"Mommy tracked" and loving it?
May 24, 2011 9:33 PM   Subscribe

In-sourcing the legal business: America's biggest law firms are "creating a second tier of workers, stripping pay and prestige from one of the most coveted jobs in the business world."

Commentary on this NYT article, with lots of links.
posted by kanuck (76 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Elie has also criticized these positions, characterizing them as “barely legal” jobs.

I had to stop and laugh.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:44 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

This 'adjunctification' of the legal profession, like that of the professoriate, may be the result of more and more new phds and jds coming on the market every year. You can't - or won't - pay them at the traditional new hire rate but they will be so desperate for a job that it won't be an issue.
posted by jmccw at 9:50 PM on May 24, 2011

You know things are bad when you feel bad for law school grads.
posted by orthogonality at 10:01 PM on May 24, 2011 [9 favorites]

More like the "low-paid-temps-ification of America". No vacation, no benefits, no promotion, no retirement. It looks like a trend.
posted by bleep at 10:05 PM on May 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm not saying that "No vacation, no benefits, no promotion, no retirement" is the plight of the lawyers in the article, it just seems like the "low paid, unpromotable" "thing" is becoming a "big thing", even among formerly elite professions, until everyone is a temp.
posted by bleep at 10:07 PM on May 24, 2011

Never underestimate the value of a completely sane work week. It's worth a big paycut, especially once you burn out of the 2000-billable-hours-a-year lifestyle.

However, $60k is unconscionably low for the private sector. And most young lawyers are saddled with massive debt. It's an insult, really. I'm especially floored by the stories of 7th-year associates at large firms moving to these "permanent associate" positions. Wouldn't they be able to transition to an in-house position for $80k+ (more likely six figures) and work the same reasonable hours? I refuse to believe that market is completely dry even for people with extensive biglaw experience.
posted by naju at 10:12 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, at $60k you'd be better off moving to just about any small law firm, right? You'd get better hours and higher pay. Maybe you can even be partner and still work 45-50 hour weeks. So... is it just the prestige factor?
posted by naju at 10:17 PM on May 24, 2011

Keep in mind that the 7th-year was not moving to a $60k per year position. Rather, she took a 40 percent cut from what her salary had been at Jones Day.
posted by chinston at 10:18 PM on May 24, 2011

especially once you burn out of the 2000-billable-hours-a-year lifestyle.

Ooh, I'd love it if my requirement was that low.
posted by amro at 10:19 PM on May 24, 2011

The market for law school grads has been bad for a while. What's interesting is that, at least to my understanding, the top firms were still something of a lottery system -- you either got in and were essentially a made man (or woman), or you weren't. In or out.

That always seemed to be pretty nasty, since it creates a sort of casino-like effect, where everyone thinks they could get one of those few slots at the Fancy White-Shoe Law Firm, when in reality it's very unlikely. But people like long odds, an effect you can see repeated over and over.

Maybe this will start to make the truth of the job market more evident?
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:20 PM on May 24, 2011

And by "lottery system" I don't mean that they randomly picked people or anything, just that you had a very small chance in a large pool of people competing for the position. Not everyone necessarily had an equal shot, of course; some are always a bit more equal than others.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:22 PM on May 24, 2011

you either got in and were essentially a made man (or woman), or you weren't. In or out.

You're not made until you're a partner.
posted by amro at 10:25 PM on May 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am not a lawyer, but I do work for a law firm that is "in-sourcing" my job to Ohio in September. The very first thing I noticed about the 8 people they hired to do my job in the new office is that 6 of the 8 have JDs, which is pretty well horrifying. In the DC office I work in now, these jobs are the sort of thing that people get right out of college and before they go to law school, but they're paying lawyers less than they pay me to do the same work in Ohio, and people were so happy for the chance to search a conflicts database that they moved from neighboring states for the privilege. I see some of the resumes for the people in the firm's new document review center, and it's pretty much the same story there, only they're all lawyers over there, and do a job that's even more tedious. The even worse thing in some ways is that by my estimation of the numbers, it's not even about the salaries, it's about the cost of office space. You can save a 10 or 15 percent on salaries by in-sourcing, but they're saving something like 80% on office space if the numbers I heard are right.

As for the jobs themselves, they're boring grunt work, but that just makes them like other office jobs (or, honestly, like most of what regular associates do from what I can tell). I can't get too up in arms about the slight temp-ification of entry level legal jobs thanks to stuff like this chart of associate salaries which make it pretty clear to me that the system is fucked and unsustainable. No client is going to keep paying $300/hour for someone to do paralegal work just because they clerked for Scalia and will be a great lawyer in 15 years.
posted by Copronymus at 10:27 PM on May 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not considering outstanding student debts, 60K a year is pretty well off if you aren't trying to live the MTV lifestyle.

I will count myself quite fortunate if my MSc Biochem brings me that. Or half that at the rate this neo-feudalism is going.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:28 PM on May 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

First, they came for the manufacturing workers, but I didn't speak out for them, cos jeez, I was, what, three years old at the time? Something to do with Reagan I heard, and those guys were unionised bums anyway, making America un-competitive, they deserved to lose their jobs.

Then they came for the call centre jobs, but I didn't speak out for them because, hey, I was in high school, and sure it was irritating for my Mom and Dad when they were trying to get something done over the phone and the guy was following some jackass script, but hey - lower premiums!

Then they came for the service jobs, but I didn't speak out for them because I was in college, I was studying hard and anyway it was pretty neat to be able to order at the drive-in around the corner from Yale and have my order taken by some guy in Buttfuck, Idaho who used to be a farmer or a machinist or some shit like that.

