A young woman stepped up to the microphone in a St. Louis convention room Thursday and with a quick question illustrated what a panel of legal leaders had been opining about for more than an hour.
A formal discussion on financial challenges now facing public and private bar members inevitably turned to the bleak outlook for future attorneys.
Wendy Werner, a St. Louis consultant to law firms on effective recruiting, told attorneys attending The Missouri Bar’s annual meeting in St. Louis that the graduates were struggling to find openings as firms opted for hiring freezes to make due.
And a quarter of the ones who are finding jobs are earning starting salaries that are less than $50,000 a year, Werner said.
But Melissa Pantazopoulos showed them.
The recent East Coast law school graduate stood before the panel, donning a crisp tan pantsuit and equipped with self-printed business cards.
“I’m from St. Louis. I’m committed to St. Louis,” said Pantazopoulos, who took her oath of admission to The Missouri Bar in Jefferson City last week. But, she said, “I can’t find a public service job.”
Pantazopoulos, 30, had selected the CUNY School of Law’s public service program at the City University of New York to train for a career as a prosecuting attorney, she explained.
She asked the group for any advice on how to pursue her goal in the current job climate.
She then added, “I also have a student loan.”
Her answer included a lot of shaking heads.
“Unfortunately I don’t have a magic bullet for you,” said Cathy Kelly, deputy director of the Missouri State Public Defender System.
Kelly said the 362-lawyer system needs 162 more defenders to reach national caseload standards, but the funds aren’t there.
The system was able to add 12 more public defender positions in 2009 when a state employee cap was lifted, but didn’t have sufficient office space to place them.
As a result, many of the starting public defenders, who earn $39,000 a year, are working out of break rooms. One is in a telephone closet, she said.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce advised Pantazopoulos to seek an attorney position elsewhere, saying that she wouldn’t hold outside experience against aspiring prosecutors if none of those positions were available.
“It will happen,” Joyce said. “It’s usually just a timing thing.”
Dan Glazier, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, suggested volunteering in the meantime.
Legal volunteers have increased dramatically during the recession, mostly because many attorneys find themselves out of work or have more time on their hands, he said.
That’s good news for Legal Services since consumer protection, foreclosure and domestic violence cases all are on the rise.
The poverty population in Missouri has increased 30 percent, while financial resources are at half the level they were 30 years ago, accounting for inflation, Glazier said.
“It’s created a justice gap,” he said.
Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff, moderator of the event, recalled law schools filling up with aspiring attorneys in the 1980s and early 1990s during a less severe recession.
“I see it happening again,” he said of current law school classes. “There’s a whole bunch of young people who think things are going to get better – I hope they’re right.”
In the interim, Pantazopoulos, a mother of a 2-year-old, said she will continue her search for an attorney position, whether it’s in the public or private sector.
If she’s not successful soon, she said she’s willing to leave the legal field for a while so she can start paying her $110,000 in student loans, she said in a later interview.
“I’m afraid I’m going to end up as a checker at Wal-Mart,” she said.