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Millennial Malaise

Two articles stood out to me from mainstream press outlets this past week*. One from the Atlantic, and one from the Wall Street Journal. The Atlantic’s piece, The Jobs Crisis at Our Best Law Schools Is Much, Much Worse Than You Think (citing LST’s 2012 report) delves into the abysmal employment landscape for new lawyers:

The barren job market for law school grads has become a familiar reality by now. But here’s something that tends to get lost in the story: The problem isn’t just about no-name law schools churning out JD’s nobody wants to hire. Even graduates at some of the country’s top programs are struggling…

Nine months after graduation, just 56 percent of the class of 2012 had found stable jobs in law — meaning full-time, long-term employment in a position requiring bar passage, or a judicial clerkship, i.e. the sorts of jobs people go to law school for in the first place. The figure had improved just 1 percent compared to the class of 2011.

Meanwhile, a full 27.7 percent were underemployed, meaning they were either in short-term or part-time jobs, jobless and hunting for work, or enrolled (read: burning cash) in another degree program.

At the same time in its piece, On Sale: The $1,150-Per-Hour Lawyer, the  WSJ was reporting on increasing hourly rates by some of the country’s top firms, with a caveat – they’re negotiable:

Think of hourly fees “as the equivalent of a sticker on the car at a dealership,” said legal consultant Ward Bower, a principal at Altman Weil Inc. “It’s the beginning of a negotiation.…Law firms think they are setting the rates, but clients are the ones determining what they’re going to pay.”

Some companies insist on budgets for their legal work. If a firm billing by the hour exceeds a set cap, lawyers may have to write off some of that time.

Other clients refuse to work with firms who don’t discount, lopping anywhere from 10% to 30% off their standard rates. Some may grant rate increases to individual partners or associates they deem worthy. Another tactic: locking in prices with tailored multiyear agreements with formulas governing whether clients grant or refuse a requested rate increase.

In practical terms, that means the gap between law firms’ sticker prices and the amount of money they actually bill and collect from their clients is wider than it has been in years.

legal fees too highTaken together, they paint a fairly grim picture for all the new millennial lawyers joining the profession, and points to an overall trend in legal work – it’s too expensive. At this point, the downturn affecting the legal profession has been discussed ad nasueum. These articles are merely a drop in the ocean of articles that have been written in the past year. Law schools are bad, law professors are bad, law students are bad. New lawyers are not practice ready, there are not enough jobs, legal costs are too high. All because:

  1. In the boom years, law firms expanded and increased fees and hours – it’s a great time to be a lawyer.
  2. Universities respond by opening more law schools; those with law schools already take on more students.
  3. As most lawyers don’t know anything about business and/or technology – they are completely oblivious to the massive overhaul in the larger business world that computers and the internet have brought.
  4. Economy implodes – uh oh.
  5. Clients, especially corporations, long irritated that out of their entire operating budgets the one place that remains a gaping black hole of cost uncertainty is the legal division, finally say: change or your fired.
  6. Firms obsequiously cut rates, adopt technology to streamline work flow, and adopt polices and procedures in order to minimize redundancy and reduce costs. Oh – and they fire scores of associates.
  7. Those millennial lawyers from step 2 graduate into the worst legal employment landscape in decades.
  8. Profit???

So these new graduates emerge into a bad economic climate and a worse job market. And increasingly it seems as though…they revel in it. Everything is bad, nothing can be done. Better to give up and just whine about it on the internet. There is a nearly sycophantic obsession with law schools and older lawyers. The law schools scammed them and older lawyers don’t “get” them. No one understands the problems they face. It is constantly about their problems. But being a lawyer is not about your own problems – it’s about other people’s problems that you take on as your own. Even then, it is not really about the problems. The problems are done. The lawyer is there to provide a solution, an answer that solves the client’s problem.

Which all leads me to the question:

If new lawyers cannot solve the problem of their own millennial malaise, how do they ever expect clients to trust them with their problems?

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* H/t to Consultant’s Mind & Ptate86 for the head’s up on the respective articles.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

12 comments

  1. Interesting article, but I don’t think it moves the ball forward very much to say, without offering any solutions of your own, that young attorneys should just stop whining.  As you indicate, this is a problem that started in the late 90′s to 2000′s.  What do you think can be done to solve this crisis?

    • @Attorney 123 
      People are offering solutions left & right – who knows if any of them will work. Obviously there needs to be large scale institutional change – less law schools & law students – but that is a long term change and offers little solace to those in the thick of it right now. 
      At the micro level, among individual attorneys, there is no one size fits all answer.Different things will work for different people. My own personal solution was to start Associate’s Mind 3 years ago. To chronicle the ideas, behaviors, and tools necessary to develop into a successful attorney. And now to coalesce all those ideas into a book. Boiling the message down to its fundamentals, it likely includes some mixture of the following: high degree of ethics rock solid credibility commitment to hard work relentless improvement client service as the foundation of practicegiving freely of my timeinvesting in my communitysome degree of luck
      But as they say, luck favors the prepared. Is my way the right way or the only way? Of course not. But it has worked for me and perhaps by sharing it with some other people, they can use it to find their own way to success.

      • associatesmind This is pretty much the response I’ve heard from other older attorneys who look at us new lawyers and think we’re not doing enough to help ourselves out, and all we have to do is just pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and “lean in.”  But if the jobs aren’t there, then they’re not there and no amount of “relentless improvement” is really going to change much.  We can’t all write books.

        • @Young Lawyer associatesmind  I often get told that when I mention the above, it is “grey-beard” advice. Like I said, I can only share what has worked for me. If it puts me in the same boat with a bunch of older, experienced lawyers – so be it. 
          And RE: writing books. If you think the legal industry is in a sorry state, the book publishing industry is in free fall. My book is unlikely to make me much money, especially considering the opportunity cost of the time I spent writing could have been devoted to actual lawyering.

        • associatesmind I’d just like to chime in and say the publishing business is not, in fact, in a free fall.

        • jasnwilsn associatesmind You’re right, and I misspoke. I meant to convey that it is undergoing a rapid state of change – publishers merging, rise of ebooks, the rise of self-publishing, Amazon, etc. If publishing/authors are weathering the storm they are facing, then lawyers should be able to weather their own storm as well.

  2. So should I kill myself now? Or wait until later?

  3. “Some members of X whine on the Internet, thus every member of X does nothing but whine on the Internet.” 
     Appealing as such reasoning may be to one’s emotions, it is not quite “Socrates is mortal.”

    • maxkennerly True, many young lawyers are working hard in their jobs – and likely to busy to bother posting online. But, as I think is apparent from the fallout from this post, there is a vocal group online behaving in the manner I describe.

  4. Isn’t your last question circular? “If new lawyers cannot solve the problem of their own millennial malaise [i.e., get clients to trust them with their problems], how do they ever expect clients to trust them with their problems?”

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