Then, they came for the software and publishing and insurance and project management jobs and I didn't speak out because man, I'm so glad I went for a really high-value career like law, I mean, can you imagine if I'd done a liberal arts degree? These loans will be worth it in the end when all those sociology and English grads are serving me lattes.

Finally, they came for the law jobs and they used software and they moved everybody to Omaha to save on rent, and nobody spoke for me, because, y'know, everybody just wants to keep their jobs man, who's going to cry for an Ivy League guy who can't get a job?
posted by Happy Dave at 1:00 AM on May 25, 2011 [41 favorites]

Hmmm. Why do I have a hard time sympathizing with law school grads? Hmmm...
posted by The ____ of Justice at 1:12 AM on May 25, 2011

A couple of lawyers have even turned up in my real estate office. Must be sad for them.
posted by knoyers at 1:42 AM on May 25, 2011

There's a very dramatic bimodal distribution in lawyer salaries. I wonder how much this phenomenon has to do with it.
posted by abcde at 1:56 AM on May 25, 2011

The very first thing I noticed about the 8 people they hired to do my job in the new office is that 6 of the 8 have JDs, which is pretty well horrifying.

What is horrifying is that so many people are duped by the Education Industry to obtain an expensive degree which for which there is already a massive oversupply.

Over the past decade the number of law-school students has steadily increased. More than 200 American Universities offer law degrees.

Obviously, a lot of these students are making a very bad investment of time and money. Too sad for them.

If the guild is going to preserve its wealth, obviously something has to be done to prevent this oversupply of labor from competing at the top levels, which is why the idea of a permanent apprenticeship is very attractive.
posted by three blind mice at 2:29 AM on May 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Hasn't there always been a large number of more administrative positions within law-firms? These kind of jobs exist in every professional industry.

There are bankers who are also not on the bonus track working in 'shit-kicker' roles in investment banks too. - they generally don't have to work much over-time though I imagine.
posted by mary8nne at 2:56 AM on May 25, 2011

Not considering outstanding student debts, 60K a year is pretty well off if you aren't trying to live the MTV lifestyle.

I'd never argue with this if you're living debt-free, but believe it or not, it could seem like one step away from struggling if you're also trying to pay off 120K of debt on top of your undergraduate debt. Of course, there are law grads in the public sector who are making less, but at least many of them have loan repayment assistance programs in place from their schools, and they've also gone into public interest well aware of the lower salary. So, this is not 60K in a vaccuum (but I'm not suggesting anyone should shed tears for these people either, it's still gainfully employed in an incredibly tough market.)
posted by naju at 3:54 AM on May 25, 2011

I graduated from law school in 2009 and work for a mid-size firm in what is at best a third-tier city. There's a tl;dr version at the end for those who can't be bothered, but I've got some thoughts here.

First, the impact of student debt really can't be overstated. I pay CitiBank almost exactly $1,000 a month, and the only way I was able to get it that low was a combination of familial assistance and kicking out my repayment period for twenty years. This is pretty typical, particularly as a lot of law grads actually have debt from their undergraduate degrees too. But it's not just the monthly payment that hurts: it's that I've got this huge fixed expense that I can't do anything about. If rent is too high, I can downsize or get a roommate. I can eat out less. I can get a cheaper car. I can cancel optional utilities like internet. But because almost 30% of my take-home pay goes to student loans, none of that is going to make much of a difference. This means that I must have a job, because unlike a lot of other college grads, moving back in with mom and dad isn't actually going to fix my problems. CitiBank wants its money. So right off the bat, the incentive to take a job, any job, anywhere, is significantly higher than it would be for someone my age who doesn't have any debt.

Second, while it may be tempting to view this trend as part of the ongoing "adjunctification" of American society, as jmccw so aptly put it, I'm not really sure that's what's going on here. Compensation in the legal profession is just downright strange. We talked about this on a thread I started last year, but the core of what I'm getting is that income distribution is weird. Right out of the gate, you've got this relatively small group of people making an obscene amount of money and a bunch of people who are making relatively modest, middle-class incomes. Granted, incomes do go up, but half of the lawyers in the country make less than $112k a year. 25% make less than $75k. Both of which are well above the national average, but are on par with better paid civil servants and corporate middle management. So really, while there's all this attention paid to "biglaw," that's only a tiny sliver of the legal profession. For every highly-paid corporate attorney, there's a dozen assistant district attorneys, public defenders, divorce attorneys, etc., basically the guys you see in the yellow pages. It's always been that way.

What's unusual is that during the boom--approximately 1995-2008--people seem to have forgotten that that's the way things are. Biglaw went on a hiring spree and starting salaries at the big firms jumped from twice the median to over three times the median, and more and more people shifted to the higher end. This disguised two things. First, there isn't anything a newly-minted law grad can do which is worth $160k a year. There just isn't. Second, firms who couldn't really afford to pay that much started doing so. While the boom continued and corporate coffers were flush and mergers common, people didn't notice that this wasn't real growth. When the crash hit, firms that could never really afford to pay those salaries started laying people off in large numbers almost immediately. Firms who were better positioned still laid people off, mostly as they realized that it just wasn't worth it.

So what we're seeing here is not a departure from the norm but more of a return to it. Being a lawyer has, for the vast majority of lawyers, never been a good way of getting rich. It's a way of making a respectable middle-class income and working in a non-physically-strenuous, climate-controlled environment, neither of which are anything to sneeze at.

That being said, corporations still need attorneys to handle the big cases. I've got a friend who works at a big firm in Chicago, and one of the cases he's working on had a $1 billion verdict overturned last year. The defendant corporation is, and ought to be, willing to pay just about anything necessary to defend that case. My friend in the big firm bills out at several hundred dollars an hour and has told me, in as many words, that he's maybe worth half that. The partners at his firm bill out from $600-900, and probably are worth that. If you're saving your client hundreds of millions, you can basically name your price.

