Demand has plummeted for first-year associates. For law firms, this presents a modest long-term planning challenge. For law students, the dramatic change in demand is a full blown crisis. I speak at about ten law schools per year, and I can assure you that students are feeling unprecedented levels of anxiety.
For my general counsel readers, this imbalance between supply and demand presents a tremendous opportunity. I challenge you to reconsider outdated assumptions about the value of first-year attorneys. Your assumptions are based on paying for associates in the context of a law firm’s economic model. No one argues that a first-year associate at Skadden, for example, is worth $300 per hour. The billing rate and eye-popping starting salaries are by products of a bundled service model under which you are really paying for access to the law firm.
I dare you, instead, to think about the potential value of a first-year staff attorney as a member of your law department. I hear you saying, “We don’t have time to train,” or “We don’t have time for on-campus recruiting.” I’ll address both objections, which I think are largely red herrings. I submit that for the past generation or two, companies really backed away from the entry-level market because law firms overpaid to buy up the top-of-class talent. Law schools reinforced the conventional wisdom that joining a “prestigious” law firm was the best option for new grads. Ironically, an ever smaller percentage of law students truly want to join the Big Law employers. Bottom-line: Top of class talent wants to join your law department, and you can set new market terms on appropriate starting salaries. A number south of $100,000 is a win-win outcome.
Now, let me address your two objections. The easy one is an understandable reluctance to dedicate resources for on-campus recruiting (although it can be fun). Let the law schools in or near your market know that you may hire a newbie grad, and the students will come to you.
Your only real hurdle is confidence. How can you trust a newbie with real responsibility and internal client contact? I realize you don’t train. Because the internal hourly rate for a first year staff attorney will be low, you can actually give this new resource lots of work that would not make sense for your experienced inside counsel. Examples: discovery coordination and document review, low dollar value contract drafting and standardization, 50-state compliance updates and other projects that you routinely backburner. You can even imbed the newbie with your outside firm on a large case or deal. My MBA friend uses terms like “partnering” and “unbundling of legal services” to explain why this would be a great business practice.
We train by doing, and so the “training” you can offer is at least as good as the training a newbie receives at a law firm. I believe your real objection is cover. If a junior law firm associate makes an error in judgment, then a partner will either catch it or eat responsibility for it. If the newbie lawyer is on your team, however, then you face the fallout from a mistake. So OK, I get it: A senior lawyer on your staff will need to look over the newbie’s shoulder. Consider the benefits of a little mentoring, which includes team building, loyalty and a chance for your managing attorneys to actually manage. If you screen well for culture fit and hire top-of-class talent, I truly believe you will be pleasantly surprised by how little “training” you need to provide. Let your newbie earn increasing responsibility through performance.
Access to top-of-class talent, increased in-house resources, options to partner with outside counsel to lower costs and the diversity of a young lawyer’s perspective on challenges facing your company … these reasons top my list in favor of hiring new grads. Risk aversion is the real hurdle to hiring first year staff attorneys. Such risk can be managed. Inside counsel pride themselves on their management capabilities. Here is a golden opportunity to manage a valuable new asset for your company.