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Finding Their Place

By Donna Mallard | Apr. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Apr. 2, 2015

Finding Their Place

The legal economy is expanding, but many law school grads still struggle to make ends meet. We profile nine lawyers making their way.

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Following his second year at UC Berkeley School of Law, Adam Z. Bierman worked as a summer associate at Latham & Watkins. A year later he stepped into the big-firm world of high-powered connections and started earning a good salary to help pay off $125,000 in law school debt.

Such was one graduate's dream come true, but despite an improving economy many newly minted lawyers are forced to consider less lucrative opportunities. For most of the past 40 years the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has been collecting survey data showing that the percentage of emerging lawyers who have landed in private practice right out of law school hovers between 55 and 58 percent. In 2013 it was just 51.1 percent.

"[College] graduates must enter law school with the understanding that the jobs picture, while strengthening, is one that will continue to evolve," NALP Executive Director James Leipold said in a 2014 employment report, "and in the course of that evolution it is almost certain that new opportunities will present themselves, just as it is certain that some traditional opportunities that law school graduates have long counted on will continue to erode."

Although the legal sector was badly scarred by the Great Recession of 200709, it is seeing signs of recovery. According to the 2015 annual report by the Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession, law firm financial performance ticked up, if modestly, last year.

However, estimates are that roughly 36,000 new students will start law school this fall, a figure notably down from previous years. Nevertheless, fewer graduates and a growing, if more competitive, legal economy bode well for job hunters.

According to projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of lawyers is expected to increase by about 10 percent between 2012 and 2022. However, there remain conflicting currents: Some attorney jobs may be lost through price competition, as firms give work previously done by attorneys to paralegals and legal assistants. Document review is one prime example. At the same time, in-house legal departments are growing. Government agencies also continue to employ lawyers.

So the question is, where are law school graduates going in that first or second year after earning their JD? Also, are their salaries enough to cover their loans-between $150,000 and $200,000 for some-once they pass the bar?

Here are the stories of nine recent law school graduates who have entered the profession. Alongside the more traditional career arcs, some are also teaching yoga, developing apps, writing books, or even starting their own firms. Though it may have taken them some time to find their place, they are happy with where they landed.

Tara Burd
Age: 30
Founder, T. Burd Law Group, San Diego
Practice: Business transactions and litigation, estate planning
Law school: California Western School of Law, San Diego
Focus in school: Criminal and defense
Graduated: 2010
Passed bar: 2011
Hourly rate: $200
Law school debt: $85,000
Mentor: Kevin Carlin, Carlin Law Group

With a referral from a friend after passing the bar, Burd got her first job scanning documents at Carlin Law Group in San Diego for $15 an hour.

"I kept talking to [principal Kevin Carlin] about applying for jobs, asking him what you have to have on your resume to get a call back," Burd says. She had applied to five other firms in her hometown of San Diego but to no avail. "He would say, 'You need experience.' Then after one week he said, 'Why don't I get someone else to scan documents?' He sat me in an empty office and in a few weeks gave me my first client."

Carlin's firm, which serves the construction industry, downsized when the housing market crashed a few years earlier. But as construction started to pick up in early 2011, Carlin needed help. He also knew it didn't make sense for clients with minor cases to pay the rate that he bills, so instead Carlin sent them to Burd, who at first charged $75 an hour.

Although Burd wasn't his employee, Carlin gave her an office to use rent free until she was able to build a steady income (she later repaid the rental debt). It was up to Burd to get insurance, create a marketing approach, and keep her own accounts. "Pretty quickly I learned this is the way to go for me," she says. "I'm cut out for it because I'm good with the business of law versus the practice of law. It's not just drafting discovery; it's about running a business."

Perhaps the most valuable resources Carlin has provided are simply being around to answer Burd's questions and allowing her to use his electronic case files-access she wouldn't have if she were completely on her own. "He's really what allowed me to progress," Burd says. "I don't think anyone can get experience without mentorship. There are times I have no idea what I'm doing, and I need to talk it out, or I need validation and guidance."

Since Burd started her practice in 2011, she has found another, more experienced lawyer who works with her as a co-counsel.

Though Burd has no doubt about her future as an independent lawyer, that confidence wasn't always there: "It was hard to imagine not receiving a paycheck" from an employer, she says.

Burd's career path was carved out of limited choices; still, she wouldn't trade it for anything. "A lot of recent grads look too narrowly at the situation; the only thing they see is big law firms. There is so much more out there," she says. "I make what [firms] are paying, so it would only be for stability. But I would have no freedom, and would not be able to do the things I enjoy doing."