But my firm? We defend people in motor vehicle accidents, business in slip 'n falls, physicians and lawyers in professional malpractice cases, and manufacturers in products liability cases. There's certainly money to be made there, but it's quite rare for the amount in controversy to exceed $1 million. So defendants--or rather their insurance carriers, but it amounts to the same thing--aren't willing to spend nearly as much money fighting the cases. Still, even though we bill out at a fraction of what my friend does, I am confident that I'm worth what I'm billing. Turning a potential $1 million award into a $150k settlement, or a potential $100k award into a defense verdict is worth $10k-15k, don't you think?

So if we wind up with fewer partner-track jobs at the big firms... so what? There shouldn't have been that many in the first place. Yes, corporations like BP need firms to handle their messes, but there's only so much of that going on. My friend at the big firm has worked on approximately a dozen cases in the past four years, many of which started when he was in high school and may not conclude before the end of the decade. I, on the other hand, have worked on more cases than that this month, and one of the partners has about 350 cases open at any given time, most of which are open for less than three years and settle without going to trial.

What's going to need to happen is that law school tuition is going to have to go down. Yale Law school, one of the top two or three schools in the country, charges $50,275 a year in tuition. Notre Dame Law school is in the top twenty-five and charges $42,870. One can see a kind of rational relationship there: slightly less prestigious school, slightly less tuition. But Thomas Cooley Law School, which is notoriously unranked and the butt of many jokes, charges $32,790. Which is ten grand less than NDLS, to be sure, but not even playing the same sport when it comes to career prospects. Well north of 50% of Yale students end up in biglaw, and a good 25% of Notre Dame students do, but statistically speaking, no one at Cooley does. Yet they still charge as if they're competing with some of the best schools in the country.

This is depressingly common. If you're in one of the top fourteen, even top twenty-five schools, you have a decent shot at getting a job, in biglaw or otherwise, that will make a law degree a good investment. But if you don't, i.e. you go to some place like Cooley, your costs don't go down all that much, but your career prospects are largely limited to ambulance chasing,* criminal law,** family law,*** etc. I.e., you're making up the big chunk of the curve that starts at $30k and maxes out below $100k, yet carrying a debt load only slightly smaller than if you'd gone to Yale. There are undergraduate degrees with far, far better cost ratios.

This, my friends, isn't something that's going to work, and we're only just starting to see the changes in the profession which are returning it to some semblance of rationality. Really, outsourcing and off-shoring legal work is far from ideal. A lot of what we do does require personal interaction, which is difficult enough over the phone let alone with a language, accent, or culture barrier. But the boom distorted prices so much that it was a viable option. As firms start to realize that they can do things like what's being described in the linked article, they're going to do that, because clients will pay for that kind of service and support. But it's going to take a while to cut the glut from law schools--both in terms of sheer numbers and in bureaucratic and academic dead weight--so that tuition falls back in line with the realities of the market.

Tl;dr version: Law school was never really supposed to be a way of getting rich, and the introduction of these kinds of jobs is a positive development, as it reasserts the fundamentally middle-class nature of what it is that lawyers do. Once law schools realize this and cut their tuition, these kinds of jobs could actually be pretty sweet.

*Which can be surprisingly lucrative if you're any good at it, but isn't for most people.

**Nobody makes any money here.

posted by valkyryn at 5:06 AM on May 25, 2011 [35 favorites]

I liked many of Valkyryn's points. I think that it would not be a terrible thing if the same thing happened with doctors or bankers -- if an oversupply shifted the profession from an expectation of crazy-high wages to earning solid middle class incomes -- and of course, if tuition dropped (or repayment support increased) so that the graduates weren't totally fucked.

I mean, $60k is an ok income for an educated person in a smaller city, as long as you aren't repaying $120k of student loan debt. That's in line with what an entry-level professor, wildlife ecologist, city planner, or other white-collar professional might make; in a place with a moderate cost of living you can expect to be able to raise a family, buy a house, and have a nice car on that income. Again... only if you aren't saddled with loan debt premised on a $160k/year salary.

And, these kinds of solid jobs are exactly what these rust belt cities desperately need. I mean, I live in a place that is not rust belt at all, and is not struggling, and I can guarantee that our economic development manager would personally fellate the entire board of directors of any major law firm if he thought it would get them to locate a back office here. Can you imagine the cackles of happy laughter at the prospect of getting tens or hundreds of $60k jobs, without any pollution or heavy infrastructure problems to solve?
posted by Forktine at 5:37 AM on May 25, 2011

One thing I always wonder in these threads about the bleak future of US law graduates is whether there are any public sector jobs to go to. A large proportion of the Australian lawyers I know went into government work - they're bureaucrats, prosecutors, military lawyers, government litigators, legislative drafters, in-house departmental counsel, legal aid solicitors etc. Are these jobs just too hard to get into in the US? Or is there something wrong with them?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:40 AM on May 25, 2011

Right now, I'm working as a temp attorney on a document review project, and I'd kill for a job like one of the ones in the article. I'm glad I went to law school, I want to be a lawyer, but I couldn't recommend it to anyone I know who is considering it. The market right now is screwed up, and I don't see it getting fixed anytime too soon. I knew that going in, but I thought I could avoid the problems by going to a top 15aw school, then 2008 happened and that stopped working.

Still, it's nice to have people feel sorry for me.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:46 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can save a 10 or 15 percent on salaries by in-sourcing, but they're saving something like 80% on office space if the numbers I heard are right.

