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July 9, 2018 FOCUS: Law

CT law-school grads finding jobs as legal-industry employment stabilizes

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper UConn School of Law graduate Ryan Powell takes a break from studying for July's multistate bar exam.
HBJ PHOTO | Joe Cooper UConn School of Law at 55 Elizabeth St. in Hartford.

Ryan Powell is among thousands of recent law graduates studying for July's multistate bar exam, but like many other Connecticut pupils, he isn't worried about finding a job.

That's because Powell, 26, has already accepted an employment offer from Goldberg Segalla, a corporate law firm located in downtown Hartford. And he's not alone. Of the 153 students who recently graduated from UConn's Hartford law school, about 115 pupils (or 77 percent) said they landed a job by commencement.

Industry experts say the legal job market for recent grads has stabilized and begun to rebound in certain practice areas over the last two years after suffering a blow during and following the Great Recession. Consequently, Connecticut's three law schools are reporting high rates of student employment following graduation.

Some larger firms have been expanding and looking to recruit more diverse candidates to meet client needs, says Michael Menapace, new president of the 1,800-member Hartford County Bar Association. Firms are looking to recruit, hire and retain more diverse junior associates than ever before, he says.

“Because clients are demanding better diversity … firms are responding,” Menapace said. “Attracting and retaining them is a big issue amongst law firms right now.”

Graduates are also fortunate that firms are adding lawyers to accommodate growing practice areas such as cybersecurity, data protection, labor, employment, employee retirement and health care, said Menapace, who is also a Quinnipiac law professor and parter of Wiggin and Dana LLP.

Still, smaller firms in Connecticut aren't growing as fast due to the state's limp economy, he said.

“Law firms go where the clients are,” Menapace said. “Until there is a change in the business climate here, the law firms that focus on corporate clients are going to look outside the region for growth.”

But despite the state's stagnant economy, Connecticut law graduates are finding jobs at a higher rate than the national average.

The UConn School of Law reported that in 2017, 135 out of its 153 student graduates (88 percent) found work within 10 months of commencement, according to the American Bar Association (ABA) ranking system. About 90 percent of UConn law student graduates secured work over that period between 2015 to 2017.

By comparison, about 86 percent of Quinnipiac University School of Law graduates from 2015 to 2017 were employed less than 10 months from graduation. At Yale University School of Law, more than 94 percent of graduates found work within that period, ABA says.

Nationally, more than 75 percent of 2017 graduates across the nation's 204 law schools were employed under 10 months after graduation, ABA data show. In 2016, that number was 73 percent.

The jobs students landed vary, but in Connecticut most recent grads work in positions that require a state license, including gigs at law firms, businesses or within government.

Making connections

The traditional path to law-sector employment has not changed recently at mid- to large-sized firms, experts say, as pupils begin internships after two years of instruction with the hope of that leading to full-time employment.

Powell took a similar path, but accepted an offer outside his internship at Goldberg Segalla just days after graduation.

On a recent afternoon studying for the bar exam at UConn, the Hartford native recalled a “rigorous” three-month application process that included five hours of interviews over two days with several partners.

“I think the whole goal is to be consistent and apply to as many different places within your interests that you can,” said Powell, who earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from UConn in 2014. “The process worked for me.”

Powell credits the law school's career-planning center, which he says helped most of his classmates stay informed about available internships or associate positions that led to job offers weeks, or even months, before graduation.

The career-services department, led by director Meredith O'Keefe, helps pupils identify practice areas through individualized counseling and self-assessment reports and also offers recruiting services, professional building workshops, mock interviews and a variety of corporate and alumni job fairs.

Inundated by numerous practice options, law students are often applying to jobs in either litigation, intellectual property, public interest, family, immigration, insurance or criminal law, among other options.

O'Keefe's office connects students with UConn's Rolodex of local firms known for recruiting the school's top talent before graduation. The job market heats up again after graduates pass the July bar exam, she said.

“Law schools, including UConn, have a very structured and organized employment recruiting program,” said O'Keefe, a UConn alum and former public interest lawyer. “We have found that the students able to hone in on practice areas of interest tend to be the most successful in the job search.”

Entry points

O'Keefe and Menapace said jobs aren't readily available in certain practice areas, but both agreed opportunity looms, particularly in public interest law, which is oftentimes overlooked by graduates.

Public interest law provides an untapped job market for positions at nonprofit and legal-aid organizations and others within government, they said.

Menapace said 80 percent of family law cases have one unrepresented party as many families cannot afford traditional law services. The lack of representation is harming the legal system, he says.

“An area that courts, clients and law firms have been struggling with are the individual clients who do not qualify for legal aid but cannot afford full retail services,” he said. “The client base is underserved.”

Quinnipiac law school graduate Amanda Smallhorn is seizing opportunities in public interest law, representing poorer, incarcerated and marginalized clients.

Smallhorn, 29, of Southbury, will begin a one-year fellowship in September with a new group including the Connecticut Bar Foundation and the Singer Family Foundation. The partnership is meant to help public interest lawyers work and remain in Connecticut.

After graduating from UConn with a bachelor's degree in English, she spent years as a grant writer and advocate for women prisoners. Despite her experience, Smallhorn must apply for a second year in the fellowship. If needed, Smallhorn says she will apply for a grant to fund her work.

She said aspiring law students needn't worry about the job market, suggesting opportunities arise when lawyers pursue their passions.

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