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A month or two ago, the prospects for law students and newly minted lawyers were among the best in decades. According to the National Association of Law Placement, for example, the offer rate for summer internships was an astonishing 98%. Meanwhile, law school applications have been up, with a higher quality of applicants compared to previous years.
Unfortunately, the novel coronavirus has dramatically altered the landscape for law student prospects. Summer associate programs have been delayed. On-campus interviews have similarly been postponed. There is still no clear idea what will happen for the July bar exam. Law students are left wondering if their best-laid plans still have any chance of coming to fruition.
Fortunately, it isn't all bleak. Some law firms have already come out to say that they will still hire students who are now being graded on a pass/fail basis. Law schools, early adopters of social distancing, are nonetheless home to many supportive communities. And don't forget that law students everywhere are all in the same boat. While the competition may increase – however dramatically — being graded on a pass/fail basis now doesn't mean you can't distinguish yourself in other ways.
There is precedent for the job prospects now facing law students. After the Great Recession, larger firms began cutting the number of new associates. These firms grew to rely on increased billable hours. Even still, new associates bill about the same amount of hours as they did after the recession.
This means that larger law firms absolutely rely on new talent. While layoffs have already begun, larger law firms have developed a pipeline for new attorneys that many will be reluctant to give up.
Meanwhile, just as in 2008, law students can find alternative paths. Lateral hiring is much more frequent now than it used to be, a change that partially stems from the Great Recession. Your first job out of law school is by no means where you need to end up.
While jobs at firms may dry up due to decreased revenue, demand for legal services is almost certain to increase. Bankruptcies, employment issues, family law and numerous other legal issues will require attorneys. In such an environment, flexible law firms may not only survive, but thrive. However, it is quite possible the COVID-19 outbreak will alter the way law firms operate.
Abstract contemplations about the state of the legal industry moving forward are fine, but what are some concrete steps law students can take now? Here are a few:
Don't give up hope. While COVID-19 may be unprecedented, this is not the first time law students have faced difficult economic circumstances. It'll be okay.