This is what the internet was supposed to do. Many jobs can't reasonably be outsourced, but if you can do your interaction on a conference call and the job has an easy to manage metric, you can save a lot of money moving that worker to WV or such. As they mention in the article, the worker gives up city benefits but save tons of money on rent and indirect rent.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:56 AM on May 25, 2011

"I'm always home by bedtime"? Bedtime, really? At a 60k/year job, I expect to always be home by dinner (and I am, though not in law).
posted by jeather at 6:11 AM on May 25, 2011

Are these jobs just too hard to get into in the US?

Some of them (e.g. federal prosecutors, judicial clerks) have always been hard to get. Others are harder to get now than they were. People with good grades from good schools that wouldn't have even applied to those jobs in years past are now flooding the system with applications.

Some government jobs are still available, but are going unfilled for other reasons. For example, the Patent Office has a lot of openings for attorneys to be patent examiners and administrative patent judges. But you've got to have a technical background and be willing & able to move to Alexandria. A lot of people can't do that.
posted by jedicus at 6:19 AM on May 25, 2011

An example of what the squeeze at the top is doing: my wife's firm had an opening for a 2nd-4th year associate. They got applications from recently downsized partners at firms larger than theirs, partners who had some portable business (i.e. clients they could bring to the new firm). When you've got partners with business willing to take a 2nd year associate position, you know things are bad.

I agree with valkyryn that things wouldn't be so bad if law school tuition were reduced (or offset with more scholarships and grants). But I don't think it will happen. As Kadin2048 pointed out, people are really, really bad at thinking about long odds. Law schools have absolutely no incentive to reduce tuition as long as people keep coming into the casino.

Applications are down about 10.5% this year, but that's compared to 2010, which along with 2009 was a boom year for applications. I think we've got a long way to go before things become so unsustainable that the law schools' hands are forced. Heck, new ones are still opening up (e.g. UC Irvine a few years ago and now the University of North Texas).
posted by jedicus at 6:28 AM on May 25, 2011

jedicus:Law schools have absolutely no incentive to reduce tuition as long as people keep coming into the casino.

When grads complain about being unable to find a job with their degree, the common retort from the school is something along the lines of "this is an institute of education, not a job training program".

Can they hide behind that same excuse in the professional school setting?
posted by dr_dank at 6:38 AM on May 25, 2011

Are these jobs just too hard to get into in the US? Or is there something wrong with them?

Yes and yes. As jedicus mentions, federal positions are pretty sexy, and have always been hard to get, either because they're in such high demand or because they have requirements that weed out a lot of potential applicants. Remember, Australia is big, but a lot of it is unoccupied, and most of the population lives in an area which is about the size of California. It's less of a big deal to move from Sacramento to Los Angeles than it is to move from Los Angeles to Boston.

But second, a lot of public sector attorney jobs do have something "wrong with them," i.e. the pay is shit, especially for someone with student loans. We're talking less than you can make with just a college degree in many cases: $20-35k. Assistant district attorneys/deputy prosecuting attorneys (same thing, basically) can expect to make $30-35k, public defenders $25-30k, etc. Lawyers at big city legal departments start around $45-50k and can make it up to the lower $70k range eventually, but we're talking salaries well into financial hardship territory when loans are factored in. And again, even the better paying ones aren't that different from what one could make with just a college degree, rendering the financial analysis for law school deeply negative.

And it isn't just that the starting salaries are bad. Sure, associates in small to mid-size law firms may only start at $50-60k, but there's the potential for real income growth: 5-10% annually is not uncommon. Stay with a firm for five years and you can easily be pulling down more than most state or local civil servants ever will. The non-wage benefits aren't as good, but the public sector all over the country is feeling the squeeze there, and public sector pensions in a lot of state are coming under increasing fire.
posted by valkyryn at 6:39 AM on May 25, 2011

You're not made until you're an equity partner.

and these days even equity partner just means it takes a few more votes to get you out
posted by caddis at 6:42 AM on May 25, 2011

Can they hide behind that same excuse in the professional school setting?

Less so. Both students and the profession at large are starting to get annoyed with the fact that most law school grads are pretty useless for the first year or two out. Students because it means there aren't any jobs, and legal employers because it means they need to babysit new attorneys for years before they become independent.

Some of this is to be expected: doctors go through three plus years of residency after medical school before they begin their practices, so it makes a certain amount of sense that attorneys need a similar apprenticeship-type period before we become independent too. But the fact that so many law school classes and programs have absolutely nothing to do with the vast majority of attorneys' actual practices is starting to grate a bit.

Still, there is something to the fact that the law is truly a learned profession, and the best lawyers are ones who know the theory as well as they do the practice of law. Being able to slog one's way through routine matters by rote is useful to clients and efficient for firms, but isn't going to permit one to contribute much when things get hairy. And they do. The kind of law I practice is pretty pedestrian, but last month I had to figure out how a client could bring suit where the law doesn't seem to permit it, and I did that by comparing three states' laws on the subject, which required me to do some additional research on jurisdiction. There's a lot of thinking outside the box like that that goes on, so law schools will never really be trade schools, as much as certain critics argue that they should.
posted by valkyryn at 6:45 AM on May 25, 2011

Can they hide behind that same excuse in the professional school setting?

Law schools certainly try to. The standard law school curriculum is extremely low in practical skills courses (typically two semesters of research & writing and that's it). Many schools, particularly national ones and ones with national aspirations, do not emphasize teaching the law as-it-is in any particular jurisdiction. Instead the law is presented as general principles and ideas rather than really nailing down the specifics.

What's worse, many law schools try to make up for this dearth of practical skills education with clinical programs. Clinics are a highly compromised program, in my opinion. The students pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free, often under the not-so-watchful eye of an adjunct professor who couldn't swing a job in the real world. The clients get free legal services, but from inexperienced law students, who are often from the lower end of the class (if they already had a job lined up they wouldn't bother with the clinic), and who typically only take the clinic for a single semester. Very few legal problems can be fully handled in 3 months, so the result is all too often rushed, shoddy, and incomplete work.

