WASHINGTON — In America, there are always people to sue or contracts to negotiate, right? Apparently there aren’t enough.
The recession is taking a steep toll on the legal profession, an industry long seen as immune from the ups and downs of the economy. Trying to weather the financial crisis, the nation’s largest law firms are laying off attorneys and delaying the hiring of others.
More than 3,000 lawyers have been laid off in the first three months of 2009.
“A lot of people go into the law because it’s one of those professions where you’re always going to have work. There aren’t typically big layoffs,” said Samuel Smith of Charlotte, N.C. “Realistically, I don’t think people saw this coming.”
The Labor Department said the number of unemployed lawyers jumped 66 percent last year to a 10-year high of 20,000.
The first time this year that three consecutive business days passed without one of the nation’s top law firms announcing job cuts came in mid-March, according to the Web site Lawshucks.com. They have counted 3,149 lawyer layoffs — just in the big firms, just in the first three months of the year.
Law firms are delaying the hiring of final-year law students, who normally are brought on a year in advance of graduation. Law students graduating with jobs this spring are being paid to delay their start date. Some are being told there will be no work until later in the year, maybe in 2010.
So many would-be lawyers are facing this situation that Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, a group that trains volunteers to provide free legal assistance to low income clients, held a “Deferred Associates Job Fair” in Newark, N.J., for graduates looking for temporary work.
For some Americans, there’s not much sympathy for lawyers who are suddenly jobless.
They make more money than the Average Joe, with the nation’s million-or-so employed lawyers averaging $118,280 in 2007, or $56.87 an hour, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.