Violeta Diaz
Age: 29
Associate, Rancaño & Rancaño; Modesto
Practice: Personal injury and
Law school: Humphreys
College Laurence Drivon School of Law, Stockton
Focus in school: Employment
Graduated: 2012
Passed bar: 2014
Hourly rate: Varies
Law school debt: $68,000
Mentor: David Rancaño, Rancaño & Rancaño

Violeta Diaz has been at Rancaño & Rancaño for almost nine years, but as a lawyer for only one year. She began with two years as a legal assistant, then worked three years as a paralegal, and then three years as a law clerk. "I wanted to see what I was going to be involved in. It helped a lot to be able to get my foot in the door."

Once Diaz had established her presence at the firm, she enrolled in night classes at Humphreys College Laurence Drivon School of Law in Stockton. She received help from the firm's co-founder, David Rancaño, who promised her an attorney job before she even started law school.

"I recommend having a job when you start [law] school, or line it up before you actually graduate," Diaz says. It took her four years to finish her legal studies, but Diaz and her husband were able to continue paying the mortgage on their Modesto home without taking on extra debt for living expenses.

Many of her night school classmates followed other paths. "I have friends who graduated in 2011 who are just now getting full-time positions," she says. "Then I have friends who worked in law firms while they were still in school and were offered jobs after their first year of law school."

Neither law school nor working as a legal assistant helped Diaz fully prepare for actually being an attorney, she says. The civil cases she takes include disability discrimination, car accidents, and medical malpractice-which means she frequently goes to trial. "You're treated differently as a new attorney," she says. "At the courthouse, it's just different. People are a little ruder-maybe even meaner."

But the atmosphere at Rancaño & Rancaño is very supportive. The attorneys work together closely, and David Rancaño has been a mentor for Diaz. She doubts she'd get the same personal attention at a larger firm. "Every time I have a problem, I ask him what I should do," she says. "There's such a close connection."

Jonathan Jaffe
Age: 47
Founder, Jaffe InfoSec Law, Berkeley
Practice: Information security
Law school: University of San Francisco School of Law
Focus in school: Cyberlaw
Graduated: 2009
Passed bar: 2009
Hourly rate: $325 Law school debt: $38,000
Mentor: Bob Arns, Arns Law Firm

Prior to law school, Jaffe designed large-scale data-security systems for international corporations. With a law degree, he envisioned himself on the other side, "fighting for consumers against large companies," he says. He also thought his already impressive resume would make him quite marketable. But that was not the case: "The established firms didn't appreciate that, because it didn't fit into the route most of their attorneys take. It's a very prescribed path," he notes.

Jaffe, who lives in Berkeley with his wife and two daughters, was waiting for his bar results in the fall of 2009 when he decided to teach himself everything he could about e-discovery. He even wrote a how-to manual on the topic. Without publishing the work, Jaffe used it to pitch himself to firms, which was enough to secure contract work as an e-discovery expert with plaintiffs-side class action firms. After passing the bar, Jaffe became an e-discovery attorney.

In early 2011, after he had been doing contingency work in the Bay Area for about a year, a friend of a friend called Jaffe with a privacy concern. Angel Fraley had been featured in a sponsored-story ad on Facebook without her consent. Within a few weeks Jaffe drafted a complaint-Fraley v. Facebook-alleging privacy violations, and he presented it to a handful of law firms. Although they expressed interest in the case, Jaffe was not sure they would allow him to remain involved in the process. In the end, he partnered with the San Franciscobased Arns Law Firm, which was willing to treat him as an equal in the case.

"I felt that any other firm I spoke with would have taken the case and offered me a little bit of work here and there, but wouldn't have trusted me," he says. "They treated me as if I were an employee."

The case ultimately settled, forcing Facebook to agree to change its privacy policy and, if the settlement stands up on appeal, to pay $20 million into a pool for class members. Jaffe was deeply involved in every step of the process: deciding strategy, writing motions, and conducting all aspects of discovery. Through working with Bob Arns, Jaffe learned much of what he knows about litigation-and he found a mentor.

These days Jaffe runs his own information-security practice, advising companies on how to protect their intellectual property as well as consumer and employee data. Jaffe plans to expand his company next summer, and he recently traveled to Israel to meet potential clients looking to work in the United States. He's also looking at opportunities in Italy and Switzerland. "I couldn't do what I do if I was at a large firm," he says. "I love how things have turned out."