I tend to agree with a former professor of mine, who said that law school could easily be compressed into two years and maybe even just one. I think either something like that has to happen or the curriculum (largely based on what it was at Harvard in the mid 1800s) needs to be significantly modernized with more of an emphasis on practical skills.
posted by jedicus at 6:50 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

What I'd really like to see is for law schools to adopt a system similar to the med school match system for residencies, except for summer jobs and first year associate positions. There should be a centralized database where employers can say "we're interested in people from these schools, in this rank order, and students with these qualifications, etc." Then students can say "I'm interested in these areas of the country, in this rank order, at firms of this size doing this kind of work, etc." The system then matches jobs to students as best as possible. Both firms and students could also specify "If you can't match me, I'll take whatever."

It's absurd that students have to waste time sending out hundreds of resumes ever year and firms have to weed through thousands. The whole thing should be automated and the per-law school results published. Now that would be a meaningful ranking: who gets the jobs and who gets the jobs they actually want.
posted by jedicus at 6:56 AM on May 25, 2011

Thanks for your contributions, valkyryn and jedicus. While my play on Niemoller was facetious in tone, it's good to get the perspective on the bubble mentality behind law grad hiring (which I believe to be a particularly high-stakes, high-pressure microcosm of higher education cost vs benefit bubble indicators generally).
posted by Happy Dave at 7:12 AM on May 25, 2011

The match system from the medical profession isn't exactly easy on either the potential residents or the teaching hospitals. It's essentially a rolling interview season where, for example, between 5-10 students interview each week from Septemberish to March for (in this case) 14 positions available in their chosen specialty. Each student will likely go through 5-10 different interviews at widely varied hospitals, where they have to pay an application fee plus travel costs. Then each student submits his/her ranked list of preferred hospitals and each hospital submits its ranked list of potential residents. Then, by magic, they get matched up with no real recourse if things didn't work out the way either party hoped. And this is for positions that by $25-40K and are generally worked between 50-80 hour weeks with weekends and nights often included. Luckily their med school loans are normally deferred until after residencies, so that definitely helps the budgets.
posted by This Guy at 7:30 AM on May 25, 2011

It's essentially a rolling interview season

Yeah, I'm focusing on the automated match. The automated system would replace the application process, but firms would still interview the handful of short-listed candidates. Effectively it's "apply everywhere, interview at maybe 3 or 4 firms." To minimize the number of students left in the lurch, the number of interviews per student and the number of students per position would be kept roughly the same.

Each student will likely go through 5-10 different interviews at widely varied hospitals, where they have to pay an application fee plus travel costs

In the law school world, most firms pay travel costs for prospective employees. It's required if they want to be listed by NALP, for example.
posted by jedicus at 7:37 AM on May 25, 2011

But second, a lot of public sector attorney jobs do have something "wrong with them," i.e. the pay is shit, especially for someone with student loans.

Yep. Entry-level federal employees with a BA and a 3.0 GPA make more in NYC than first year ADAs.
posted by Jahaza at 7:47 AM on May 25, 2011

The last time I looked in the yellow pages, there were THOUSANDS of lawyers for hire. Facing that, WHY even try that tack for a career?

Clearly the schools are serving themselves and a select few, not the majority of their customers. Caveat emptor. It was NEVER possible to follow a formula up the ladder of success, and anyone selling you a formula is lying. Formulas only work for those whose paths are built on solid ground and gilded. Don't surrender, Dorothy!

The way out is not the ritual way. The easy way is crowded, and it's the pickings there that are easy. The concrete jungle is full of beachcombers with formula dreams they don't know how to realize, so they want you to make their dreams come true. Joining the flotsam and jetsam on the shores? That's the path to economic slavery, feudalism, selling yourself short and settling for less.

If you've got the right stuff, as always you have to make the reality you want. Luckily, you live in times yearning for new realities. Thoreau : If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
posted by Twang at 7:47 AM on May 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Were it not for the (huge, un-ignorable) student loan issues, you could live pretty well in my Midwestern college town on $60,000 a year. The public schools are good, housing is mega-cheap, and your spouse or partner could easily find a job here if he or she wanted. I can think of way worse fates than being in-sourced here on that salary. But Wheeling, West Virginia? That seems like a whole different thing. It's true that, according to people I know who live there, the housing stock is great and houses are very cheap. But the schools suck, and the job market is a mess. It seems to me like there are a lot of things about moving to Wheeling that would offset the benefits of trading better working conditions for low wages.
posted by craichead at 8:03 AM on May 25, 2011

Huh. Apparently I'm wrong about the schools. The job market is still bad, though, which could be an issue for anyone with a spouse or partner.
posted by craichead at 8:16 AM on May 25, 2011

ah, but craichead, TFA said (quoting Morning Dockette): "...but really, what kind of a lifestyle is it when you have to live in a crappy city with an even crappier salary?"

And that kinda shit rarely gets a pass on mefi..
posted by k5.user at 8:18 AM on May 25, 2011

I hate the "crappy city" rhetoric, too. I don't think Wheeling is a "crappy city." The people I know who live there like it. But it has some major disadvantages, especially for the kind of person who has an incentive to prioritize quality of life over money. (And I suspect most of those people are folks with spouses and small children.) Speaking as someone who recently decamped from a major metropolitan area to a place that a lot of big-city people would dismiss as a "crappy city", I get the objection, but I still think you have to be realistic about things like the job market in the place to which you're moving.
posted by craichead at 8:27 AM on May 25, 2011

I hate the "crappy city" rhetoric, too.

