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HBCU law grads face tough job market

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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.

Howard has an edge in being located in the nation’s capital, which has a large law market and is also the seat of the federal government. Conti said 86 percent of Howard’s 133 graduates in 2010 have found jobs, with only nine looking for work. The largest number was working in law firms, followed by government and judicial clerkships.

SMU Law School is 50th on the U.S. News rankings. Even with graduates of top schools flooding the Dallas market, Airitam has landed a well-paying job. It’s just not in the law or in the city.

Next month, Airitam starts working for Microsoft as a licensing sales specialist in Minneapolis, drafting sales agreements with airlines, retailers and other large businesses. After applying for the job on a whim, he stood out because he was finishing both a J.D. and an M.B.A., and had six years of similar experience with American Airlines.

Airitam, who harbors an interest in becoming an entrepreneur, has not given up on practicing law. He takes the Minnesota bar exam next February after he starts at Microsoft and added, “I’m not going to be an attorney for them, [at least not] immediately, anyway.”

Last spring, Julian Hall graduated with honors from North Carolina Central Law and landed a job with a brand-name local firm in Durham as he was studying for the bar exam, which he passed. But the position researching and preparing personal injury cases for trial lasted only a few months.

“They lost some big cases. Downsizing, you know, last to come, first to go. I got let go from there,” he recalls.

Hall rebounded when a mentor he met as a teen brought the fresh graduate into his local firm, Henson and Fuerst, where Hall has handled personal injury and criminal cases since October. He knows other black 2011 graduates of Central and the University of North Carolina who have had to take work far outside the legal profession.

“I got a friend who works waiting tables,” Hall said. “Another friend of mine that went to Carolina, she’s working at the makeup counter — passed the bar and everything, doing makeup. I got another friend that is a bartender. So it’s bad out here.”

The experience of Aba Acquaah falls on the other end of the range of job-search results for black law graduates. A member of Howard’s Class of 2011, she has a judicial clerkship with a federal district court judge, James Spencer, in Richmond.

“Luckily, I was able to get the clerkship the fall before graduation,” said Acquaah, who is of Ghanian descent. “I will just say I tried to be as proactive as possible during school to look for jobs.”

Having a mentor helped. He recommended she apply for a clerkship, through the same program he had used to find one. “I’m learning so much more than I could have in any other position as a recent graduate, so I really love it,” Acquaah said.

Her one-year clerkship ends in September. Her next step, one in another direction, is pretty much lined up — joining a major corporate law firm in New York.