Brother, can you spare a retainer fee?
Being a lawyer, once thought to be a near guarantee of prosperity, is no sure bet anymore -- even in Las Vegas.
Jobs are particularly hard to come by in Southern Nevada, where the overall unemployment rate has reached a record 15 percent. And attorneys, it seems, aren't getting a free pass out of the economic suffering.
"With the downturn in the economy, we've seen firms lay off attorneys. Very few firms are hiring law grads right now," said Cam Ferenbach, the president of the State Bar of Nevada. "It's going to be tough for new grads. They are competing against more experienced lawyers."
Alex Fugazzi, the attorney handling hiring for the Las Vegas Snell & Wilmer law office, is deluged with applications these days. He suspects desperation when Ivy League grads start filling his e-mail inbox and postal mail slot with résumés.
"I get résumés from Harvard, from Ivy League schools, and we get résumés from 'white shoe' (long-established) law firms in New York and Chicago, from lawyers who used to be able to write their own tickets," he listed. "I'd never seen these people before '08 or '09."
Snell & Wilmer is one of a small number of firms adding staff, both to promote from its summer associates program and to fill vacancies. The office hired eight associates this year for a net gain of five lawyers and added five associates in 2009 for a net increase of three attorneys.
But Fugazzi isn't ready to paint a rosy picture of the job market for lawyers.
"Everybody wants to be optimistic, but it has not changed a lot since the recession began," he said. "This (downturn) could be a permanent change."
The small number of practices that are hiring have a flood of applicants for the scarce spots. Law schools in the United States don't generally limit enrollment the way medical schools do, Ferenbach said. And, he added, Nevada has become a magnet for young attorneys seeking their fortunes.
"We only have one law school here (in Nevada), but other (states') graduates come here to practice law because they think there are jobs," he said.
As of July 1, the State Bar of Nevada had 7,940 active members. About 80 percent of those members, or 6,382, have their office in Nevada, Ferenbach said.
Lawyers held about 759,200 jobs in the United States as of 2008, the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. That calculation was done before the Great Recession.
Nevertheless, some law offices continue to hire, and the lack of employment opportunities isn't slowing local interest in attending law school.
Applications at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' William S. Boyd School of Law have increased steadily over the last three years, even during the worst of the economic recession, said John Valery White, the law school's dean.
Applications to Boyd have risen by about 15 a year. The law school had about 1,750 applicants at the beginning of the fall semester. That number was up from about 1,700 three years ago, White said.
The Las Vegas Valley might have slightly more opportunities for legal-job seekers than most areas, White surmised. He expects to be able to place at least 70 percent of the 2010 Boyd Law School graduates.
The plethora of smaller, independent law practices locally provides more options for new graduates, White said.
"That's the benefit; there are more places for students to apply to," White said. "With large firms, the decisions to cut back are made someplace else, far, far away."
The monetary rewards of pursuing a law career aren't what they once were. What, an observer could wonder, became of those rare $120,000 associates' starting salaries discussed during boom times?
"They don't really exist now," White said. "The average starting salary for law students has gone down dramatically. There are fewer starting jobs in the six figures and more in the five-figure range."
Some new law graduates may be looking at starting salaries as low as the $40,000s, White said.
And those getting any job are probably the lucky ones.
Greenberg Traurig's Las Vegas office has hired a few fresh law grads in about a year's time. But mostly, managing shareholder Mark Tratos wants new attorneys who bring what he calls their own "books of business," or client roster.
His intellectual-property practice has a very limited amount of time to devote to teaching fresh law grads the legal ropes.
"There is a huge cost to hiring new lawyers right out of law school. You have a huge investment in their recruitment and their training," Tratos said. "That's time your (experienced) lawyers are not getting billable hours because they are educating."
John Mowbray, the managing partner of business law firm Fennemore Craig, agreed that newly licensed attorneys require a lot of time-consuming training.
"When someone gets out of law school, they know just enough law to be dangerous," he said. "But we feel it is important to hire and train lawyers for our long-term development.
Fennemore Craig added two lawyers this year, and plans to grow very conservatively going forward, Mowbray added.
