A number of people have encouraged me to contact either attorneys or other employees that they know who work for large firms. I have resisted. I try to be pretty respectful of other people's time. Assuming I actually wanted to be an attorney, contacting these people wouldn't be much help. Sure, they would probably schedule a courtesy interview with me. Maybe I could even glean some information from them that may help in my job search, but that would be it.
Those people who have offered their contacts, however, seem rather perplexed when I (politely) decline their offer of assistance. You see, most non-lawyers simply don't understand that the legal industry doesn't work the way most other businesses do. Even if large firms weren't neglecting their usual sources of new associates and laying off current associates and support staff, they still wouldn't hire me. I didn't go to the right school or have the right class rank.
In most other industries, a good connection can help out a lot more than in law, particularly when comparing large firms/companies. True, there's a certain level of snobbery in all businesses. I've heard the large software company, Oracle will only hire developers from the best computer science programs. If you want to work for a major financial firm, you better have top grades in a finance or economics major (preferably from a good school). Nonetheless, big corporations do hire people from all sorts of schools. Plus, even if you come in at a low ranked position, there's real room for advancement. (Good luck going from paralegal to associate at a major law firm.)
In addition to there being more opportunities at large corporations (and more corporations than large firms), the rest of the legal industry also operates differently than most other industries. Certainly, there are numerous midsized companies that hire people without elite pedigrees. In law, the midsized firm is all but a myth. If you're an entry level attorney, you might as well look for work at a unicorn ranch. Sure, midsized firms do exist, but they hire almost exclusively from large firms, which shed talented associates every year who are looking for better working conditions. A whole layer of the legal industry is inaccessible to virtually all new attorneys (and even many seasoned small firm lawyers).
Finally, there's the small business. This is also a viable place for one to start his career. In law, many attorneys attempt to start their careers working at small and solo practitioner firms. This isn't as easy as it seems. Small firms have tight budgets; it's not like they're sitting on a ton of money just waiting to hire a new associate. Moreover, they have to be willing to train a new hire since most law students don't have any real practical skills. Furthermore, if one is hired by a small firm, there is almost certainly an expectation that he'll bring in new business. This is almost as bad as being an insurance salesman trying to rope your friends into buying additional coverage. Oh, and unlike most small businesses, which are often times trying to expand, most small law firms are usually one or two guys just looking to offer their legal services, not trying to become larger firms.
Now, in addition to this restrictive business model, the market is flooded with people who are only educated/trained to be attorneys. Also, thanks to the bar exam, there's little mobility from state to state. In other industries, of course, there is greater flexibility. You can go from being a manger in one field to being a manager in other field. You can be an accountant for a big, medium or small company. You can do web design in Arizona just as easily as you can in Ohio.
Sure, there are some other options for lawyers such as government attorney positions, DA/PD offices, and public interest law, but these can be just as competitive as coveted firm jobs (particularly in this economy).
There you have it. You can't work at a large firm without the right credentials. Midsized firm jobs are largely make believe (at least at the entry level). Small firm jobs aren't particularly accessible and usually don't pay well (I hope you don't want health insurance) or provide great opportunities for advancement. Plus, you're competing with hordes of other similarly situated individuals for the few jobs that exist.
I'm working on a post about networking, but this is part of the reason why networking works so poorly for attorneys. There simply aren't enough jobs even for those who are well connected.
True, other industries have their problems and barriers to entry, but few others cost six figures and three years of your life just to have the opportunity to find a relevant job.