The U.S. legal industry does a lot of things well. At its best, it allows people access to justice through a fair and open process. It also allows individuals to take on the largest corporations, uncover and correct injustices, and challenge those in positions of power in ways that would be unthinkable in many countries.
The legal industry, however, has baked-in disadvantages. Lawyers have been trained to think backwards in solving new problems. What is the law governing a new IoT device? Let’s see how courts looked at somewhat analogous situations 20 years ago. Though this way of thinking creates a type of grounding that is important to make the law stable, it comes with blinders. This is the problem facing legal recruitment. Thirty years ago, law students at top schools were ceremoniously ushered into the world of Big Law. On-campus interviewing was the norm for “top” firms. If you wanted another job—which meant government work, public interest or academia—you had to hustle.
Law school recruitment offices made it clear that Big Law jobs were easy to get and were the safest choice. The argument was simple: Big Law is stable; you will make tons of money; you will get the best training; and your options to do something later in your career will be preserved. All of that may have been true at the time. Countless students who went to law school to fight for the little guy or make a difference in the world found their ways to large firms that were created to serve the interests of the elite. The trade-off wasn’t horrible and the amount of money offered was real.
Things started to change in the late 1990s. Lawyers focused on profits-per-partner and realized that if they had a good book of business, they could simply move to firms willing to pay more. Almost overnight, the days of law as a profession—instead of as a business—were doomed. Fast forward to today and the legal market has fundamentally changed. Large law firms generally don’t expect associates to stay longer than a few years. As such, young associates are viewed as temporary workers who are expected to bill a large number of hours. Legal training took a back seat, as a new framework emerged. Just like partners realized they could make more money by abandoning feelings of loyalty, firms abandoned the idea that they owed anything long term to those they hired.
The impact came into focus during the pandemic. Many firms cynically viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to cut fat, modernize, and increase profitability. Summer associate programs got slashed, incoming associate offers were pulled or delayed, and support staff were fired. Law firms are businesses, and they are allowed to run their business in any (legal) way they want to. The idea that large law firms are focused first and foremost on profits should surprise no one.
The problem is that the messaging by law schools, law firms and recruiters has not caught up to reality. Law students are still being fed the same lines from three decades ago: “Go to big law; it’s stable. You’ll get the best training. You’ll have so many options once you save enough money to actually follow your dreams.”
That’s simply not true.
The legal field is filled with career paths that are rarely, if ever, discussed in law school. As someone who has interviewed over 500 law students and lawyers during the past three years, I am constantly amazed that I have to explain that, by definition, half of all litigation is done by plaintiffs attorneys.
Although many plaintiffs firms act like big law firms (hierarchical, stuffy, siloed), many do not. Plaintiffs firms’ business models are significantly more innovative because they must always look toward the future and embrace risk.
Many people think that innovation means having a volleyball court in the office. While that’s true at our firm, it misses the point. Plaintiffs firms do not make their money by billing the largest number of hours. Instead, they make their money by winning cases. Though this may seem to be a trite point, it is not. It changes everything.
The best plaintiffs firms understand the value that comes from the ingenuity of its employees. That means that training young attorneys and giving them outsized responsibilities are paramount. Those that learn and grow are no mere interchangeable cogs that are kept at the mercy of their bosses. By getting real experience, they have a much better ability to switch to other firms—yes, including defense firms.
The same cannot be said for those that internalized the messaging of their law school, law firms and legal recruiters. Every week I get applications from candidates at Vault 100 firms and they all share similar stories—they graduated at the top of their class from a T14, put in their time at a prestigious firm, and are ready to cash in their chips for the dream job they were promised.
Unfortunately, these candidates are often met with rejection. The reason? They all share painfully similar resumes. The candidates list the following four responsibilities: (1) drafted memos; (2) managed large-scale document review; (3) trained incoming associates; and (4) second-chaired a deposition. (In reality, second chairing a deposition means handing relevant paperwork to the partner conducting the deposition.)
It’s important to note I am not looking to diminish the careers of these candidates. Rather, I am highlighting that every firm has different definitions of “substantive work,” which impacts the lateral moves candidates can make.
This may be true, many argue, but it ignores the fact that big firms pay more and law school isn’t cheap. The problem with that argument is that it too isn’t fully based in fact. Plaintiffs firms offer different compensation models and some simply match or outdo Big Law salaries.
The point is not that law students should be blindly heading to the plaintiffs bar; it is certainly not meant for everyone. Rather, law students should shed their blinders once and for all. There are so many opportunities and the decision between one legal career and another is as important as deciding whether one wants to open a restaurant or build bridges.
The days of having one clear, safe choice are over, and they have been for some time. The legal industry just doesn’t know it yet.
2/3/21 edition of the National Law Journal© 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints[email protected]