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Jobs At Biglaw Limited – So Why Is This News?

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This Wall Street Journal story about how lawyers from the lower ranks of lower tiered law schools have a tough time finding jobs has been getting lots of coverage, such as in thiscommentary by Susan Cartier Liebel; a round up of law professor blogs and this discussion at the WSJ Law Blog. As for me, I’m under-whelmed…I can’t understand why this is news to anyone.

I graduated from law school nearly two decades ago. Though Cornell is considered “top tier,” there were at least a handful of students in my class who didn’t have jobs when graduation rolled around. And if that was the case for Cornell, it was certainly even more true for lawyers graduating from lower ranked schools (let me make clear, I don’t agree that lawyers from top schools are better than those from lower schools or that ranking even matters at all. But when it comes to conventional hiring practices, most firms favor students from top tier schools, fair or not). Moreover, 20 years ago, students took out loans; I myself owed $70,000 when I graduated. Though that may sound small by today’s standards, bear in mind that salaries back then were smaller as well: my GS-11 position as a government attorney paid $27,800 (I turned down a law firm job at nearly three times that because I felt too burned out to work that hard); today a GS-11 makes $54,000.

So here’s my own “conspiracy theory” on why the WSJ suddenly shows an interest in law students who aren’t getting the top dollar jobs. If you follow My Shingle, you can see a trend of well credentialed lawyers disatisfied enough with biglaw to leave and start their own firms, or even leave the law entirely. If the trend continues, the future of biglaw will eventually be threatened as individual lawyers leverage technology and start their own firms that can compete with large firms on rates and effectiveness. In that context, I view the the WSJ article not as a caution to law students who attend lower tier schools but as a scare tactic to remind lawyers that as much as they hate their 80 hour billable weeks, life could be much, much worse.

What do you think?

  • Carolyn, now that is quite a thought-provoking persepctive. I’ll have to think on that one…except why would WSJ care?
    My post, however, was not one of ‘oh my’ there are no law jobs. It was one of being angry about deliberate misrepresentation of information to potential students who have a right to know the realities of job prospects. Their only real resource is law school and those who collect data from those law schools. (NALP) If this is fudged, it’s deliberate and the schools should be held accountable.
    I’d rather know the market is legitimately dismal so I can make the choice to incur debt, plan accordingly for a deflated professional market or not go to law school at all. In my opinion, it’s about full disclosure to which prospective students are entitled.
    If you choose law school after the numbers are revealed, then there is no discussion about the job market after that.

  • Susan – I didn’t intend to mischaracterize your post. I know that you have addressed the theme of law schol “truth in advertising” and due diligence by applicant. These are all important points and if you’re not able to convince law schools to reveal accurate job data, then I hope that you are at least able to make applicants aware that they ought to engage in some real due diligence.

  • Susan,
    I must say that I am beginning to understand the plight these young people find themselves in after law school.
    I made the decision after graduation (from U.C. Davis top 10%) that I didn’t want to work for BigLaw & took a job with a two man P.I. firm in Sacramento (near Davis) because I wanted to try cases.
    Only recently have I come to realize what a luxury it was to be able to make that decision.
    My law school “fees” (there was no in-state tuition at U.C.) were $700.00/year.
    “BigLaw” was paying $35K the year I graduated from law school (1980). The government was paying $18K, which is the 1st year salary I negotiated. I had about $2K in student loans to pay off (borrowed in college when “fees” — no tuition at in-state U.C.’s — were about $250/quarter).
    My then-husband (a social worker whose salary was not substantial) and I bought our first house that year ($65K in Sacramento, CA).
    I provide these figures because I’m a member of a generation that complains about young lawyers being too focused on money. But my ability NOT to focus on money when making career decisions in 1980 was made possible by the people of the State of California who educated me gratis for 19 years.
    There’s something not working out there, starting with my own State abandoning its “mission” to prepare its young people at all socio-economic levels to take their place in society based upon their talents rather than upon their parents’ ability to underwrite university and graduate education or their own willingness to begin their adult lives burdened with debts they cannot realistically be expected to discharge.
    I don’t have a solution but at least I’m becoming better focused on the problem.
    Thanks for all you do, by the way. Your blog is great; I read it regularly & I hardly ever tell you that.
    All best,

  • Anyone who goes to law school – or doesn’t go to law school – purely on the basis of the job market at the time of enrollment is frankly shortsighted, at best – foolish at worst – because the numbers change year to year; the numbers vary from region to region; and (not to put too fine a point on it) “because there are jobs available” is a poor reason for law school in the first place.
    Go to law school because you love the law, because it pulls you, because you feel you can do some good and it excites you. For the love of God, don’t go because there are jobs – and don’t decide NOT to go because there are fewer of those jobs available than you’d prefer.
    While I agree that “forewarned is forearmed,” I can’t agree that “there’s no discussion” after disclosure. There’s much more to the job market than this aspect.

  • jedrury

    I don’t accept your conspiracy theory about the Journal article.
    I do acknowledge the growth of technology as an impetus for big firm lawyers to leave the rat race and practice on their own or in a smaller group.
    Thanks for an interesting take.

