Some Thoughts About Law Firms and the Slide

I too received the comment to which Dave responded. And, I too, promised to say a little bit about the state of the legal job market. Although I think Dave is correct that many others write about this issue quite well, I also note that we have posted several pieces about legal education and shifts in how firms operate. In addition, I arranged a mobblog on legal education and cross-posted here, precisely because I think legal education will have to change. Right now a legal education bridges a gap left in undergraduate education. That gap will remain for some time. A good legal education, one where practice and theory work together to drill a student so that she has strong critical thinking skills, will serve anyone well. My instinct is that some practical business-related skills such as finance and business strategy might need to be added to the curriculum. Other than that shift, the core idea of training the hell out of someone so that they can take any set of facts and principles, digest them, and fashion a strong solution, will continue to create someone who can excel in law and a variety of disciplines. Nonetheless, who is hiring and in what areas remains to be seen.

One way to think about the layoffs may be to ask whether new lawyers had a shot at the big corporate jobs. With fewer of those spots open, of course some folks who thought they were going to be in a certain field may not be. Still the question may be understood as were the majority of new lawyers going to have a shot at those jobs? And would laid-off or in-coming lawyers who had/wanted those jobs still want to be lawyers but in litigation or other areas? In many cases, the answer would seem to be yes. Then again, give overall attrition from law practice and some people’s expectations; some may turn their back on the law, if it does not offer what they want. Dave pointed to Bill Henderson’s post about firm economics. It is excellent. Take a look at the post. Note that the salary perceptions and the realities diverge. This data is out there, but many may miss it. Bill does a great job showing how law firm salaries operate. And, as I have said before, law students should expect that they will have three to six years of good, but not six figure pay, as they finish their training (think medical residency). On a different note, firms could probably take a cut in per partner profit as a way to retain associates. I doubt that will happen. It may be that the big firms’ business model will not allow for that shift, but I am not in a position to evaluate the truth of that idea.

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6 Responses

  1. Vladimir says:

    Deven, I like the thrust of your last three lines, but I think they should be front and center. Isn’t it kind of stunning that firms haven’t reduced profits per partner *before* laying off associates? These partner draws have risen, after all, way, way more than associate salaries — to pretty obscene levels. (For what it’s worth, I’m all for a $500,000 cap on partner compensation! Why not?)

  2. jimbino says:

    Just think: if some of those frustrated new law grads had just learned some math or science, they might actually find a job and contribute to society.

    None but Breyer of SCOTUS, none of the recent POTUS or candidates, and only some 6 of our legislators have ever mastered mathematics, physics or chemistry! No wonder we still have official religions and prayers.

  3. Dave says:

    I’ll make the same point to Deven as I made to Dave: what role does subsidizing scholarship through tuition play in the staggering amount of law school debt?

    Graduate professors in almost all other fields are subsidized in large part by either grants or some other means (for example, medical programs are often subsidized by income generated by hospitals). The legal academy lacks this funding, and as a result pays for scholarship primarily with tuition revenue (or, in select cases, endowment income). The high salaries paid to the top graduates at lower tier schools has been used to justify dramatically increasing tuition and expanding faculty and scholarship. Who benefits from this structure?

    I’m not necessarily saying the system is wrong. Society undoubtedly benefits from legal scholarship. But lets be clear that there are certainly others that benefit from this system besides BigLaw partners.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    Dave, I don’t to what extent you think Biglaw partners do benefit from legal scholarship, but it ain’t much. Some litigators may use law review articles in their briefs. But many others don’t, or do so only rarely. As a transactional lawyer for the past quarter-century I can’t think of any articles that helped me in my law practice per se (other than from practitioner journals, like from ABA), though I have used some in my journalistic work (more often than not as foils).

    Jimbino, what’s worse is that many who did master math and science followed the money into financial services. You can thank those quants, among others, for putting so many law grads out of a job.

    I think Vladimir’s comment hits the nail on the head.

  5. Deven says:

    Interesting points. I have a post that goes to some of these ideas. As for the model of pay and law schools. I think the statement oversimplifies. Doctors are paid quite a bit as professors even if they are not clinical. Business schools and law schools are arguably competing with law firms and still pay less than the private sector.

    As for scholarship, some work (I like to think mine) looks at parts of the law that don’t seem to work and uses theory to explain why the law should be different. My papers have been cited by judges and other parts of the government. Yet, they are also filled with theory about why my answer is correct or better than the current state of affairs.

    There is also an argument that many people rooting about to find answers about what the law should be, will in aggregate, offer a better solutions in the long run. It’s a theory. 🙂

  6. Dave says:

    Deven- What statement oversimplifies? The claim that legal scholarship is primarily supported by student tuition? I don’t think that is a very difficult proposition at all. I hardly see it as contestable that the majority of law programs are primarily driven by tuition revenue.

    Yes, other programs have scholars that do nothing more than teach and write. But the point was that other programs are more adept at finding revenue sources other than tuition, whether through grants or through offering public services, such as hospitals. B-school may well be more like law in that regard, but the point still stands. Law schools have been able to charge high tuition rates to support scholarship because students have been willing to pay it on the assumption that it was a good investment (a perception that may be changing). As a result, law programs have not needed to develop alternate revenue sources.

    The issue has nothing to do with “pay” but rather the source of revenue to pay for scholarship. My complaint is not that prawfs are paid too much, or that their scholarship is not valuable, or that there are not pedagogical benefits to the current structure of law school. The point is that it may be unsustainable to ask students to go into extreme debt to support scholarship when there aren’t jobs on the other end. My suggestion is that the legal academy might find alternate means of supporting scholarship rather than through tuition… that’s all.

    AJ- I wasn’t trying to make any inference as to the degree to which BigLaw partners benefit from scholarship. Rather, my point was that in looking at the current structure of legal education and legal practice, partners are not the only ones that benefit from a perhaps unsustainable system, but that law professors perhaps benefit from it as well and have incentives to avoid tinkering with it too much. The area is under-theorized, because professors would probably rather ignore some of these realities rather then bite the hand that feeds them.