Recent law school graduate Allison Arnold found her place in the legal system as a magistrate.
among the 2013 law school graduates looking for work. After completing an internship with the U.S. Department of Justice the summer before her final year of law school at Brigham Young University, Arnold set her sights on a job as a federal attorney. The federal hiring programs for new graduates are highly competitive, though, and she didn’t win a spot. “As you move through it, if it’s not working out, you have to remind yourself to stay calm and that you will have a job at some point,” she says. Arnold spent a few months studying for the Virginia bar exam after graduation. After sitting for the exam in late July, she packed up her belongings in Utah and moved East for a public-service fellowship with the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C., while continuing her hunt for permanent work. “Having that set up gave me something to help me get out here and a small stipend to help me survive those months.” When she found herself still job hunting in early 2014, even the perpetually optimistic Arnold had a moment of worry that she’d have to return to her former career as a human-resources manager. “I had waited about as long as I could,” she says. 20
But then a friend from law school got a job as a Virginia magistrate, and Arnold’s ears perked up. “It wasn’t something that had been on my radar prior to that,” she says. “I was immediately interested.” In March 2014, Arnold started work as a magistrate with the 23rd Judicial District in Roanoke. She’s happy. “I really love this exposure to criminal law,” she says. Having to hit the pavement for months to track down a job would be a bitter pill for a recent graduate of any discipline, but it’s particularly distasteful for law students who typically take out huge loans. Class of 2013 students who borrowed money to fund law school average more than $100,000 in student debt, according to U.S. News and World Report. The National Association for Law Placement’s 2014 Associate Salary Survey reports a median starting salary of $68,000 at small firms and $160,000 at large firms. Area lawyers agree new attorneys should expect less when starting in this area. “Today, a starting associate in a small firm could expect anywhere from $45k to $65k,” explains Strelka. “A larger firm in Roanoke might net a young legal eaglet $70-85k.” By the time David Robinson graduated from Washington and
Lee University’s law school in 2010, he’d accumulated over $200,000 in student loans. Career opportunities weren’t exactly falling in his lap. “It was very, very hard to find a job initially,” Robinson says. In more robust days, the summer associate position Robinson scored at a preeminent Virginia Beach law firm the summer before he graduated would have ended in employment. But that wasn’t reality. “The economy was really starting to tank,” Robinson explains. “They decided not to make any new hires the year that I graduated.” When a clerkship for the 23rd Judicial Circuit materialized, Robinson felt lucky. Judge Robert Doherty took time, Robinson says, to introduce him to lawyers. Even with networking opportunities, Robinson wound up his clerkship without knowing where he’d go next. “I put out lots of applications,” he says. “I wasn’t getting a lot of bites back.” Robinson worked as an accountant before he’d gone to law school. “It was awful,” he says. “It’s the most antisocial job you could have.” Even so, Robinson had started to look at accounting openings when Roanoke attorney Richard Lawrence invited him to work at his firm. “It was a huge relief ... He didn’t make me pay rent. He helped me get clients. He asked me to work on some cases with him,” Robinson says of Lawrence, who died in 2012. “He got me self-sufficient more than anything.” Today, Robinson feels his law school debt is manageable. “You don’t really have much choice if you’re not from means,” he says of the loans. “… I do enjoy what I do. It’s more exciting than accounting.” Some analysts predict the legal job market could experience an upswing in coming years as the supply of new lawyers falls. This year fewer students entered law school than any year since 1973, according to the American Bar Association. Western Virginia law schools seem to be adapting to that changPhoto by Natalee Waters