Silent Summer: What COVID-19 Means for the Class of 2020

“[T]here is a class of lawyers, actually lawyers-to-be, that we should have sympathy and empathy for: incoming first year associates.  The Class of 2020 will have a very tough time, even tougher than the Classes of the last downturn in 2008 and 2009.”

Portrait of a businessman in medical mask behind holographic charts with bacteria and the words Coronavirus. Business concept. Pandemic.

As the pandemic sweeps the world, there are countless unfortunate victims in addition to the projected hundreds of thousands who will ultimately die of this contagious virus.  Millions of businesses are affected and a large percentage will never open their doors again.  Thus, in addition to the pain and death inflicted upon us, there is immense economic uncertainty.

Law firms are not at all immune to this pandemic since their clients aren’t.  Most law firms have cut partner pay, and cut the pay of associates also.  They are also firing and furloughing partners and associates.  We all know that most of Society cares not that lawyers suffer, economically that is.  But there is a class of lawyers, actually lawyers-to-be, that we should have sympathy and empathy for: incoming first year associates.  The Class of 2020 will have a very tough time, even tougher than the Classes of the last downturn in 2008 and 2009.  The associates that suffered then are likely partners now, and have more empathy.  I just missed the aftermath of the 1987 stock crash, which lingered for a couple of years.  The Class of 1990 was mostly ok.

Most firms have canceled their offers to the Class of 2020.  Of course, from the law firms’ perspectives, all of these incoming people are untrained and require a few years to make profitable.  That is the harsh reality of law.  With law firms unable to hold onto their own cash cows, why would they saddle themselves with neophytes?  Long ago law became a business and less a profession.  When I was a partner in some big firms, the driver was always PPP or profits per partner and other such measures designed to maximize a profit unevenly shared.  Now, law firms are slicing to the bone to survive.  It is ugly out there, as many of you reading this well know.  My solo practice is also not immune.

But from the perspective of these incoming recruits, eager and ready to learn and practice law finally after incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, and with the salvation of a $200,000/year paycheck almost in their grasp, the rug has been pulled out from underneath them.  There are likely no jobs for the vast majority of these aspirants for the rest of 2020.   Any jobs in the public sector and non-profits, when they finally reopen, will likely be swamped by the uncountable thousands of now fired or indefinitely furloughed partners and associates.  At least in 2008/2009, there were some jobs, lower paying legal jobs, out there, and those graduates could step down but did not have to step out of law to survive.  Unless Trump pulls an economic miracle, which he may, these doldrums are likely to push into 2021, when a whole new crop of newly-minted and very scared lawyers matures.  The Class of 2021 will likely not get many offers, and indeed all of their 2020 summer clerkships are now gone anyway.  Another unfortunate class now in competition with the entire corps of the Class of 2020 and with many other more senior attorneys.

Just as in Rachel Carson’s seminal book, another pestilence has entered our lives, which affects our, i.e., the law’s, own.  Our young will need more care and feeding – but this will sadly have to wait.  There is not much succor now.  The Class of 2020 thus needs to study for the bar and do everything they can to make themselves marketable.  Nepotism may not be that terrible for some time.

There is no easy solution or help other than for us all to be cognizant in the future that the class of 2020, along with 2021, through no fault of their own, are being disenfranchised.  Wherever possible, and when these tumultuous times calms down, give one or more of these unfortunates a chance.  Remember that you were in their shoes once, also eager and ready, but you had mentors and progressed.  For a long time, the Classes of 2020 and 2021 will be wondering if this will ever happen for them.


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Join the Discussion

12 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Ted]
    April 14, 2020 06:35 am

    I appreciate your perspective on the situation, it is definitely hard to think about from the class of ’21. That being said, the castle will get smaller, yes, the walls will get taller, yes (at least temporarily), but it is hard to believe that with the massive layoffs occurring at the partner level that we will be the only ones affect. In fact, many firms may see upstart associates as cheap, trainable, dynamic labor to thin costs and raise PPP. I think your sympathy for all of us poor, weak “misfortunates” may ultimately be misplaced.

  • [Avatar for Raymond Van Dyke]
    Raymond Van Dyke
    April 13, 2020 01:16 pm

    Anon: thank you for your comment! Please feel free to review these posts here and other materials on my website, As an attorney and educator, I truly enjoy imparting what I know (learning more every day!) to the next generation – not just patent attorneys. These are temporary tumultuous times, but the main thing to remember is that you need not let this define you – for now do everything you need to do to finish your degree and take the bar. Use your connections, think outside the box, get another degree, and do what is necessary regarding employment until the world calms. In a few years, your employment travails now will be a memory of a bad time you got through – like 911, shared by everyone.

  • [Avatar for Butch Laker]
    Butch Laker
    April 13, 2020 12:21 pm

    Raymond Van Dyke, you have received far too harsh criticism for what you are conveying. I am definitely seeing a downturn in internships from firms and in-house positions. As a 1L I can only imagine what the 3L’s are feeling right now, but even those of us at the very bottom of the totem pole are woefully affected. Some students such as myself have worked for months to secure internships only to have the rug pulled out from us in the final hours. Your article does a good job of outlining the main issue faced by job seekers and recent hires. My heart goes out to everyone affected or soon-to-be affected by these weird times. We’ll get through this together.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    April 7, 2020 12:26 pm

    Interestingly, I was prompted to see what else Mr. Van Dyke has written for this blog, and would recommend that those in the class of 2020 and 2021 do so likewise.

    If one has time to study, it is worthwhile to dive deep into the foundations, and several of Mr. Van Dyke’s posts (and comments thereto, including mine) make great starting points for patent attorneys (when things turn back on).

  • [Avatar for Vicki]
    April 7, 2020 12:08 pm

    Wow – I truly feel for these people. I had a very difficult time finding a job after graduating from law school in ’94. Despite extensive experience from my scientific career prior to law school, firms preferred people with advanced degrees and companies only wanted people who had been practicing for a while. And it didn’t help that I lived in the middle of nowhere that was saturated with lawyers (although I was willing to relocate, employers only wanted local candidates.) I thought I had taken all the “right,” practical, IP courses to prepare me for the real world, got decent grades, published an article in our school’s journal with a classmate at the end of our first year, externed for a federal appellate judge, volunteered in the legal clinic, interned with a pharma company, but I COULDN’T EVEN GIVE MY SERVICES AWAY FOR FREE AFTER GRADUATING!!! It blew my mind that I was up to my eyeballs in debt and that no one was willing to take a chance on me.

    I worked whatever jobs I could find just to support myself, and didn’t find a law job until exactly a year after graduation. I have never forgotten the people who helped and mentored me during this awful time. I will never be able to repay them for their kindness, so I honor them by paying it forward. During the debacle of 2008/2009, I gave positions to people who needed help, and made sure these people received mentoring so they grew in their careers. I will do what I can to help these new graduates and I hope others will do the same.

  • [Avatar for Jodutt Basrawi]
    Jodutt Basrawi
    April 6, 2020 02:19 pm

    To Attorney Van Dyke: Understood. Thank you for pointing that out and for your time in writing this article.

  • [Avatar for Raymond Van Dyke]
    Raymond Van Dyke
    April 6, 2020 01:44 pm

    To Jodutt Basrawi: I mentioned that this sentiment extended to the Class of 2021.

  • [Avatar for Raymond Van Dyke]
    Raymond Van Dyke
    April 6, 2020 01:42 pm

    All: I merely wish to point out that in this employment crisis the Classes of 2020 and 2021 deserve our best wishes for their future. I see the carnage out there in small/big firms and if my generalization does not fit firms that have NOT so cutback, then I applaud those firms. I truly hope that the economy roars back this Fall and hiring will skyrocket, giving all of the presently fired and furloughed out there a job, and perhaps also some of the Class of 2020.

  • [Avatar for Jodutt Basrawi]
    Jodutt Basrawi
    April 6, 2020 12:20 pm

    “But there is a class of lawyers, actually lawyers-to-be, that we should have sympathy and empathy for: incoming first year associates.”

    There are many more classes of lawyers-to-be that are worthy of attention. I think if you included more classes — such as would-be lawyers in other sectors and folks who still have no offer on the table — you would reach a wider audience with a stronger message. For instance, I am a 3L in the middle of seeking employment for August 2020, and I am unsure of whether the Uniform Bar Exam will happen this summer. Thus, I have had to make a Plan B and a Plan C, all of which include encounters with immense competition. Although I applaud the care given to the Class of 2020 here, I found my narrative (along with many others’) lacking in this article.

  • [Avatar for Soon to be lateral (hopefully!)]
    Soon to be lateral (hopefully!)
    April 6, 2020 11:25 am

    Second the above comment–I am a hopeful “lateral,” with an accepted offer, but no start date because the firm is not yet on-boarding. So I often check with the Reddit Law School Group to see how other Vault 100s are handling the situation.
    Seems that most SAs are being promised they will have some or all of the program, and all of their pay. Some firms are promising pay and offers even while canceling the Summer.

    Either the author is referring to small firms, or trying to capitalize on the panic.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    April 6, 2020 11:15 am

    There is plenty indeed to be sober about.

    And not to be too macabre, one may wonder if the ranks of patent attorneys in particular may be especially adversely affected, since there is a known “age bubble” for registered practitioners (which even without COVID-19 effects, would have been placing a squeeze on availability of patent counsel).

    And this on top of any squeeze from adverse legal terrain that may have also prompted attorneys to leave Prep and Pros.

  • [Avatar for Nancy Braman]
    Nancy Braman
    April 6, 2020 09:41 am

    “Most firms have canceled their offers to the Class of 2020.”

    This isn’t true at the present moment. Have you actually spoken to any graduating law students?