Latest recession victims: Laid-off lawyers

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Heather Conoboy, a tax lawyer, was promised more work than she could handle when she joined the Washington office of Wilson Sonsini as a senior associate in mergers and acquisitions last spring.

Today she has no work at all - and she isn’t alone.

The number of unemployed lawyers surged from a nationwide average of 20,000 last year to 31,000 in the first quarter, the highest in at least 15 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Three thousand lawyers lost their jobs in the first three months of the year.

The job market in the Washington - the lawyer capital of the nation with nearly 14 times more lawyers per capita than New York City - is faring better, but is far from immune. Legal-services employment, including support staff, totaled 35,500 in the city on March 31, down from 36,000 a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“D.C. is holding up better than other cities, but we are part of the global legal market now,” said Jackie Finn of Finn and Associates, a legal recruiting firm in McLean.

David P. Landau, of Washington-based legal recruiting firm Klein, Landau and Romm, said younger lawyers who haven’t made partner are hit hardest.

“The associate market [in the Washington area] is just getting hammered,” he said. “This is as bad as I’ve seen it. The worst I’ve seen it before this was ‘91 to ‘92, and I suspect this is deeper and is going to last longer.

“Firms have been laying off at a regular pace. Up to 12 percent of their associate ranks have been laid off,” Mr. Landau said.

Law school students who expect to graduate next month are receiving far fewer job offers, and those who are accepted by firms often are asked to delay their start dates from September to December or even January.

Older partners and staff members are discovering that they are expendable, Ms. Finn said.

“A lot of firms are using this as an opportunity to let go staff they don’t need anymore, like legal secretaries,” she said.

“We’ve also seen firms using this as an opportunity to let go people who maybe were at the tail end of their careers. Maybe they were trying to hang on because their 401(k)s are down, but they’re not getting enough hours,” she said.

The legal profession has long been viewed as recession-proof, but after years of gorging on Wall Street’s excesses, the law industry’s ox is being gored.

“Firms were bidding up salaries to keep pace with investment-banking salaries,” said Jim Copland, director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute, a business-friendly think tank that advocates limiting lawsuits.

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