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LEGAL CENTS: Recent graduates look out-of-the-box

Carole Waters stands in Kenai, Alaska, where she interned for eight weeks in 2010 before landing a paid position. Today’s law school graduates are scrambling to find new ways into a persistently difficult job market. (Photo submitted by Carole Waters)

Carole Waters stands in Kenai, Alaska, where she interned for eight weeks in 2010 before landing a paid position. Today’s law school graduates are scrambling to find new ways into a persistently difficult job market. (Photo submitted by Carole Waters)

It’s May, and for many aspiring lawyers, that means graduation time; what should be a time of celebration.

But this spring’s graduates, like many of late, face a hard reality once they’ve returned the caps and gowns: the persistently brutal job market.

Nilesh Patel, JD career advisor with the University of Wisconsin Law School, said that in the past two years, about half of the school’s graduating class did not have positions lined up. While the numbers aren’t yet in for the Class of 2011, he suspects that figure won’t be dramatically different.

Paul Katzman, Marquette University Law School’s assistant dean for career planning, said Marquette’s statistics are about the same.

The difficult job market is not news, however, and many of today’s students, aware of the challenges they face, are finding other routes to take. From unpaid internships to pay alternatives, here is what some recent graduates are doing to make use of their hard-earned education.

Katzman said his office will post private-sector internship positions to Marquette students and graduates, even if they are unpaid. That wasn’t the policy in the past, he said, but the economy has persuaded them to reconsider.

An important caveat:  If it’s a job for a student, his office requires attorney supervision. Moreover, the burden is on the employer to be in compliance with state and federal wage and hour laws. Katzman recommends reviewing Fact Sheet 71 on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website regarding internship programs under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

With unpaid internships, firms can tap into some high-quality help, though they might be buried in resumes, Katzman said.

That was a great problem to have, said Brookfield lawyer Jon Groth, who posted an internship opening at Marquette a year ago. Scads of law-review/dean’s list types applied, he said. Groth interviewed many candidates, and finally offered the position to Andy Christman.

This past summer, Christman attended depositions, mediations and client intake meetings, in addition to drafting summons and complaints and other pleadings. It was a great deal of directly supervised, hands-on experience that many other 2Ls didn’t get, Groth said. Also, it didn’t take long for him to put Christman on the payroll.

“Last year the job market was such that if you weren’t applying to anything and everything that came along, you were really doing yourself a disservice,” Christman said. “I knew plenty of people who didn’t have anything last summer or something non-legal related. And I guess I would’ve rather get experience, than do nothing.”

Taking the position made his summer “a little rough financially,” Christman said, but it was manageable.

“Jon made sure it was a good learning experience, and it has been,” he said. “He’s been a mentor.”

There are other ways to get paid for unpaid work, however.

In 2010 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 28 students took advantage of its 3L Volunteer Opportunities Stipend Program. Students each received a $1,500 stipend from the university for eight weeks of unpaid work in public-interest positions in government agencies or non-profits.

Carole Waters was among them. In 2009, as a 2L, she interned with the Alaska Public Defender Agency through a different program. Then around graduation time in 2010, she asked if she could return for another internship, using the Volunteer Opportunities Stipend. The agency said yes.

Confident her future would be in Alaska, Waters studied for its bar in Madison for a few months, she said.

Once in Alaska, the day before she took the bar exam, she “camped out” in front of the door of the Public Defender’s hiring attorney, she said, in order to get him to talk to her. After meeting with her, the attorney asked Waters if she’d be willing to work in Kenai, a coastal town with a population of less than 10,000.

Waters went there the following Monday, she said, and interned for the next eight weeks at its office of the Public Defender Agency.

“The week that my money ran out and I didn’t know what I’d be doing, the Kenai office had a vacancy, and they interviewed me because I was already in the office,” she said. “On that Friday, they told me I had a full-time job.”

It’s been a tremendous experience, she said. After practicing for about half a year, she has her own clients and has already tried a case to a jury.

A note about the 3L Volunteer Stipend program:  This year, Patel said, small law firms in remote areas of the state are eligible as well — so if you’re a  small-firm owner, I suggest you contact him, for now or next summer.

Experimenting with pay alternatives

Not everyone can or wants to relocate, however.

It wasn’t an option for Megan Phillips, a 2010 UW Law grad whose fiancé is employed in Madison. She had a hard time finding a job, she said, especially with a search area limited to near Madison.

Phillips networked incessantly, though, which led to an interview with her current employer, Erhard & Payette LLC, Madison.

The firm proposed an “eat what you kill” arrangement, where Phillips and other non-owners of the firm earn 40 percent of the bill collected for their services. Those working under the arrangement also receive 10 percent of all the collected fees for any work they bring to the firm, regardless of who actually works the case.

Mike Erhard, who hired Phillips, said he came up with the idea after years as a partner/shareholder with big law firms that often use similar arrangements to compensate the partners.

“My idea was to reward work and reward origination,” Erhard said. “Part of the fun of practicing law is client relations.”

Phillips said the arrangement has worked out well for her, though she acknowledges it was a risk and the money is not reliable.

“You can have a slow month, and then be super busy the next,” she said. “It was less of a risk for the employer to hire me, because if there’s no work then I don’t make money. And if there is work, then they have the support they need.”

Unreliable though it may be, the money has been good, Phillips said; so good that when the firm offered her a traditional pay arrangement a few months in, she turned it down.

“For me it’s worked out really well, and I think I’ve actually wound up making more than a lot of the friends I have who took salaried jobs,” she said.

Phillips said she knows of more and more classmates being offered similar pay arrangements, she said.

To make such an arrangement work, Erhard said, the employer needs to be willing to mentor, which is a big time commitment, but one he said he has been willing to make.

“Megan has thrived on this,” he said.

Jane Pribek can be reached at [email protected].

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