherwise been geographically unavailable to them, allowing them to experience new fields of law. Finally, most employers seem to prefer in-person recruitment when possible, although we all now know we have the flexibility and capability to hold successful recruitment events virtually if the need arises.
Katie Atkinson Overberg: The pandemic has shown us how important it is to be a problem-solver, to be adaptable, and to be a team player. In addition, skills such as empathy, emotional intelligence, and resiliency will always add to a lawyer's talents.
Katie Atkinson Overberg: Legal salaries vary greatly by employer size and geography. The Midwest, and Iowa in particular, has maintained a steady yet conservative increase before the pandemic and held steady during the pandemic, hoping to avoid the cuts and layoffs that occurred during 2008.
Vanessa Johnson: The biggest trends that I have noticed are:
-More remote / work from home opportunities.
-Stagnant and/or reduced compensation (e.g., delayed or smaller merit increases, limited bonuses, reducing or eliminating company match on 401K) due to the economic uncertainty.
-Layoffs, accompanied by severance packages with reduced benefits (compared to pre-pandemic)
-Reduced participation by women in the workforce due to childcare difficulties caused by the pandemic.
-More of a focus on recruiting and retaining diverse talent (driven by the racial unrest / exposure of systemic racism, not the pandemic)
Vanessa Johnson: Data and/or statistical analysis skills, accounting / financial management skills, and coding / programming skills are the technical skills that come to mind. Many people don't think of human resources are a quantitative function, but analytical and financial skills are foundational to all corporate functions. Additionally, because of the overall influence of technology in business, basic coding / programming skills are becoming increasingly important in all corporate functions. Finally, I don't know whether or not language skills fall into the "technical skills" category, but I have seen growth in the requirement of or preference for employees that are bilingual (English and Spanish).
Vanessa Johnson: Generally, I think that human resources salaries mirror the broader market, varying based on location, industry, and specialization. The growth in pay is lower in industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic. However, I think the move to more remote work will result in increased demand for, and therefore the salaries of, compensation specialists. Companies will probably adjust their pay strategies and practices to respond to these changes.
Kevin Johnson: The job market continues to be robust. Hiring by many employers was put off from August to January. Besides the timing change, the hiring market has the hiring of our students has been steady.
Kevin Johnson: Sucess in courses, not curriculum selection, seems to be most important to most employers.
Kevin Johnson: Salaries do not seem to have change much to this point in time.
Robert Birrenkott: I think there will be enduring impacts of the pandemic on recent law graduates entering the legal profession in 2021. The pandemic forced nearly every segment of the legal sector to adopt technological solutions at the exact same time. Whether it was courts allowing parties to appear by video platforms, law offices transitioning to work from home arrangements, or client meetings that used to take place in person now occurring virtually, the vast majority of the legal profession simultaneously made these adjustments.
As a result, I think the legal industry collectively has become more accepting of these platforms and realized that there can be increases in efficiency without adversely impacting the delivery of legal services. So, while I think these changes were forced by the pandemic, the legal profession will elect to retain them, and in that sense, the pandemic will create an enduring impact on recent graduates. These changes may afford more flexibility for recent graduates in terms of working from home, but if this is the case, it may also make it more difficult for recent graduates to build relationships with others within their organizations.
Robert Birrenkott: I think the very nature of what it means to be "at work" is currently up for consideration. Before the pandemic, there would have been a very clear understanding of what this meant. Now, this is more open for debate. Lawyers have realized that their work can be done in a remote fashion in a manner that may reduce costs and increase productivity. I would not be surprised if a segment of recent graduates were "at work" despite not leaving their home.
Robert Birrenkott: First, recent graduates should be prepared to work hard and demonstrate the ability to deliver a high quality product. In a law firm setting, a recent graduate's "client" is likely to be an internal lawyer with more seniority, and it is important to demonstrate to your client the ability to provide outstanding service and produce outstanding work. Second, seek out more established associates at the firm with stellar reputations, and learn how they were able to advance so you can follow in their footsteps.
