College Guide


July 22, 2013 3:46 PM The ‘Crisis’ in the Legal Profession Is Just About the Fancy Law Firms

By Daniel Luzer

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.


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


  • Ken O'Connor on July 22, 2013 6:00 PM:

    I think the stats have been eschew when left to self-reporting from Law School's. It's not as easy to pick up public interest law, DA or public defender jobs as you elude to. 72% go somewhere else, but may often not be the law.

  • Jose Padilla on July 23, 2013 9:34 AM:

    No, when the big firms (those with over 100 lawyers) suffer, everybody suffers. If a big firm isn't getting as much of the M&A and "bet the company" litigation paying $500-1000 an hour as it used to, it slides down the ladder and starts taking products liability and smaller commercial litigation cases paying $200-400 an hour. The 50-100 man firms that previously did that work slide down the ladder and start taking routine insurance defense and collections cases paying $125-175 an hour. And so on.

    There's only so much legal work and the immiseration of the middle class has eliminated much of it. The middle class can no longer afford lawyers and this effects the solo and small-firm lawyers. The legal profession will continue to contract as long as this is the case.

  • Dirty Davey on July 24, 2013 9:32 AM:

    What this is missing is that law school tuitions and loans have increased to the point that a traditional big-law salary is necessary just to service a graduate's debt.

  • Irenist on July 25, 2013 1:30 PM:

    "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."

    Maybe the Boomers at small firms and in public interest jobs are fine. With the drying up of legal work, the rise of electronic document review, the federal sequester, and state & local budget cuts, recent law graduates ARE NOT FINDING LAWYER JOBS. They are not fine.

    Going to law school now (as opposed to going to law school in the 1970's or whenever) is a huge mistake, even at the very top schools. Six figures of non-dischargeable debt (for which most jobs won't cut it--even if you could find ANY job at all in the profession) for a mere lottery ticket that you MIGHT beat out literally tens of thousands of others for one of the few remaining entry-level attorney jobs. Read sometime if you want to see what it's like out there. Shame on you for being part of the Law School Scam.