Jaffe adds that his greatest accomplishments have often come out of the most adverse circumstances, such as not having a job after finishing law school. "Figuring out what to do with my time led me to do something unexpected," he notes.

His advice to recent grads: "Increase the chance of opportunities occurring by networking. But don't do it in a cheesy way. Just make friends, and call them on a regular basis. If you develop an idea, it is through your network that you'll get an introduction to pitch it."

Josh Glucoft
Age: 28
Associate, Irell & Manella, Los Angeles
Practice: Intellectual property litigation
Law school: Stanford Law School, Stanford
Focus in school: Intellectual property
Graduated: 2014
Passed bar: 2014
Hourly rate: Declined to state
Law school debt: Declined to state
Mentor: Ben Hattenbach, Irell & Manella

After earning an undergraduate degree in engineering at Northwestern University, Glucoft worked for a few years as a management strategist in Chicago. He then went to Stanford Law School, where he focused on patent litigation. He figured that patent work was where he could combine law with his interests in math, science, engineering, and technology. From his first day of law school Glucoft knew exactly what area he wanted to work in, and where he wanted to practice. When he interviewed for a summer associate position with Irell & Manella in Los Angeles, his home town, he made it clear to them that this was the firm he wanted to join.

"It's crazy," he says. "I'm extremely fortunate that it worked out as well as it did."

Fortunate, yes. A surprise, no. In 2013 all but three Stanford law school graduates seeking employment-out of almost 200-had found full-time work nine months after graduation.

Since joining Irell in October, Glucoft has contributed directly to three patent litigation matters, researching nuances in substantive and procedural law.

Though he appears to have taken the traditional path by signing on with a midsize private firm, Glucoft believes that it's essential for people to indulge all their passions, and he has begun developing a mobile game app on the side. He hired a programmer to do the coding so he can focus on exploring legal nuances, such as copyright and trademark issues.

"I haven't been this excited since I don't know when," says Glucoft. "This side project has never felt like work, even though there are a lot of potentially thorny legal issues." Still, Glucoft foresees the potential difficulty of maintaining both his profession and his avocation. "Once the work (on the side) becomes more intense, it will be a tightrope to walk," he says.

Jeanne L. Nishimoto
Age: 28
Staff attorney, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA)
Practice: Housing law and policy
Law school: University of Michigan Law School, Ann Arbor
Focus in school: Public interest
Graduated: 2011
Passed bar: 2011
Hourly rate: N/A
Law school debt: Declined to state
Mentor: Silvia Argueta, executive director at LAFLA

Law school graduates looking to the public interest sector often don't have an easy time of it. "With public interest, it's a very unclear path to get that first job," says Nishimoto. "When I was looking, I found it really, really difficult to accept the advice, 'It's going to work out-you just need to keep putting your name out there.' But that is really how it happens."

When Nishimoto took the bar exam in July 2011, she had few prospects. While waiting for the results, she got some financial relief from a three-month stipend offered by her university for a fellowship. Without that cushion, she says, she might never have had the freedom to find the opportunities she finally did-and she probably would have had to move in with her parents.

She interviewed for various public interest positions, but she says many employers weren't interested because she didn't have her bar card yet. "I could tell during interviews that was a problem. You could feel the shift in the interview when they realized that."

The opportunity that finally presented itself was a fellowship at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, where she had worked during the summer before her third year. Serendipitously, a position opened at LAFLA just a month into her fellowship. Nishimoto nabbed it. As a staff attorney, she spent her first year doing eviction defense, before receiving another fellowship to focus solely on helping obtain benefits for relatives who were taking care of foster children. Nishimoto is currently part of LAFLA's Housing & Communities Workgroup, which uses a combination of litigation, policy, and transactional work to secure housing opportunities for low-income communities.

Switching between departments in this way is not typical for LAFLA attorneys. However, Nishimoto wanted to learn the legal skills each position offered. For example, working in evictions she frequently went to trial, whereas doing government-benefit law was more administrative.

"It's been very much about building different skills," says Nishimoto, who went straight from undergrad to law school. She admits her time at LAFLA may look scattered, but actually it has been a deliberate route charted with the support of the institution's executive director, Silvia Argueta. When asked where she sees herself in five years, Nishimoto replies, "I'm really happy where I am now, but it's hard to say where I'll end up. In public interest, you just never know."

