The outlook for young lawyers keeps getting worse. Those six-figure starting salaries for first year associates doing glorified office work could soon be a thing of the past. From the Wall Street Journal:
Law firms often treat the first two years of an attorney’s career as a sort of apprenticeship, albeit a well-paid one: the yearly salaries at many of the nation’s largest law firms start at $160,000.Traditionally, law firms have recouped costs of young attorneys by giving them simple jobs—research, proofreading or culling important documents from boxes of paperwork—and passing the costs along to clients in the form of hours billed at $200 or $300 a pop.But many companies are now refusing to pay those kinds of bills. According to a September survey for The Wall Street Journal by the Association of Corporate Counsel, a bar association for in-house lawyers, more than 20% of the 366 in-house legal departments that responded are refusing to pay for the work of first- or second-year attorneys, in at least some matters. Almost half of the companies, which have annual revenues ranging from $25 million or less to more than $4 billion, said they put those policies in place during the past two years, and the trend appears to be growing.
Bad news for Harvard and Yale: if the clients won’t pay for those six figure starting salaries, the law firms are going to cut back on lush offers to newly hatched legal eagles. This makes sense, and is one very small part of the Great Restructuring that will transform the practice of law, but it’s another sign that this generation of students is caught in a painful historical trap. The old opportunities are drying up, and the new ones have not yet appeared.There are signs that young people are rethinking the idea that law school is an automatic route to a rich if not always a rewarding life. That is a smart thing to do; if even the top end candidates from the most prestigious schools can’t waltz into six figure jobs anymore, the opportunities for other recent grads are also going to be ratcheted down. If you love the idea of the law and the practice of law, law school still makes a lot of sense. If you can get in to one of the country’s top-rated law schools, the investment is likely to pay off, if not quite as spectacularly or quickly as in the recent past.But if you are just drifting, there are cheaper ways to drift than to enroll in a three year degree program with an uncertain outcome. The changes in the business of law are just beginning, and there will be waves of rationalization, cost-cutting and outsourcing in years ahead. If you are exceptionally talented or deeply committed, this career may still be the right one for you. But this is no longer such an attractive ‘fallback’ career track. Too many risks.