If you practice corporate law, the golden ticket is a job in Wilmington, Delaware. You get a biglaw, NYC salary in a city of 80,000 people with an extremely low (by east coast standards, anyway) cost of of living.
posted by amro at 8:43 AM on May 25, 2011

TFA said (quoting Morning Dockette): "...but really, what kind of a lifestyle is it when you have to live in a crappy city with an even crappier salary?"

Actually, TFA disagreed with the quote: "Interesting work and a decent salary, in super-affordable Wheeling — a most pleasant place to live, as I can tell you from having visited the area (to speak at a conference at WVU Law in Morgantown a few years ago). What’s not to like?"

There are still plenty of people watching Biglaw who are stuck on making gobs of money in major urban areas, but the editors at ABL are pretty good about being more realistic and even-handed, most of the time.
posted by valkyryn at 8:54 AM on May 25, 2011

Can't the poor oppressed lawyers simply do a class-action lawsuit to fix everything?
posted by happyroach at 9:03 AM on May 25, 2011

Is this another one of those threads that makes me feel better-and-better about my decision to go in to system design instead of an LLB?

On preview: yes.

I have yet to meet someone who went to law school and who recommends going to law school.
posted by Theta States at 9:13 AM on May 25, 2011

I recommend going to law school if you can get someone else to pay for it. Otherwise...
posted by valkyryn at 9:15 AM on May 25, 2011

Yeah, pretty much. I used to be one of those people who'd say "I recommend going if you get into a top school", but I was on law review at a top school, and have decent experience, and I'm currently getting rejected from every job I apply to. So yeah, maybe if you get a full scholarship to an Ivy, heh.
posted by naju at 9:29 AM on May 25, 2011

I don't know about Wheeling, but I do know that Dayton, in addition to being a less than desirable cultural destination, has one of the highest crime rates in the country for a city of its size, probably because unemployment is also sky-high there. I haven't spent enough time in Dayton to say whether it's a crappy city or not, but that's much more relevant to quality of life in a place like that than the restaurants or local music scene.
posted by Copronymus at 9:29 AM on May 25, 2011

It's interesting--I've been on conference calls all morning, watching this thread unfurl. I'm at a point in my career where I'd strongly consider the staff associate route. I've worked in biglaw for my entire career, and I'm reaching my expiration date; for instance, I just randomly worked 15 hours yesterday, and that drives me insane. The caveat is that I have a number of friends who are staff attorneys at my firm, and they are asked to pull hours, and they don't get a lot of respect, and they certainly don't get paid that much (considering that they add far more value than first year associates, who make significantly more).

Valkryn's and Jedicus's comments have been spot-on with respect to the legal market, as always. The system is broken, and there are too many, IMO, young dumb kids going to law school for the chance at the golden ticket, and so few realize how elusive it actually is.

I've watched several waves of applicants come through the firms where I've worked, and it's been fascinating to see the applications. There was a time that a student with solid grades from a close-to-the-top school had a shot at an associate gig; nowadays it's well within reason to ding anyone from Harvard with anything less than a B+. It's crazy.

Paying for law school only makes sense if you're going to make a lot of money when you get out. You have no guarantee of making a lot of money when you get out. Even if you make a lot of money when you get out, you end up working crazy hours and not seeing your loved ones or being able to make plans with friends 90% of the time. It's hardly worth it. It's a pie eating contest where the prize is a pie made of rocks.

The catch is that I don't see anyone really trying to fix any part of the system. I would gladly work half as much for 50% less; I won't work 30% less for 50% lower salary. I took out over $100K in loans (and paid CASH for 1L); had law school cost less, I'd be more flexible to do different things now. And if the partners didn't need to make so much, they wouldn't have to pimp me out at $500+ per hour--a rate at which clients have a right to expect on-demand service, I think.

Kids: don't do law. It's wack.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:29 AM on May 25, 2011

I don't get it. US biglaw firms easily bill 400 $/h. If they are demanding from their associates 2000+ billable hours per year, that makes 800K. Where is the money going?
posted by Skeptic at 9:31 AM on May 25, 2011

I don't get it. US biglaw firms easily bill 400 $/h. If they are demanding from their associates 2000+ billable hours per year, that makes 800K. Where is the money going?

Overhead. If a firm has 800 lawyers, they have--easily--1600 staff. That means they have 2/3 of the personnel not bringing in any money. Plus they have to have infrastructure to support 2400 people--office space, computers, blackberries, law books, copiers etc.

Plus, not everyone is billing 2000 hours. At my firm, that's the billing target for the end of year bonus, and if you're not really trying to bill, you'll get canned. But the average billing is something like 1600 hours--which means that there are a lot of lawyers doing more than the minimum, but many doing much less (but maybe not for long).

Plus, the partners need to make, on average, over a million a year. Right? That's why we're in the salt mines. Daddy needs his delicious salt.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:36 AM on May 25, 2011

I loved how they spun this as "good for clients."

Like they're suddenly offering less costly services now that some of the lawyers are making 40% less.
posted by bilabial at 10:00 AM on May 25, 2011

Where is the money going?

Overhead, yeah, but partners mostly. Profits per partner are one of the most closely watched metrics among the big firms, and they're disgustingly high. A low-level partner at some of these firms can expect to pull down in excess of $1 million, while senior partners and major rainmakers can easily top $7 million.

That's why people talk about a golden ticket. Being a partner at a big firm really is one. But there are only a few thousand people in the entire profession who make that kind of money. Over 55,000 people graduate from law school every year. Do the math.
posted by valkyryn at 10:16 AM on May 25, 2011

A few people here have talked about the oversupply of lawyers as part of the problem, because that creates a buyer's [in this case the big firms] market, driving down salaries and so on.

