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HBCU law grads face tough job market

Kenneth J. Cooper | 4/4/2012, 7:44 a.m.

The career scenario painted for Ahman Airitam and his law school classmates could not have been rosier entering Southern Methodist University (SMU) in 2007.

“When we came in, SMU Law pretty much pitched nothing but big law, big firm for life, and that’s what you did afterwards,” recalled Airitam, who graduated in December. “They were very successful, right up until around the time that we started, getting a good majority of their classes into very prestigious law firms here in Dallas, using their contacts.”

Then the economy crashed, and the job market for lawyers shrank, perhaps never to recover and return fully to its former size. Airitam was growing disillusioned as he watched one graduating class after another struggle to find jobs in local firms.

 “Now all of a sudden, instead of owning the Dallas law market,” he recalls, SMU graduates were “competing with graduates from the Ivy League schools and some of the Top 15 schools,” so SMU grads were “probably not as well-equipped to compete.”

It remains a tough job market for new lawyers, even experienced ones, especially for African Americans such as Airitam who did not attend top law schools or attain distinctions as editors of law reviews, for example.

Graduates have been turning more to jobs in the federal government, medium-sized or small firms, fledgling solo practices or even non-legal positions in nonprofits and businesses.

“I’ve seen a lot of bad job markets. Of the three or four recessions I’ve worked through, it’s probably the worst,” said LuEllen Conti, who has directed career services at Howard University Law School for 20 years. “Everyone has a sense that the landscape of the legal job market as we know it has changed permanently.”

Major law firms and corporate legal departments have started hiring again, but they have the luxury of being very selective in an employers’ market.

“Most of them only want to hire the best of the best. Two legal departments that I’ve been in emphasized that over and over again. It’s not many of us who really finish at the very, very top” of their classes, said Daryl Parks, president of the National Bar Association, referring to African American law students.

Last year, the percentage of minorities employed as associates in law firms ticked up slightly, according to the National Association for Legal Career Professionals. But Asians accounted for most of the increase. The number of African Americans dipped a little, while representation of Hispanics in those entry-level ranks remained about the same.

The advantage that graduates of the Top 15 schools have — mostly Ivy League schools and state flagships, in U.S. News and World Report rankings — has made finding jobs particularly tough for graduates from the six law schools at historically black universities.

Of them, Howard Law ranks the highest, at 121 out of 143 on the latest listing of U.S. News. The magazine does not rank the others: Florida AandM, North Carolina Central, Southern, Texas Southern and the University of the District of Columbia.