Demand for select areas of law, such as bankruptcy, labor and some types of litigation, increases during a recession. Littler Mendelson Las Vegas partner Patrick Hicks said he is seeing more employment-related cases at his Las Vegas office, which is hiring.
Experience is required, however.
"We need people who can hit the ground running, and start taking on cases right away," Hicks said. "We don't have much time to train (new law graduates) right now. We are too busy."
The time lag between the initial hire and a new graduate's start date may require law firm management to predict the economic future. Many law students also participate in summer associate programs a year before graduation, so new hires are often selected about 12 to 24 months out.
"This is why law firms are being conservative in hiring," Fugazzi said. "You have to try to read the tea leaves and see what business will be (like) two years out."
Tratos noted that many firms don't want to take that risk.
"I think it is not a very good job market out there for you lawyers," Tratos said.
"The business community has to recover before law firms feel confident to hire lawyers."
Some attorney positions are available in the Las Vegas Valley, and that number may be increasing ever so slightly, State Bar officials and local attorneys said.
"I am seeing a few more help wanted ads posted through the State Bar," Ferenbach said. "It might be easing, just a little."
Those rare openings draw many applications from dissatisfied-but-still-employed lawyers, laid-off attorneys, solo practitioners, new law school grads and those still looking for steady work years after graduation.
Regional law firms, including Phoenix-based Snell & Wilmer and Lewis and Roca, continue to hire a small number of new attorneys each year. Some of those are first-year associates.
Lewis and Roca's Las Vegas office added five attorneys to bring its lawyer count to around 50. The local office added two lawyers a year ago, Lewis and Roca recruitment director Mary Kiley said.
Lewis and Roca has had a little attrition and has hired some of its summer associates, she said.
"We are probably about the same size or a little larger than two years ago," Kiley said. "We probably would have been about 46 or 48 then."
Last year, just one new associate was hired, so it's a slight improvement.
"We didn't cut back on hiring associates during the recession. Since 2008, we hired two first-year law students and two second-year law students," said Chris Jorgensen, the chairman of Lewis and Roca's recruiting committee.
Lewis and Roca cut back on recruiting right out of law school in other areas of the country, but not in Las Vegas, Jorgensen said.
"We have stayed pretty busy," he said.
McDonald Carano Wilson, Bailey Kennedy and Jones Vargas have all hired a few new attorneys. Sometimes those hires are recent law school graduates; other times, they have some experience.
Regardless of the level of expertise, most firms emphasize commitment to staying in Nevada.
"I want to hear about what you love about Nevada, or how your wife has family here," Snell & Wilmer's Fugazzi advised job applicants. "I don't want you to look at us as a place to wait out the recession for two years, then go back to New York."
Jeff Silvestri, a partner at McDonald Carano Wilson, concurred.
"When we look at applicants, we prefer to see someone who has a meaningful connection to Nevada," he said.
The pain may not end for out-of-work lawyers even if the economy recovers.
Before the recession, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that 98,500 new jobs would be created for lawyers nationwide between 2008 and 2018. That 13 percent growth outlook seems doubtful now.
Law schools nationwide are churning out new graduates faster than the past grads can find jobs. As a result, the graduating classes of the last few years are becoming known as the "lost generation," said Paul Hejmanowski, managing partner of law firm Lionel Sawyer & Collins.
"The law schools keep turning out grads, but where are these kids going to go?" he asked.
A few more opportunities exist in Las Vegas for Boyd Law graduates, Hejmanowski added. But White still worries about students who can't find jobs for years.
"New graduates are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as being more open to learning," he said. "So, from the perspective of big corporate firms, there will be a lost generation."
But these seemingly grim prospects aren't discouraging first-year UNLV law students like Kiera Sears, Erica Okerberg and Danielle Holt.
As the three young women paused by the steps of the Boyd Law School on the UNLV campus, they offered only optimism about the future.
"I think we are a lot better off going to law school than those graduating now," Sears said. "I think things will improve in three years, when we get out."
Contact reporter Valerie Miller at vmiller @lvbusinesspress.com or 702-387-5286.