Getting Your First Legal Career Job: UK vs. US

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After years of university and thousands of pounds in student loans, you’re framing your law school degree. Finally, your legal career is about to take off. Or so you thought.

It’s actually much tougher for new lawyers to find jobs than most people realise. Just a few years ago, the Bar Council noted that annually, hundreds of law students in the U.K. graduate without ever having a good chance of entering the legal profession. While roughly 1,600 students take the Bar Professional Training Course in British colleges, only about 450 places at the barristers’ chambers are available. It’s just one indicator of how competitive the legal field is today for new graduates.

Is the U.S. Any Better?

One of the latest studies from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) puts employment for law school graduates at 91-93% in the U.K. However, that includes students still in school and those that might be working outside the legal field.

Every year the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) collects U.S. employment data for the most recent class of law school grads. The class of 2015 had hiring rate of just 86.7%, which is relatively unchanged from the year before and only slightly better than 2013.

With an unemployment rate of around 10% on both sides of the Atlantic, new law school grads have to get serious about landing a job well before they take the bar exam. Now is the time to put together a post-graduate, first-year game plan that will help you get hired ASAP.

Step 1 – Use Every Available Resource

Your university fees don’t just pay for classes. Every law school should have specialists who can help you make the transition from college to working in the real world. In the U.S. some even have job placement and internship programmes that can help you get a foot in the door. Here in the UK, there may be alumni associations you can join to network and get more guidance on beginning a career in law.

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Step 2 – Research Where You Want to Live

This is a big decision because you’ll have to pass the bar exam wherever you go to practise law in that area. Another important factor is demand for your legal specialties. Some cities or states may have very little need for certain expertise, which can make finding a job near impossible.

For example, if criminal defence is your forte, in addition to analysing crime rates and lifestyle statistics, you can research other lawyers to get an idea of an area’s legal needs. For instance, if you live in the U.S. use a niche specific engine like JustLegal to search for Houston criminal defense attorneys and you’ll quickly see that juvenile defenders are a top need. This will also give you a better idea of how much competition there is in a city. In the UK, sites like LegalWeekJobs can offer the same types of results.

And More Location Factors . . .

If you want to be a divorce lawyer, find out which cities have the highest separation rate. If you want to be an entertainment lawyer you’ll probably need to focus on areas around Los Angeles or New York City in the U.S. and London here in the UK. Choosing the best place to live to jump start your career is a step many new lawyers leave out of their first-year game plan. It’s a mistake that causes many law grads to settle for careers outside of the legal field.

The last location consideration to factor into your game plan is pay. Right now law firms are facing a “more-for-less” challenge. Namely, clients want more services at a lower rate. The overabundance of young, eager law school grads is also suppressing wages for new lawyers. First-year lawyers can’t expect to make close to the median salary for attorneys ($118,160 in the U.S. and £35,482 in the UK), but you’ll need to scope out the averages in a specific area. Wages tend to correlate with cost of living, which is something else that has to be considered when you’re deciding where to move for work.

Step 3 – Identify Your Ideal Law Firm

According to a recent NALP survey, firm culture is one of the biggest considerations for new lawyers that are deciding where to send their resume. However, their research also found other interesting statistics. For example, fewer new lawyers were hired at private practices in 2015 than any year since 1996. If you have your mind set on private practice know that the opportunities might be scarce.

Knowing what type of environment you want to work in will help you focus your efforts on the best-suited firms and legal entities. Workload and pace should also be a consideration when you’re identifying your ideal law firm. Make a list of the top 3-5 things you’re looking for in a law firm and let that be your job application guide.

Keep in mind your first job out of college may not be working as a lawyer.  What’s most important is that you find a firm where you can continue to learn and work towards your career as a legal professional.