Adam Z. Bierman
Age: 28
Associate, Latham & Watkins, San Francisco
Practice: Litigation and antitrust
Law school: UC Berkeley School of Law
Focus in school: Business and criminal justice
Graduated: 2012
Passed bar: 2012
Hourly rate: Declined to state
Law school debt: $125,000
Mentor: Mickey Kantor, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce

In 2011 Bierman worked as a summer associate in the Los Angeles office of Latham & Watkins, one of the world's largest firms. The next year, upon graduation from UC Berkeley School of Law, he went to work at Latham's San Francisco office. Down the road Bierman would like to pursue public service law, but a traditional path at the start of his career made more sense to him.

Bierman wanted a different experience from that of a fellow Berkeley law graduate he describes as smart, driven, and who had always wanted to work in health care policy. When the big firms came calling at the Berkeley campus, Bierman's classmate turned them all down and then had no job at graduation. Instead, the classmate took a series of internships at nonprofits and worked for almost nothing until he was finally able to land his dream job.

"He had to grind way more than any of us," Bierman says. "He has just as much debt as everyone else, but he's paying it off much more slowly than those of us who went to big firms. It's a much more difficult, unpredictable path."

Bierman himself received half a dozen offers and chose Latham for three reasons: its international reputation, a program that allows associates to sample different practice areas, and the firm's genuine commitment to pro bono service.

"I was worried about [paying back] loans, and I wasn't really willing to take the risk," Bierman says. "The big-firm experience is also good for me because I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. It has given me space to figure out my next move."

At a huge firm like Latham, Bierman has the opportunity to move laterally between various practice areas, he has access to almost unlimited resources, and he's been able to work on some unusual, "big idea" projects. For example, he once took on a pro bono project for former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor, which involved doing research for a comprehensive report on revitalizing the Los Angeles economy and improving transparency and accountability in city hall.

Bierman obtained experience in financial and corporate transactional law before moving on to do commercial litigation, with an emphasis on antitrust and competition issues, which he practices now. He has also been able to continue doing pro bono work, allowing him to stay engaged with other practice areas he's interested in, such as immigration, domestic violence, and convicts' rights.

"[Being an associate has] provided a lot of training and mentorship," Bierman says. "Mickey [Kantor] really instilled in me a sense of obligation for public service-that it was the duty of young lawyers to work hard to try to better our communities."

Laura C. Riley
Age: 32
Staff attorney, California Women's Law Center, El Segundo
Practice: Public interest
Law school: USC Gould School
of Law, Los Angeles
Focus: Public interest
Graduated: 2010
Passed bar: 2010
Hourly rate: N/A
Law school debt: Declined to state
Mentor: Judge Melissa Widdifield, Los Angeles County Superior Court

Riley lives in Los Angeles and spends three days a week as a staff lawyer working to eliminate gender barriers and discrimination through a combination of advocacy, policy, and education. She spends two more days teaching yoga to kids in charter schools. This might sound like a rickety arrangement to some people; for Riley it is ideal. But it took her several years to recognize that.

During law school, Riley got involved with pro bono work in addition to externing for a judge and working at a civil rights firm. While awaiting her bar results, she then volunteered at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. At the same time, she earned certification as a yoga instructor and has been teaching on and off ever since.

After graduation in 2010 Riley had intended to find a position at the public defender's office in L.A. but was blocked by a hiring freeze. Job prospects were bad in every direction at that time: "It was rough," she remembers. "Firm offers were being rescinded; people were being laid off shortly after being hired."

She applied for a number of public interest jobs in Los Angeles before she landed at the Cancer Legal Resource Center-a joint program of the Disability Rights Legal Center and Loyola Law School-where she worked for almost three years. From there, she went to a plaintiffs-side employment firm, but she left after six months. "I realized my heart is in public interest," Riley says. She also wanted to keep her yoga teaching going. So she took up contract work while she considered her next step to avoid getting trapped in an unfulfilling career; she admits she's been fortunate in not having burdensome loans to consider.

Riley began working at California Women's Law Center in October 2014. She attributes her opportunities to having studied different areas of law and relentlessly creating connections. She is also part of a new generation of lawyers who seem eager to piece together a career from a variety of interests, both in and out of the legal profession.

Alexandra T. Stupple
Age: 37
Attorney, California Department of Public Health, Sacramento
Practice: Health regulations
Law school: UC Hastings College of the Law, San Francisco
Focus in school: Administrative law
Graduated: 2013
Passed bar: 2013
Hourly rate: N/A
Law school debt: $180,000
Mentor: Gregory L. Holtom, California Department of Public Health

When Stupple graduated from law school in 2013, she secured a minimum-wage fellowship at Planned Parenthood. When that was over, she took an unpaid fellowship at the California Department of Insurance. Like many new grads, Stupple had a "bridge fellowship" from her university to provide financial padding while she studied for the bar exam. But that lasted only three months.

