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As studies show that turnover rates in the legal profession continue to grow, many young attorneys are using large firms as classrooms to gain experience and judgment that will be valued in future jobs, notably as in-house counsel.
Robert S. Nix, who serves as the political action liaison for the Hispanic Bar Association of Pennsylvania, said he leveraged what he learned as a law firm associate to get a job as an in-house counsel. After working as an in-house counsel, Nix founded Phoenix Strategies, a political consulting firm.
"I was able to transfer skills I got in a large law firm, and they found that desirable," Nix said of his move in-house, because businesses have the impression that "if you can succeed there, then you must be good."
A recent study, "After the JD -- The First 10 Years," confirmed high turnover rates in the career paths of young attorneys, with associate attorneys leaving firms to work in business, government or public interest law.
The National Association of Law Placement, concerned with the legal profession's health, partnered with the American Bar Foundation to publish the longitudinal study analyzing the careers of recent law graduates.
The study is broken into three waves, recording data from respondent attorneys' first 10 years in the profession. Results from the second wave of the study, which included years three through seven, were released in April with data gathered in 2007 and 2008.
'THE BILLABLE HOUR TREADMILL'
Robert L. Nelson, a chief investigator for the study and director of the American Bar Foundation, was surprised with findings that rebutted some common conceptions of the legal profession. Respondents said their legal careers are very satisfying, in contrast to the belief that long hours make the law an uncomfortable career.
While some lawyers get stuck on "the billable hour treadmill," most of them "can find different niches in the profession in which they make good use of their training," Nelson said.
Approximately seven years after earning a law degree, slightly more than half of respondents reported working in private practice for a law firm. This was 15 percent lower than the total of 70 percent observed during the first wave of analysis in 2003.
A higher turnover rate among associates is partly a result of greater competition among young attorneys within firms, according to Nix.
"Law firms are trying to retain their associates, but in this economy it is so competitive," Nix said. "There is more of a self-imposed work ethic, because you don't want to be the one who is laid off."
Associate attorneys become frustrated with increasing firm workloads, so they sometimes choose to leave private practice, Nelson said. He said a "mutual suspicion" of mobility is created between associates and the firms they work in.
"It has been a growing trend as law firms have grown, raised billable hour expectations, and have moved in a direction of weakened firm cultures," Nelson said.
So what can be made of high satisfaction responses from attorneys who responded to the study? Researchers predicted that high turnover rates signified career displeasure, but 76 percent of respondents reported they were extremely or moderately satisfied with their decision to become an attorney.
WORKING TO GET TRAINING
Amy Montemarano, the assistant dean of career and professional development for Drexel University's Earle Mack School of Law, said law graduates work for big firms to get training, even if they don't intend to use the training to become a firm partner.
"A large part of that (turnover) has been large firms offer excellent training for recent law grads," Montemarano said. "A lot of students want that training, whether they want to stay with the large firm for the rest of their career or move to a different area."
The perceptions of law students are also changing to match the new realities of the legal industry.
Melissa Lennon, the assistant dean for career planning at Temple University's Beasley School of Law, said newer attorneys might have different expectations when signing on to a firm than older graduates did.
"If you graduated from law school 20 or 30 years ago, you would go to a firm and stay there until you made partner," Lennon said. "I don't know if that is the most commonly held view of folks graduating from law school now."
'THE SWEET SPOT' FOR CHANGE
Some attorneys who were employed by large firms, the survey said, used their training to prepare for careers as corporate counsel, according to the study. The second-wave study reported the number of respondents working in the business sector doubled from the 8 percent observed during wave one to 19 percent, among lawyers who had worked for seven years.
The report concluded attorneys are most likely to be hired as corporate counsel during years three through seven of litigation experience. This, however, was not always the case, as associates used to stay with their firms for their connections to corporations, according to Nelson.
"Looking back in the late 1950s, associates who did not make partner in NYC firms were 'placed' in clients of the firms. Now it is a large labor market, with associates looking to move and corporations looking to hire at the sweet spot of three to seven years' experience," Nelson said. "Relationships between firms and corporations matter, but less than in earlier eras."
BEYOND THE LAW FIRM
Of those attorneys participating in the study who left law firms for other kinds of legal work, most of them left for careers in business. Others found a niche working for government or public interest organizations, according to the report. Employment in government and public interest sectors seems to correlate to attorneys' ethnicity, gender and race.
According to the second-wave study, government employment increased only moderately, from 16.5 percent to 17 percent. Fewer black attorneys are working in government, while more Hispanic and Asian attorneys moved from law firm employment to governmental service. The percentage of white attorneys in government has remained constant.
Black attorneys showed the highest rate of employment in government, with 26.4 percent working in the government sector during wave one of the study. But the number of black attorneys working in the public sector decreased to 21.2 percent in the second-wave study. Most black attorneys who departed governmental service started their own practice, the study said.
While wage disparities across various legal careers have become less, white and Asian participants reported earning about $30,000 more than black and Hispanic participants employed by large firms, according to the second-wave study.
Nix said minorities might be pursuing careers in the public sector because they have more opportunity for career advancement in a more diverse environment.
"You can advance more on equal terms [in government and the public sector] than in a traditional law firm. If you look at government, its more integrated and there's more opportunity. You see white men in one group and a racially diverse group [in government and the public sector]," Nix said. "I might have a better chance of succeeding here."
The second-wave report found that women are more likely to be unemployed or work part-time than men do. It said that a gender-based wage gap remains, with women making 85 percent of the average male salary. This wage gap can partly be attributed to findings that women are less likely to be promoted to equity partnerships.
Female respondents, like men, migrated away from private practice positions in firms. Women work in government and public interest at higher rates than men, but respondents already in the private sector left for positions as in-house counsel, according to the second-wave report.