Here in Canada, the Provinces control the creation of law schools (and in that vein, we've got two new ones just approved, 1 in BC and one in Ont), under the same regulatory powers that they have to accredit universities in general, I believe. The model is much less heavy on using the Bar exam as a weeding mechanism, at least from the anecdata that I've heard from Cdn/US friends, and so a number of people just can't get in to any law school. Now I often hear that described as protectionism by established lawyers, which is quite possible, but maybe it's a beneficial thing?*

OTOH, the key question I have to ask is what was just asked above, where is the money going? But not at the firms. Valkyryn is saying that tuition is $30k-$50k/year. I pay at the lower end of the Canadian spectrum, and that's about $10k/year. U of T (for Canadians) is about $25k. How does the school need that kind of cash?

*Note: I am really not sure. Especially where I haven't managed to get a goddamn articling job yet, I'm probably not the best person to ask about how well the Canadian system is working.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:51 AM on May 25, 2011

Separately, thanks to valkyryn, jedicus, and Admiral Haddock, among others. I'm learning a great deal about the numbers behind American-style firms, and it's fascinating.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:53 AM on May 25, 2011

This could result in less lawyers. Does anyone really view this as a bad thing?
posted by Kokopuff at 10:56 AM on May 25, 2011

How does the school need that kind of cash?

This is a plausible question when posed to the entire US system of higher education. Tuition has been skyrocketing. The reasons aren't entirely clear, and such a discussion would be a derail. Suffice it to say that rising tuition isn't unique to law schools.

But there may be something different going on there nonetheless, and that may explain why so many new law schools have opened in the past decade or two. Again, society seems to have latched on to the idea that everyone who goes to law school winds up a millionaire. This creates demand for law schools, which universities meet by opening them. And because students are under the mistaken impression that they'll be able to pay off their debts quickly--an impression the schools have no interest in countering--they're less price sensitive than students in other disciplines.

Also, law professors tend to make significantly more than their tenured counterparts in other departments, in part because most of them are walking away from jobs which could easily bring down $250k a year. A bunch of my professors clerked for the Supreme Court. Those kind of gigs can get six figure signing bonuses at big firms. Money has to come from somewhere...
posted by valkyryn at 11:00 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

This could result in less lawyers. Does anyone really view this as a bad thing?

The sad truth is that since lawyers are just going to chase the money, this in fact would mean fewer lawyers in public defense and government protecting the interests of individuals and society instead of giant corporations, so, yeah, it could be a bad thing.
posted by Copronymus at 11:02 AM on May 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

But there are only a few thousand people in the entire profession who make that kind of money. Over 55,000 people graduate from law school every year. Do the math.

And then there's the other math.

A lot of attorneys work for Biglaw firms. The most popular law blogs (like abovethelaw.com) are all about Biglaw work.

But the rest of us work everywhere else. Public sector jobs; plaintiffs consumer-side work; family law; and then there are people who work in small and mid-size firms. That's me. I probably don't make $160,000 a year. But I probably make north of six figures. The workload is as manageable as I make it.

So, the other math is this: Most lawyers don't work for Biglaw. And this issue is really unique to the microcosm of Biglaw. There is a whole other culture of lawyers that do the rest of the work. The ones that sue Walmart when the manager is sexually harassing the new employees. The ones that sort out the custody of children after a breakup. The ones that make sure your kid gets the special education mandated by law. The ones that scoop up clients that are tired of paying Biglaw fees. We do alright for ourselves.

This could result in less lawyers. Does anyone really view this as a bad thing?

Some people need, need, need to work for a law firm with a national presence. They grew up in a time when lawyer salaries were skyrocketing, when big law firms were getting bigger, and when the market wasn't flooded. The image of the slick lawyer wearing a corporate-looking suit with a leather briefcase, expensive watch, and cufflinks; driving a Porsche, making tons of cash, working late hours, drinking scotch, all with the prestige of a business card with the name "Orrick" or "White & Case" or "JonesDay." This is what they signed up for when they started law school. And now that they realize that they can't manage the workload (and who can?), but they still want that business card.

The market has changed, though, and noticeably. Being a lawyer is no longer seen as a ticket to professional stardom. I do hope law school attendance keeps going down; it is sad to see people invest so much money into this market.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:06 AM on May 25, 2011

This could result in less lawyers. Does anyone really view this as a bad thing?

I think access to affordable legal counsel is important. The sheer number of attorneys, just like in the medical profession, doesn't automatically take care of the distribution problem, but it's hard to imagine that things would get better for the people who need a lawyer if there were fewer of them.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:20 AM on May 25, 2011

This could result in less lawyers. Does anyone really view this as a bad thing?

No, that's what everyone thinks is a good idea, and not just because hurf durf lawyers AMIRITE? There are too many lawyers, too many law students, and too many law schools. I'm (hopefully) on my way out soon enough, but I feel bad for the law students (dumb though they may be) who take on huge loans with no guarantee of any work (since law school does not train you to be a lawyer), much less the lucrative work they somehow believe they are in line for--and no way ever to discharge the loans.

Borrowing to go to law school is like getting a mortgage to buy a house made of asbestos.

On preview: I mostly agree with Jabberjaw, but I don't think this is a biglaw issue. We've discussed this pretty recently on the AskMe about the kid who couldn't decide between Rutgers and Drexel or something, and how he should put out of his mind any idea about being a cash money millionaire at a biglaw firm, and instead think about whether he wanted to do torts, contracts, criminal, and family law at a small shop somewhere, like most of the lawyers in the country, and whether he could pay his loans on the salary he could get.

