Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Boycott BigLaw

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Total Black: $66.11
Total Red: $230,859.71

I’ve been thinking over the past few days about large corporate law firms.  About some of the changes that have already occurred—like attorney layoffs (read: firings) or deferrals (read: delayed firings).  Blogs like Above the Law and Law Shucks have detailed the dramas and charted the cuts.  According to Law Shucks, a website tracking law-firm layoffs, including both associates and staff, law firms have laid-off over 14,000 people since January 2008.  This, in an industry where layoffs were never public, always shame-ridden, and sometimes career-ending.  Nevertheless, once the tides began to turn, associates were the first kicked to the curb. Then came staff layoffs. Then more associate layoffs and staff layoffs until finally firms thought up the Great Procrastination, punting the issue altogether by deferring associates and providing stipends all along hoping the economy rebounds in the meantime or the associates decide not to return.  And now, to add insult to injury, one law firm, DLA Piper, has decided to restructure how its associates earn their salaries—not their bonuses—but their salaries.  According to Above the Law, starting in 2010, roughly 10-15% of an associate’s salary will be withheld and made contingent upon partner satisfaction with associate performance.  When do we say enough is enough?

Frequent visitors and other readers know that the focus of my blog is not the legal profession.  Plenty of bloggers already fill that niche and my focus is on getting out of debt in a year.  So forgive me that today’s post is a bit out of the ordinary.  But when I read about DLA Piper’s new structure, and got to thinking a bit more about the underlying assumptions and problems, I became a bit enraged.

As it stands now, law firm partners view their associates mostly as an albatross, dragging down their bottom lines–despite some evidence, from Adam Smith, Esq., that it may be non-equity partners who are the biggest drain and associates the most productive.  I’m too young to know what law firms were like fifty some years ago, but what I’ve heard is that they were much more collegial.  Gone now are the pre-corporate raiding days when gentlemanly manners and a family attitude pervaded the law firm office.  As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers: The Story of Success: “It’s hard to imagine today, when corporate raiders and private-equity firms are constantly swallowing up one company after another, but until the 1970s, it was considered scandalous for one company to buy another company without the target agreeing to be bought.”  Gladwell explained later in the book that the gentlemanly dislike by law firms of hostile takeover work and other “dirty” matters dissipated once it became a lucrative field.  And gone with that dislike seems to be partner mentoring of associates (as a group, not as individuals).  No more training and guidance.  Outside consultants handle that now.  Business doesn’t have time to stop for collegiality.  Not when the focus is the bottom line, if ever there was a different focus I suppose.  And associates are viewed as burdensome and even trifling.  They drain partner profits.  Perks and benefits siphon much-needed money for mortgages on Long Island or Westchester homes.  Despite profits per partners ranking in the millions of dollars! [cite coming.]  I doubt that any law firm seriously considered lowering everyone’s salaries, partners included, to hunker down and weather this economic maelstrom together.

Why does this burn me up?  Because it’s the associates who are frying up that bacon that partners bring home.  It’s associates who make partners their millions.  And it’s associates who work hours burdened with the stress of making Papa Partner happy while lumbering under massive law student debt, family obligations, some semblance of a social life, and conniving colleagues and put-upon staff.  Lawyers working the vast corporate arena already endure long hours with little respect or gratitude.  Now partners want to make salaries contingent upon whim?  Not lower salaries but make receipt of it contingent upon satisfactory performance.  I thought that’s what bonuses were for?  Whether contract attorney or associate, hours are set by people above with very little to no say in the matter from you.  As an associate I experienced days when I left the firm at 6am only to have to return that same day by 9am.  I pulled a few all-nighters during my two-year tenure.  I gave up family obligations and lost a romantic relationship because of months working on matters abroad.  And in my few months of contract attorney work, I’ve seen attorney distrust and mistreatment.  As I type this entry, I wait for the law firm I’m currently temping at to tell us to go home four hours early because their document reviewing system is down.  According to the paralegal, we’re required to put in four hours so we can’t leave before that time is up. So here we sit.  My previous temp position had us working ten hour days for seven days a week for over a month.  If we wanted a day off, we had to leave the project.  I understand the instability comes with the territory.  And I’m not pleading for sympathy or even compassion.  Instead, I’ve decided to take this post to plead for your participation.

Boycott BigLaw.

Boycott large corporate law firms.  Boycott them until partners own the truth that they make their millions off the backs of their associates and paralegals.  Until law firms institute mandatory leadership and feedback training for partners and senior associates.  Until the legal profession strips large law firms of its unearned and undeserved clout, and associates of their smugness and self-righteousness.

If you’re currently an associate, make plans to get out as quickly as possible.  If you’re a law student, take a position elsewhere or take practical classes now to train you on how to practice law and then start your own firm.  Associate prestige is a relatively recent thing and clearly imbalanced compared to the successes of other areas of the law.  If fame is your goal know that few associates garner it in the law.  Some of our greatest jurists weren’t law firm associates: Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, to cite a few.  If fortune is your goal, know that spending ten years (or more) as an associate won’t garner you the millions netted by the founder of Facebook or Google, or even the Snuggie.  If you’re a law firm partner, take steps at your firm to return some dignity and humanity to the practice of law in the corporate arena, to appreciation for associates’ personal lives and external commitments, to their willingness to work hard and desire to excel, despite whatever short-comings they may have.  And if you work in-house at a corporation, think about the influence you can have on the attorneys you hire.  Diversity in the legal profession has been spearheaded and championed by in-house counsels.  So too can the way law firms manage their associates and staff be changed by the influence of in-house counsels.

But the blame heaped upon associates must stop. Partners, commenters, and attorneys generally all drone on about the inefficiency of junior associates.  About how young lawyers aren’t productive and don’t know how to do anything.   If that’s true, then why hire them?  Are law firms that blind that they must “monkey see, monkey do” without reflection?  Hire only seasoned lawyers as United States Attorney’s offices tend to do.  Why don’t we establish a formal apprenticeship program like attorneys in the United Kingdom have.  Or perhaps law firm partners should exert their collective influence and pressure on law schools and the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools and lobby for better preparation and training for law school students.  But they cannot have it both ways.  This penalizing of law firm associates as de facto, yet unspoken, cause of law firm inefficiency and profit-loss, the burden poor partners must bear, must stop.  And until it does, boycott BigLaw.  Leave them scrambling for associates and qualified work.

We all have a responsibility to the profession.  It’s time someone starts policing it a bit better.  Maybe I ought to dub myself the Sheriff of Law Street.

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