Third, begin to strengthen client development skills and identify outside organizations to become involved in. While there is not an expectation that you will bring in new business in the early stage of your career, that does not mean recent graduates should ignore beginning to develop skills in this arena... begin to cultivate relationships that will develop over time. Fourth, take care of yourself and be patient. There is a steep learning curve for recent graduates, so be kind to yourself, develop good habits, and keep the big picture in mind as you begin your legal career.
New England Law | Boston
Career Services Department
Peter Towne: The legal world has been fortunate in not being hit as hard by the pandemic as other sectors of the economy. As with others though, we've seen a big shift towards remote work and increased flexibility in the workplace location. Thankfully, even now with many courthouses shifting to remote hearings and appearances for the time being, the past year has proven that most legal work can be done in a remote capacity and so there are still jobs and opportunity to be had. A silver lining here as well is that anything that was litigation based and had significant slowdowns due to the initial shutdown, will still likely see consistent work increases moving forward due to the now mounting backlog in the court system that will keep litigators busy for years to come.
Also, we are likely to see other upward shifts in legal work similar to other economic down turns, as there tends to be an uptick in the kinds of legal work that helps sort out the challenges faced when things go poorly. In other words, any areas where there are widespread economic challenges, the fallout tends to create legal work. For example, we'll likely see increases in bankruptcy filings, mortgage/foreclosure related litigation, evictions/housing disputes, issues around unemployment benefits, and general consumer protection actions related to consumer debt and predatory lending practices. Interestingly, despite the challenges of the pandemic, another area that has seen consistent work is real estate, resulting from the positive impact of lower borrowing costs, and perhaps some urban flight. There also is likely to be a continued uptick in divorce filings and family law related disputes.
Long term there will inevitably be other unique or novel challenges that crop up that attorneys will be called in to assist with as a result of the current crisis. Some of these may be related to contract disputes in the entertainment industry or event planning, as well as possible changes in the insurance landscape relating to business interruption insurance, workers compensation coverage, or health insurance issues.
Peter Towne: In a typical law office or other legal setting, technical skills aren't the biggest priority as much of the work in the legal world was still highly analog prior to 2020. Overall, the expectations are set fairly low in this category for legal practitioners as a result, but there is a certain amount of basic skill that is assumed in using software for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations. The past year has created some opportunity for those that are skilled in a virtual setting, i.e. using video conferencing or knowing how to file documents electronically, to stand out.
I would encourage any law student to take advantage of the various opportunities in law school to learn as much as they can about using legal research platforms, including certifications offered by Lexis and Westlaw. Though it can be difficult to predict what methods a legal employer will use for this part of the job, the skills are easily transferrable. In a similar way, familiarity with practice management, billing, or administrative software can be an advantage. It may not be a "need to have" for a candidate to get a great job, but certainly a "nice to have" that can help boost a candidates profile.
Peter Towne: Out of law school, a good job can look very different depending on each person's interests and aspirations. That being said, generally a good job is one in legal practice, i.e. requires bar passage a license to practice law, or a position that requires a level of skill or knowledge that having a juris doctor degree provides an advantage, such as in compliance, regulatory affairs, corporate governance, data privacy/security, HR, or risk management.
Bryan Morgan: The Class of 2021 has dealt with the coronavirus for an entire year and it has impacted their in-person classes, clinical training where students can assist clients and moot court and trial competition.
However, the Class of 2021 has adapted well with video capabilities provided by the law school for classes and simulated trial training as well as their individual use of Zoom, Skype and Facetime to conduct interviews for jobs. This ability to adapt could prove to be the best skill this graduating class will have in the new job market.
Bryan Morgan: Passing the State Bar Exam in the states where our graduates will practice is the key certification for each graduate. Preparation for the exam and the actual taking of the exam are impacted by the coronavirus but all of the State Bars have given several exams in the coronavirus environment.
Bryan Morgan: As mentioned earlier, the Class of 2021 can adapt and are also resilient which should help them succeed in their legal careers.