  • Liz

    When I got home the other night and picked up the WSJ from the mailbox, I didn’t even finish the article….mostly because I have been living that exact scenario, and don’t need a third-party reminder of the reality of my life today.
    I went to law school a bit later in life, and with the intent to “do good” with my law degree. Of course, my law school tuition was $20K a year, so I relied on the premise that I would obtain a high paying job upon graduation, making the repayment of this debt relatively quick and easy, and then that would permit me to pursue any type of practice that I enjoyed (regardless of pay).
    Over the course of three years of law school, though, I realized that the only way I was going to secure a high paying job (likely not even in the six-figure category) was to completely subordinate my personal life to my work life – something I just wasn’t willing to do – even for the short-term. (Also, the fact that I was only in the top 25% of my class – rather than the top 10% – pretty much excluded me from the very few six-figure jobs available in the local, “third-tier” law school market.)
    My biggest complaint was (and still is) with my law school’s recruiters and advising staff. They seriously do a disservice to all prospective students by painting a Pollyanna picture of job prospects for future graduates. I never met a single person in law school who was told before they signed on for the program that they were much more likely to take a $35-50K/year job rather than the $125K job they imagine. How else could the law school lure in new students and ask them to go $75K into debt for the degree? And let’s not even go down the road of having the true “quality of life” of those BIGFIRM lawyers explained to a prospective student…..if that occurred, who would actually enroll?????
    I actually like your premise as to why the WSJ ran the article. I don’t really think it was to dissuade the masses from pursuing a law degree…..after all, I am guessing many more overworked BIGFIRM associates read the WSJ (while eating dinner at their desk in their office at 9:00 p.m.) than 22 year old recent college grads thinking about law school in the first place!

  • I agree with your “conspiracy theory”. There definitely are a host of reasons why the traditional big firm dynamics and structure may be under attack.

  • Oh, I disagree. I would not read that into the WSJ story at all. Law schools do need to be telling prospective students, however, just how lousy their job prospects will be. As law positions continue to dry up, eventually the word will get out, but by that time, thousands more will be screwed with big loan obligations.

  • Your take on the WSJ story is interesting. I think there are a few factors that played into the timing of the story. People have been complaining about misleading law school marketing for years. I know I started complaining about it, with many of my fellow students, during my second year of law school in 2004, and over the last year I have since written several blog pieces, and a letter to AG Cuomo. And many people have been voicing their complaints for at least as long, and often with more diligence.
    One factor is the job market: it is getting worse. Another is the financial aid scandal, which led people to question the assumed integrity of institutions of higher education. A third factor is the big firm salary wars, and I think your “conspiracy theory” plays into that factor. For the past several months there has been a great deal of press coverage discussing BigLaw first year associate salaries, and many 1st year associates at large firms, despite making multiple times what their slightly lower-ranked classmates earn, legitimately feel that they are underpaid. Large mega-firms appear to simply have money to burn, so why not give it to the new associates. In fact, many new associates whose firms have raised to 145 or 150 but are still below the top firms salaries, feel that they are underpaid.
    In that respect, the WSJ — which is one of the newspapers that provided the most coverage to the salary wars — was providing much needed scope to its coverage of the legal job market, and making amends for its role in proliferating the myth that a law degree is a license to print money.
    One startling fact, however, is that — unlike the financial aid crisis — there has been little response to this issue other than increased traffic in the blogosphere. To my knowledge, none of the law schools named in the article have made any statements on the issue, and no public investigations have ensued.
    The only somewhat related ameliorative measure is the government’s new student aid package. Government financial aid, however, is a scam, even if well intentioned. Students do not borrow from the government; rather, the government subsidizes financial institutions who lend to students at a discount. The effect of this system is that higher education institutions raise tuition in response to easy money, the financial institutions push as much debt on the students as possible under the guize that there is a low interest rate. In the end, the private schools and the financial institutions are huge winners, while any benefit the students gained by low interest rates is negated by the increased debt load and the tax payers overall are hurt.
    If nothing else, although it does not directly address the misleading marketing issue, a better system would be for the federal government to institute a direct lending program that is funded through a special bond release subsidized with a tax on high-tuition private schools. That would help unravel the tangled web of conflicting interests that have hampered higher education oversight.
    Another step would be for consumer lawyers to start going after law schools for misleading marketing practices, but what self-respecting lawyer wants to sue a law school?

  • ogma107

    The biggest liars are those with the most to gain — second, third, and fourth tier law schools. These schools continue to raise tuition to astronomical heights while recorded flawed, if not downright untruthful, employment data. Law school employment data should be scrutinized with same vigor as financial statements.
    Then again, why do law schools report this data? US News Rankings. The evil cycle bears its head once again and it’s so discouraging. Glad I got my JD in ’07.

  • PerGynt

    Does $135,000 for a starting annual salary not sound a little suspect to most people? I meet people all the time who don’t find that number even a little bit absurd, and that surprises me because you really don’t have to talk to many lawyers to learn otherwise. There are lots of ways to earn good money, but it wouldn’t seem reasonable to expect to purchase three years of legal training and suddenly be worth a great deal of money. It’s good to be aware of the high-end possibilities, but they are usually not a very good basis on which to make important decisions, like where, or whether to go to law school.
    Why, among intelligent, educated people, is that a problem?

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