Then, still unemployed in February 2014, she served as a volunteer legal observer to watch pretrial hearings at Guantanamo for the National Institute of Military Justice.

"It was a scary time," Stupple says of her struggle to find work. "All the people who had just gotten their [bar] results were also applying [for jobs]. I applied to every job there was."

That included the California Department of Health. As it turned out, that was where her job offer came from-but not until April 2014, ten months after she got her JD. "I got a job just in the nick of time," she says.

Before law school, Stupple spent a decade working as a medical editor for the National Academy of Sciences and the American Public Health Association. That background may explain why she is one of only two people in the state health department's legal office who were hired straight out of law school. Nearly everyone else arrived with experience.

At her position, Stupple is responsible for writing statewide public health regulations that comply with the California Administrative Procedure Act. She also responds to and incorporates public comment in her work. She loves it. "I get to do work that affects a lot of people, especially here in California, where we're in the forefront," she says.

Stupple also has a better financial situation than you might imagine. After she works ten years for the state, the remainder of Stupple's $180,000 loan debt will be forgiven. She estimates that by then it will be down to $140,000.

Although Stupple's office is made up entirely of lawyers, she works mostly with nonlawyers-such as health professionals and the public-which means she needs a lot of guidance from her coworkers to make sure she's in compliance with the law when she's working on her own. Stupple says the department is in the process of instituting a mentor program, but for now she goes to Gregory L. Holtom, one of her coworkers and an Attorney III there.

"At first I think I bothered him [a lot], but now I go to him maybe once a week, probably twice a week, to get his take on stuff," she says. "I think he likes it. I'm brand new, and what I do has an impact on people."

Stupple's advice for other recent grads: "Don't panic; you're bound to get something eventually."

Garett A. Gorlitsky
Age: 26
Deputy attorney general, California Attorney General's Honors Program, Los Angeles
Practice: Criminal law
Law school: Columbia Law School, New York City
Focus in school: Criminal law and trial practice
Graduated: 2013
Passed bar: 2014
Hourly rate: N/A
Debt: Declined to state
Mentor: Judge Sterling Johnson Jr., Eastern District of New York

In 2011 the California attorney general's office began to recognize that there weren't enough opportunities for young lawyers interested in the government sector. To address the problem, the office initiated something called the Attorney General's Honors Program, a two-year pipeline to mentor participants and then promote them to the Justice Department at the end of the program. Gorlitsky was hired in the 2013 cohort.

"There are a lot of people who want to go down this career path," says Gorlitsky, "but then they get discouraged."

Early in Gorlitsky's third year at Columbia Law School, representatives from the program came to the New York campus (as well as to other top-tier schools across the country) to recruit applicants. In addition to the honors program, Gorlitsky estimates, he applied to more than 100 other jobs from coast to coast. He doubted that he was even a candidate for the program, but says, "My mentor always told me apply to everything, because you just don't know." After several months and numerous lengthy interviews, Gorlitsky was offered the program position.

He now works in the criminal appeals, writs, and trials division in the AG's downtown Los Angeles office, prosecuting felony appeals. He's already argued seven cases, including assisting the lead deputy attorney on the very first "revenge porn" case, otherwise known as cyber extortion. That case involved preparing for a trial that had more than 10,000 victims and 30 witnesses.

While in California waiting for his bar results, Gorlitsky worked in the program. He was able to draft briefs and conduct oral arguments, which requires only completion of a course in civil procedure and evidence. "I actually argued a case before I even became a lawyer," he says.

During law school, Gorlitsky worked on domestic violence law in Queens and interned for a New York judge. He also applied to district attorney offices throughout the country. "Every time I sat down to apply to something," says Gorlitsky, "I applied to ten" jobs.

Gorlitsky found his first mentor, a state court judge in California, through a California-specific program at Columbia that pairs students and alumni. However, he's since developed many other encouraging relationships. The mentality at the AG's office, he says, is to empower young attorneys by giving them constructive feedback: Coworkers always have their doors open and are readily available to answer questions.

Even without the honors program, Gorlitsky says, he still would have pursued public service, though few of his classmates considered it. "There's a big-law vortex in law school," he says. "But deep down I knew I wanted to work in government public service. This is my dream job."

Meghan Walsh is a journalist living in the Bay Area, where she writes about social justice and health issues.

Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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