For a freshly graduated lawyer trying to start their career during a nightmare pandemic, fear is not an option. Unfortunately, neither is landing a dream job. New lawyers like Alison Corn, who CEB last spoke to before her graduation from UC Davis Law School last spring, have been forced to create a new reality for themselves. Specializing in a niche intersection of tech and law dubbed legal design, Corn merges her app-building knowledge with her knowledge as an attorney.Just before graduating law school, Corn co-developed an award-winning app called Next Step Advisor, designed to help self-represented litigants in domestic abuse cases in Yolo County by presenting step-by-step procedures to file charges and get legal justice against their abusers. It was presented at the Georgetown Iron Tech Lawyer Invitational and wound up being the highest-placing American app and came in second place overall.

But although her success in school led to employment, Corn hasn’t been able to get a solid full-time job. Instead, she currently works three part-time jobs as a legal web developer in the financially strained nonprofit sector trying to make ends meet in the area she loves. It’s a constant balancing act, trying to help push her career forward in a barren market while trying to pay back her student loans.

“I would like to believe that I do have a career in legal design,” Corn says. “I’m not sure because you know it is a very niche, untraditional attorney path. So it’s you know it’s there’s a lot of uncertainty in it. And I think that’s how I would describe the legal field right now for new graduates.”

What first-year lawyers are experiencing in the job market now is unlike anything most practicing lawyers have seen in their lifetime as hopes of a clear cut path get slimmer by the day. Even for more traditional soon-to-be lawyers like Jennifer Jimenez, a 3L at Loyola Law School with aspirations of becoming a prosecutor in Ventura County, the recent hiring freeze on government jobs leaves little hope of that happening anytime soon.

Many of her friends who had dreams of clerking for the Ninth Circuit or getting a job out of an externship at their ideal law firm have been told they’re not hiring, and in some cases had offers rescinded. Jimenez says she’s abandoned her DA dreams for now while studying to take the bar in February and will apply anywhere that is hiring, including civil litigation firms or even as a defense attorney.

“I’ve been told to just hang in there, worst case scenario, take a law clerk job because even though the pay is really bad it might turn into an attorney job, so I’ve been told to take anything that comes my way,” Jimenez says. “But then I’ve also been told don’t do that, because you take yourself off the market when the job you want comes around, so it’s hard to decide what to do and everyone gives you different opinions. But I guess you can’t give up, right?”

At Least It’s Not as Bad as Law School

It’s not an easy time to stay optimistic in any business, let alone the legal profession, where the one-year student loan deferments for many recent law school grads were eaten up by a year of unemployment amid the pandemic.

Meanwhile, law schools have had to scramble to prepare students to take the bar exam in a remote environment, making it harder to learn for students like Jimenez. In a Forbes column, students were asked if they would “reconsider continuing your legal education” in an era of social distancing and remote learning. More than 30% of students answered yes, and nearly 40% more said, “no, but I may take a hiatus until things return to normal.” More than 20% said they are reconsidering their career path. Some 87% said they thought their education would be overpriced if they had to continue it remotely. And most were concerned about rules in nearly all states restricting the ability of lawyers educated online to take the bar exam.

Most recent law graduates — like UC San Diego graduate Joseph Cheng, who also spoke to CEB last spring — are still waiting on their bar exam scores from October. However, Cheng says he’s happy to be out of law school, which he previously described as a tough arena to stay motivated in when it came to remote learning. However, the ability to work on helping actual clients has been nice since finding a job at a boutique IP law firm.

“The motivation isn’t an issue anymore, because every day I wake up I’m doing legal work, doing legal research, writing memorandums, writing cease and desists, writing complaints — so it’s all just legal work,” Cheng says. “I think the big motivating factor is that these are actual clients, not hypothetical work or hypothetical formulas, it’s helping a client get something done.”

Cheng says that for the time being, his job has alleviated the anxiety of waiting for his scores to come in. “Even though there’s nothing I can do now to change what I did in October, there’s kind of a relief because I can deal with that later,” Cheng says. “For now I can enjoy working because working is a different ball game than studying, because I’m getting paid to work versus paying a lot of money to take a test.”

Putting One Foot In Front of the Other

Many students have also taken advantage of a California Supreme Court order issued last July approving a proposal to allow anyone who graduates in 2020 to practice with a provisional license, with the requirement that they pass the bar by 2023. Some have also found success in gaining experience through pro bono work that allows them to learn the basics in different corners of the legal profession while they wait for jobs to open up.

“I think it’s important to develop legal experience, and grads should keep in mind that those skills will be transferable wherever they’re headed in the long run,” says Jolene Horn, a career development advisor for Loyola Law School. “Many employers, including government employers, appreciate diversity of experience and that helps build a well rounded attorney by the time they come to their office.”

The main caveat right now, of course, is that government jobs aren’t likely to be available any time soon, and many private sector firms are unable to project their need for new attorneys in the wake of yet another lockdown due to COVID.

“I think that also gives some of the firms pause when it comes to hiring,” Horn says. In speaking with employers, she’s heard optimism that when the vaccine comes out and courts are open again there will be more activity in the legal market, but they don’t want to make offers to hire until it’s closer to the time when they need somebody to come work for them. “I see people putting one foot in front of the other and those are the people that persevere, they start having success and that is really the tie that binds among people who are moving forward and doing well,” Horn says.

Hope on the Horizon

Despite the pandemic upending the start of many legal careers, Horn says she’s been impressed with recent law graduates, who’ve shown a lot of resilience during this chaotic time at the beginning of their careers.

As jobs do return with the advent of a COVID vaccine, there are still aspects of remote work that new lawyers will likely want to keep that involves less time on the road, more time billing, and pushing remote technology that (hopefully) makes the justice system move faster. Many places have seen the benefits of remote working, and that will probably have some staying power in the future legal market in terms of what work spaces will look like.

Corn says that remote work and tech innovations like the app she came up with in law school also help to push innovation in the legal system — which, despite a constant influx of new law, is slow to change when it comes to access and equality for litigants in terms of accessibility.

“We could be making sure that our video conferencing platforms have closed captioning so that everyone can participate meaningfully. Just having folks in the legal system that can think about solutions for those very unique problems would be a benefit to our system,” Corn says. “And so I think that’s what gives me hope, is that while this has been a very challenging year for everyone, it’s also brought to light ways in which we can make our systems better for everyone.”

© The Regents of the University of California, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited