John Paul Putney always considered becoming a lawyer. Instead, he turned his talent for music into a career as a professional opera singer.
However, that passion for analytical thinking and attraction to law stayed with him, finally leading him into law school -- at the worst time for law graduates in nearly two decades.
Now 31 and done with his first year at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Mr. Putney is spending the summer working on several different cases for global law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe at its operations center in Wheeling, W.Va.
While the legal job market is in its worst shape in 18 years, Mr. Putney remains optimistic that his skills and experience will help land a position after he graduates in 2014 with dual degrees from Pitt's law school and its Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
Before entering Pitt Law, he attended college and trained in vocal music in Southern California; earned a master's degree from the New England Conservatory of Music; and then traveled around Europe and the U.S. for opera gigs.
Not until he and his wife decided to put down roots near her hometown of Morgantown, W.Va., did he act on his long-held legal ambitions and enroll at Pitt Law, despite the sluggish job prospects.
"I feel bad because a number of my colleagues won't find jobs ... or will take offers not really in their best interest," he said. "I'm focused on all the ways I'm trying to boost my skill set."
And if that skill-set development means commuting one hour each way from Pittsburgh to his summer job in Wheeling, along with two other Pitt students who also work for Orrick, Mr. Putney believes it's the right price to pay for a valuable summer experience.
As new law graduates face a depressing employment picture, current students are scrambling to build their resumes with summer work and make contacts that could be critical to gaining full-time work in a couple years.
A study released earlier this month by the National Association for Law Placement in Washington, D.C., said the overall employment rate for the class of 2011 was 85.6 percent, the lowest since 1994 when it stood at 84.7 percent.
NALP executive director Jim Leipold called the numbers "brutal" and added, "This class may represent the bottom of the employment curve for this economic cycle."
The data are based on a survey of 2011 graduates who submitted job and salary information in February -- nine months after most typical law school graduations in May 2011. NALP officials attributed the weak job market to the 2008 economic crash catching up with those who entered law school at that time.
"When this class [of 2011] took their LSATs and applied for law school, there were no signs that the legal economic boom was showing any signs of slowing," Mr. Leipold said in a statement released with the job figures. "Yet by the time they graduated, they faced what was arguably the worst entry-level legal employment market in more than 30 years."
Those students also faced tough summer job conditions, as many firms cut back long-established summer programs and began deferring offers for graduates. Still, summer clerk hiring appears to be improving as the economy turns around -- even if mega-firms aren't hiring as many summer associates as they did in boom times.
"Big-firm summer associate positions are certainly not back to where they were prior to the economic downturn, but have stabilized and are gradually increasing," said Ella Kwisnek, assistant dean of students at the Duquesne University School of Law.
The school doesn't track firm numbers on its students' summer employment, but it has placed students this year at large and small firms throughout the city, including K&L Gates, Reed Smith, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Burns White, Cohen & Grigsby, Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, and Leech Tishman.
In addition, Duquesne students are working in local government, courts and at in-house corporate legal departments, said Ms. Kwisnek.
Pittsburgh's largest law firm, K&L Gates, declined to disclose summer employment statistics. But the next largest, Reed Smith, appears to be among the big firms that slashed summer hiring when the economy collapsed and hasn't returned to pre-crash levels.
This year, the firm has 37 summer associates firm-wide, including six in Pittsburgh. That's down from 86 firm-wide in 2008, with 16 in Pittsburgh.
Buchanan Ingersoll grew its program a bit this year but remains cautious. It has 10 summer associates firm-wide, up from six a year ago. Of those 10, six are in Pittsburgh, three in Philadelphia and one in Princeton, N.J.
"We don't see [the summer program] returning to the size it was in 2004, 2005 or 2006," said Jim Newell, a partner who oversees the associates program. "I think the firm is cautiously optimistic with respect to the economy."
Buchanan has made full-time offers to all summer associates the last two years, he said.
Among the firms that have kept summer hiring stable are Goehring, Rutter & Boehm and Jones Day.
For years, Goehring has retained three summer associates and tries to offer them full-time positions after graduation, said Brian Lindauer, a partner who handles the firm's recruiting program and who clerked for Goehring 15 years ago when he was a student at Pitt Law.
"I've certainly seen [big-firm summer programs] diminish," he said.
This year's recruits at Goehring are three women from Pitt and Duquesne who have been assigned research, writing and other real attorney tasks. "We're a small firm. So we don't have the luxury of having them go through boxes of depositions. They are doing a lot of practical things."
At Jones Day, the Pittsburgh office has hired eight associates this summer and last. That's the same number hired in 2008, although it rose to 10 in 2009 and dropped to seven in 2010.
"In 2009, we sort of ignored the [economic downturn]. We were business as usual in terms of our hiring," said Michael Ginsberg, hiring partner in the Pittsburgh office.
Because it has offices worldwide, Jones Day recruits from more than 45 law schools nationwide, and this year's Pittsburgh office class includes students from Harvard, Duke, Georgetown, Columbia and Pitt law schools.
The firm makes a huge investment in the program, said Mr. Ginsberg, including an annual event in Washington, D.C., or New York City where the firm brings together summer associates from all its domestic offices for meetings, educational sessions and a dinner.
The firm attempts to offer full-time positions to all of the second-year students, he said. "We don't try to weed them out during the summer."
He was not surprised by the NALP's recent report of a gloomy job market.
"My sense is the market has not come back. What I saw at job fairs last fall was that a lot of third-year students didn't have summer employment last summer that would lead to jobs after graduation. ... I suggested to them there are lots of nonprofits and government units that need their talent. They need to broaden the horizon of what they're looking for."
Among students not working at law firms this summer is Leah Sell, entering her second year at Pitt Law. She considers herself "very fortunate" to be a legal intern for U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer and a research assistant in Pitt's career services office.
Regardless of the tight market, Ms. Sell hopes networking and gaining leadership skills -- as she has as president of the Pitt Law Women's Association -- might give her an edge when it's time to search for full-time work in a couple years.
Daniella Corcuera, who finished her first year at Pitt, is working in UPMC's corporate legal department for the summer.
The sluggish legal job market is "obviously a concern when you're choosing to go to law school," said Ms. Corcuera. "You can't ignore it, and I was certainly aware."
But having minored in biology as an undergraduate, she is considering a focus on health care or biotech law that could give her a specialty that other law students don't have.
Aaron Yonash, a second-year law student at Pitt working at Edgar Snyder and Associates this summer, believes there could be opportunities in energy law because of the booming Marcellus Shale industry in southwestern Pennsylvania. He completed some energy-related law courses already and plans to take more.
Duquesne is beefing up its offerings with an energy law concentration, said Ms. Kwisnek, because recent graduates are seeing more opportunities in that specialty.
Marie Brown will graduate from Pitt in December with a law degree and a master's in international development. She is working this summer in Tacoma, Wash., as a volunteer legal intern in that city's immigration court.
She expects the job hunt to be "an uphill battle" but hopes experience and networking can help her land a full-time position.
Joyce Gannon: email@example.com or 412-263-1580. First Published June 18, 2012 4:00 AM