John O’Malley is the recruiting partner at Sacramento’s largest law firm, Downey Brand, which was founded nearly a century ago and employs more than 120 lawyers in five regional offices, 103 of them in Sacramento. As at many law firms, there was belt tightening during the recession, but Downey Brand withstood the financial challenge better than many, including several that sharply downsized or dissolved altogether.
“Overall, the firm has done surprisingly well, given the economy,” says O’Malley, crediting Downey Brand’s diverse practice. “We have continued to hold numbers and grow to some extent.”
Historically, the firm has hired eight to 10 summer associates annually, the entry-level positions for students between their second and third years of law school. But those positions have been a major casualty of the downturn. Last year, the firm hired seven, this year six.
O’Malley, 44, a family law attorney who also serves on the UC Davis School of Law alumni board, says he looks for certain qualities in a new hire: “Being a strong writer is critical. Having some work history is certainly desired. Law firms are businesses, and we’re really looking for people who we can put in front of a client, who presents maturely, who ultimately can be a partner.”
Summer associates typically only spend one session with their firm, though exceptional students are sometimes asked to return. Such was the case for Harveen Gill, 22, who is now entering her third year of law school at UC Davis. Gill says that when she arrived at Downey, she strived to be an amiable worker who could endure professional criticism without becoming defensive. In the application process, Gill focused her personal statement on her family roots and why she wished to start a career in the region.
“I come from a large family of farmers,” she says. “I talked about growing up in the agriculture community and going to law school with the desire to do law in agriculture or agriculture business…That is the reason I would like to stay in the Sacramento region.”
But associates can’t get by on passion alone. Increasingly, many local lawyers say hiring is based on the practical legal experience students have gained during law school — law clinics, moot court, law reviews — an emphasis reflected in a recent decision by the State Bar of California to examine whether to impose a practical skills requirement for bar admission.
“Law firms are looking for students who have been in a clinic, represented clients in a courtroom under the supervision of an attorney, have been in trial competitions,” O’Malley says. “Those (factors) carry more weight than before.” And, as the population becomes more diverse, ethnic diversity is increasingly important. As law firms have adjusted to recessionary times, they also have had to adjust to new technology and to the cost concerns of clients, especially in the corporate world.
“Things have become so mechanized, and there is so much information on the Internet,” says Iris Yang, a partner in the Sacramento office of Best Best & Krieger, a national firm with more than 200 attorneys in eight California offices and Washington, D.C. “You can do things more efficiently, (but) that also creates a greater expectation on the part of clients. Everybody is always checking their emails and expecting prompt responses. Clients are getting more cost-conscious, and they’re asking for different types of billing arrangements.”
A former Sacramento Bee reporter who graduated from the UC Davis law school in 1982, Yang, 61, started her legal career as a summer associate and became a partner at the venerable Sacramento law firm of McDonough Holland & Allen, which had been one of Sacramento’s largest law firms before shuttering in 2010. “There were plenty of jobs when I graduated,” she says. “Now, that is not the case.”
Her son David Gibson, a 2010 graduate of Tulane University Law School in New Orleans, “was incredibly lucky and found a job (with a San Francisco firm) in a couple of months. But he was very stressed out for two to three months, working for free, serving internships.”
Her advice for today’s graduates? “They ought to think carefully about why they want to go to law school. For some people, it’s just more school — they don’t really know why.” She advises them to “get some experience for a couple of years. See what the real world is like.”
Job placement and help with school loans have become major challenges for law schools as the nature of law practice changes and the job market remains tight. At UC Davis, an active career center staff works to prepare students for interviews and jobs. “A lot of what I do is helping students prepare for their interviews,” says Craig Compton, assistant dean for career services at the UC Davis School of Law.
As firms have reduced hiring, Compton says larger firms — hard hit by the recession and sometimes forced to rescind job offers — have become “very conservative” in their hiring. “They don’t want to go back to where they have to rescind offers.” The result for law schools, he says, “is more outreach to small and mid-size firms to increase the number of employers who will hire students and give them experience.”
Compton says he encourages alumni and other contacts to hire graduates on a trial period while they await bar results. “Try them out on an hourly basis,” he says, “not as an expectation of permanent hire, but a paid tryout. Bill them out at a modest rate. Re-evaluate when they receive bar results.
“In a good percentage, the law firm really likes them,” he says. “If for whatever reason it doesn’t work out — not a good fit, work product — that law student has real experience on their resume that they can sell to another employer.”
Slowly and with abundant caution, Compton and other law school administrators and law firms see the Capital Region’s job market improving, including signs of tepid hiring in some sectors of government.
“The market for the class of 2013 is better than the previous two years,” says Compton, and more employers are recruiting on campus. Among large law firms, he says, “The numbers are starting to grow again.”
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