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Temping is Refuge on Rough Road for Law School Grads

Newly minted lawyers are finding their opportunities for work are few and far between, a fact that is sending many to temporary assignments as their first out-of-school jobs. “I met a recent grad who went to Duke and Harvard Law School, and had done impressive law clerking,” said Cameron Peterson, director of recruiting and staffing at Compliance Staffing’s Los Angeles regional office. “She can’t find a full-time job in this economy.” Compliance specializes in providing contract attorneys (essentially the term for “temps” in the field of law) to clients ranging from large law firms, to medium-sized companies of all types. Compliance, and firms such as Kelly Legal, Ajilon Legal and Black Letter Discovery, report a sizable uptick in the number of candidates knocking on their doors and, to a lesser degree, in the number of firms seeking temporary legal staffing since the beginning of the year. According to Peterson, last year, the average new attorney would have been working the day after graduating if they so desired. “What a difference a year makes,” he said. “Because of the layoffs we’ve seen in the profession, the contract lawyer business has been picking up on both sides. There’s an influx of candidates, and that pool is changing in that they are coming from the big national law firms. Correspondingly, there are also a lot more of the big firms utilizing contract lawyers for document review.” For law firms, the growth of the contract lawyer market has an upside: less expensive staffing costs. The down side for such firms is, however, they have fewer opportunities to groom young associates to fit their particular cultures. For recent graduates, having few options besides signing up with temp firms, means missing the chance to fill a dedicated stall in a stable of attorneys where they might cut their teeth. It also means less money. “The pay rate is hourly, and ranges from $30 to $37 an hour,” Peterson said. “It has come down since the beginning of the year because of simple supply and demand.” Peterson said clients are charged about $50 to $60 per hour for a contract lawyer (although that can be higher, as can the pay rate to the lawyer in some cases). “The client can save a significant amount of money by utilizing a contract lawyer instead of hiring a new associate, who can be billed at $300 to $400 per hour,” he said. That’s no solace to those who have recently graduated and passed the bar exam. Shooka Moallem, who passed the exam on her first try, knew she wanted to be a lawyer from a very early age. “They were the heroes for my family,” she said. “As asylum seekers from a Middle Eastern country (Iran), I saw what they could get done for our family when I was just four or five.” Moallem told the Business Journal the attorneys who helped shepherd her family into the safety of political-asylum status in the United States had what she calls a “JFK aura.” Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley, Moallem went to Hoffstra Law School in Long Island, N.Y. and did visiting-student work at Pepperdine University. Yet, so far, the only law jobs she has been offered were equivalent to internships. “Free,” she said. “They wanted me to work for free. I’ve already paid my dues as an intern. Why should I work for free or do the same work as a law clerk or a paralegal for eight or ten dollars an hour that I would be doing as an attorney for five times that much?” Moallem said she has registered with several contract-attorney staffing companies, but has not actually worked for any yet. “I’ve had a couple of experiences where they’ve offered me something and I was ready to go to work, only to have it fall through at the last minute,” she said. “That happened twice.” For now Moallem, who lives in Woodland Hills, is surviving on what she’s been making by doing background work on film and television productions. Although she moved back home with her parents, student loans are still a big expense for her. “At the time I entered law school, first-year law school loans were not available from the federal government, so I had to take out a private loan,” she said. “While my federal loans are on hold as far as repayment goes, I still have to make payments on the first-year money; it’s a significant amount.” Nevertheless, Moallem has no regrets about getting her law degree, and she believes she will eventually find a job as an attorney. In the meantime, it may be at a firm such as Encino-based Greenberg & Bass LLP, which uses contract attorneys to help when a particular client or case outweighs its regular staff resources. “Basically, we had a closing of a large loan transaction and needed another set of eyes and hands to work on some of the docs right toward the end of the case,” said James Felton, managing partner at Greenberg and Bass. For the lawyer who got the job the assignment it was a chance for some much needed income, and a very busy weekend. For Felton’s firm, it meant a neatly sewn-up case delivered complete Monday morning. “We literally hired someone Friday night to work Saturday and Sunday in order to close on Monday,” he said. “Of course there are limitations on what they can do for you. You have to have them review something somewhat general, and not central to the transaction being done.” While weekend work and smaller paychecks are some of the downsides to contract work, there are some upsides, such as being mostly immune to office politics. And, most law staffing companies offer benefits after a certain number of hours have been worked. “We offer health insurance, dental vision and life insurance after three consecutive weeks during which 35 hours per week have been worked,” said Peterson. “It’s the same plan I and my colleagues get.” Peterson said currently he is interviewing an average of 160 candidates per week, of which only about 25 percent are hired. In that light, Shooka Moallem might consider herself lucky to have been accepted into multiple contract attorney staffing firms, even though she has yet to be placed. “My biggest advice to law school graduates is to network,” Peterson said. “There are plenty of legal organizations in the L.A. County area to meet people in the legal community. Just keep being persistent.” And, he said, contract work is not for everyone, noting that much of it is the potentially tedious task of document review. “But it’s a good way to stay connected,” he said. “The typical project lasts three weeks to six months; it’s a wide range.” There are alternatives to conventional staffing firms. One such is Ajilon Legal,which bills itself as a law firm but one to which companies can outsource their legal work. “Because we’re new there’s a big education process ahead,” said Amy Jacoby, head of Ajilon Legal’s regional office serving the San Fernando Valley and all of Los Angeles County. “We hire about one in a hundred applicants, and our attrition rate is comparable if not less than tradition law firms before the downturn.” Ajilon Legal hires lawyers on salary at an average annual rate of $200,000. But, alas, the firm does not hire new graduates.

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