As Valkryn was saying upthread, Yale costs about $50,000; Notre Dame costs $42,000 and no name costs $32,000. Kids from Yale are pretty much able to waltz into any BigLaw job (though I think they're really unsuited to it; very weird academic bunch, IMO) and make whatever, $170,000 to start (or about $340,000 at Wachtell!). The kid from Notre Dame doesn't have a good shot at that, and Cooley has no shot at that whatsoever in a million years. OK, they become solos or work at small firms (if they can find a position)--but then the make so much less that they become indentured servants to the loan servicers.

No one is denying that the vast majority of lawyers work outside of big law, or that those lawyers are doing very important work in all sectors of society. The issue is that someone along the way got the idea that law school tuition should reflect the (unlikely) result that a student is going to start at $170,000. This has fucked up all the economics in this profession.

Charge less, make less, live better.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:20 AM on May 25, 2011

One move that is making things better for the newly mined lawyer, but will not help eliminate the problem of the cost of legal education, is the availability of income based repayment. Right now, on a normal repayment program, my payments would be $1100 per month. On income based repayment I only pay $600 now, the problem with this is that I'm not paying back any principle. It's supposed to be forgiven if I can't pay it back in 25 years, but we'll see.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:30 AM on May 25, 2011

It's supposed to be forgiven if I can't pay it back in 25 years, but we'll see.

That only works for federally-backed debt. A lot of law students take out private loans, which don't work that way.
posted by valkyryn at 11:34 AM on May 25, 2011

Haddock, valkyryn, the picture that you are painting is that of an economy completely out of kilter in the benefit of a very few partners and professors. As valkyryn points out, the frequently trotted-out excuse of "overhead" doesn't hold water, certainly not with respect to staff overhead: even if the average associate only bills 1600 hours per year, we are still in the 600-700K range, and even if there are two staff per associate, what do they earn in average? 30-50K each tops? Even if there is some other pretty outrageous overhead (mostly real estate, I guess: those shiny downtown offices don't come for free), partners must be really racking it in, even if after surviving the associate rat race, they'll probably check out with a heart attack at fiftyish...
posted by Skeptic at 11:59 AM on May 25, 2011

What bothers me here is that if trained lawyers can't figure out that they are being bent over and burned by their employer...what kind of fucking hope to wal-mart employees have in getting out of their vicious circle of poverty?

Damn lawyers, smarten the fuck up and fight to earn rather than kiss ass to partner.
posted by hal_c_on at 12:05 PM on May 25, 2011

The most popular law blogs (like abovethelaw.com) are all about Biglaw work.

ABL isn't just biglaw.

What bothers me here is that if trained lawyers can't figure out that they are being bent over and burned by their employer

Wait, who's saying they can't figure that out?
posted by amro at 1:18 PM on May 25, 2011

I agree there is a lot of can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees at law firms. If you're spending all of your time trying to meet your billable, with a bonus on top, you don't have time to see the big picture.

Law firms are typically partnerships or professional corps. Salaries aren't subject to getting audited by shareholders or the US government. But, if you don't like the setup, you don't have to work for them. Not that you necessarily have much choice.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:28 PM on May 25, 2011

partners must be really racking it in

Even the most junior partner at a top-ten firm can expect to make in excess of $1.5 million a year. I'd certainly consider that to be "raking it in".
posted by valkyryn at 5:00 PM on May 25, 2011

Even the most junior partner at a top-ten firm can expect to make in excess of $1.5 million a year. I'd certainly consider that to be "raking it in".

The catch is that being a junior partner at a law firm is pretty much the shittiest job I can imagine. The hours are still terrible; you've got a bad case of the nerves; you're not making the hugest bucks; you probably have a big loan to buy into the partnership; and you're probably on two years' probation. When I worked in NYC, I was at a firm deep in the top ten; I watched a senior make his way to the promised land, and it wasn't pretty. I'd be shocked if he billed fewer than 2800 hours in his final couple of years as he tried to prove himself. He made it though, and was a great lawyer (if not a great human being, but you can't have everything).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:53 PM on May 25, 2011

Even the most junior partner at a top-ten firm can expect to make in excess of $1.5 million a year. I'd certainly consider that to be "raking it in".

The catch is that being a junior partner at a law firm is pretty much the shittiest job I can imagine. The hours are still terrible; you've got a bad case of the nerves; you're not making the hugest bucks

$1.5 million isn't huge bucks?
Lots of people work long hours at 2-3 shitty jobs and only make 5 figures/year, and simultaneously fraying their nervse in the process as well.
posted by Theta States at 7:19 AM on May 26, 2011

$1.5 million isn't huge bucks?

No, $1.5 million is really big bucks, and if I were ever to make that in any given year, I'd quit in December and go back to working in the arts.

But 1) junior partners, in my experience, really don't start making $1.5 million--that's typically the average PPP, and the juniors start in the $4/5/6 hundred thousand range (which, again is a lot of money); and

2) you have to buy into the partnership of these big law firms, which is easily over a million dollars. It's a business and you have to buy equity in it. Of course, no one has a million dollars just lying around, so you get it financed. But that means you've got a loan for over a million dollars. The interest and principal on that is a lot of money.

So the rub is that they make a lot of money, but work crazy hours, have the stress of finally being the one to call the shots/sign the opinions/etc., have a huge loan to pay off, are no longer employees, so they have to pay self employment tax, etc. The junior partners at my firm all look haggard.

I do think lawyers in big law make a lot of money; but I don't think it's worth the sacrifices, and I especially don't think that this lucre, speculative as it is, is any reason to go to law school.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:49 AM on May 26, 2011

Would anyone like to comment on the experience of non-equity/salaried partners?
posted by oxford blue at 7:22 AM on May 31, 2011

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