The ‘Crisis’ in the Legal Profession Is Just About the Fancy Law Firms

Coming, oddly enough, right after the paper by Seton Hall Law Professor Michael Simkovic and Rutgers economist Frank McIntyre showing that law school was, despite rumors to the contrary, still a good investment, Noam Schieber over at the New Republic indicates that, well, entering into the legal profession is probably not as good an investment as you would like to think.

So who’s right? Probably everyone is. The difference is whether one thinks of legal profession as “all attorneys” or just “lawyers working for fancy law firms.”

According to an article by Noam Schieber at the New Republic:

“Stable” is not the way anyone would describe a legal career today. In the past decade, twelve major firms with more than 1,000 partners between them have collapsed entirely. The surviving lawyers live in fear of suffering a similar fate, driving them to ever-more humiliating lengths to edge out rivals for business. “They were cold-calling,” says the lawyer whose firm once turned down no-name clients. And the competition isn’t just external. Partners routinely make pitches behind the backs of colleagues with ties to a client. They hoard work for themselves even when it requires the expertise of a fellow partner. They seize credit for business that younger colleagues bring in.

Meanwhile, those lucky enough to have a job are constantly reminded of their expendability. “I knew people who had month-to-month leases who were making $200,000 a year,” says an associate who joined a New York firm in 2010. They are barred from meetings and conference calls to hold down a client’s bill, even pulled off of cases entirely. They regularly face mass layoffs. Many of the tasks they performed until five or ten years ago—like reviewing hundreds of pages of documents—are outsourced to a reserve army of contract attorneys, who toil away at one-third the pay. “All these people kept on going into this empty office,” recalls a former associate at a Washington firm. “No one introduced them. They were on the floor wearing business suits. … It was extremely creepy.” Still, any associate tempted to resent these scabs should consider the following: Legal software is rapidly replacing them, too.

That sucks. It really does. But the law as a profession really might be more or less okay. The TNR article appears to reflect a very real, and quite disturbing trend, but it doesn’t at all disprove the Simkovic and McIntyre study. That’s because most lawyers in America don’t work for “white-shoe firms” that “paid for partners to join lunch and dinner clubs and loaned them money to buy houses,” and they never did.

 Cadwalader

These firms, and their employees, have been slammed by the recession. But these places had also turned their practices into assembly lines with junior associates doing document review and billing out at $500 an hour. Clients naturally started to wondered why they had to pay $500 an hour for some kid who’d just graduated. And so these white shoe firms realized that maybe they didn’t need to hire so many kids, or treat them so well once they did.

Most lawyers, however, have always worked at much less prestigious law firms. At these places, also suffering from the economic downturn, something else is happening.

But those big law firms are barely more than a quarter of recent law graduates. The vast majority, 72 percent of law school graduates, go somewhere else. They go into public interest law. Or they become assistant district attorneys or public defenders. And many, many of them just work for smaller firms.

And these people are all fine. Granted, they’re not working for companies that pay for them to join lunch and dinner clubs or loan them money to buy houses, but they never were.

For these lawyers the situation at their firms is not so dire. The senior attorneys are cutting costs by doing things like document review themselves and billing out at a lower rate. These places are now probably become more efficient because the senior attorneys are more experienced; clients are getting a better value for their money.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer