PALO ALTO, Calif. — A decimated job market has turned the tables on top law graduates, who not long ago were in high demand at big law firms. But a group of students from some of the best schools in the country sees power in numbers. Gathering at Stanford Law School on April 3 and 4, about 50 students from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford and other premier law schools were part of Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP)’s National Conference of Student Leaders. The two-day event focused on changing what were often painted as the evil ways of big law firms and included presentations and discussion from well-known practitioners and professors. The goal of Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is to create collective action among students and associates from top schools to prod large law firms to implement what it says are significant changes needed in billable hour requirements, diversity and the commitment to pro bono work. Their hope is that students and associates from the best schools will not accept jobs at firms that do not change their ways. “Over time, firms with low diversity numbers, poor female partnership rates, high billable hour requirements and poor commitments to pro bono will risk year after year of associate classes without graduates from the country’s top law schools,” said Keisha Stanford, a second-year student at Stanford Law School who is a member of the executive board of BBLP. Although the word “union” was used sparingly at the event, one session was led by a union organizer. Mary Kay Henry, the international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, gave tips on how BBLP leaders can get other students and associates involved in the movement. “Associates have the ability to act in their own behalf with others to improve their profession,” Henry said. “The increase in billable hours expected at large firms with fewer associates to do the work has created a pressurized environment that doesn’t allow associates to perform to their expectations.” But at least one law firm leader thinks that such collective action is a bad idea. As the chairman of a major U.S. law firm, he requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Right now, the primary focus of law students and associates, like the firms for which they work or might like to work, should be the economy, and if and when the demand for legal services will rebound,” he said. BBLP encourages students to use a Web site it has developed in making decisions about where to work. The Web site, www.betterlegalprofession.org, takes data from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), provides comparison charts among law firms and gives them a letter grade based on each firm’s diversity numbers. It also provides comparable data on pro bono hours andbillable hour requirements, and breaks down the information by city. “By providing accessible data regarding firm’s diversity statistics, female partnership rates, billable hour requirements and pro bono commitment, BBLP allows students to select firms that best align with their values,” Stanford said. Also part of the conference was the launch of the group’s book, Building a Better Legal Profession’s Guide to Law Firms, published by Kaplan. With an introduction written by Sheila Birnbaum, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom, it provides information on distinguishing among firms, maximizing the associate experience and more. The group celebrated the release of the book at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco, an event sponsored by Axiom, a low-overhead, high-end law firm. The conference also included a roundtable discussion sponsored by The National Law Journal and the Association of American Law Schools entitled “Pro Bono and the Economic Crisis: Impact on Education and Practice.” Following the discussion was a live Web chat with political activist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who, in 1969, wrote an article in the Michigan Law Review that focused on what was then a new practice among large law firms to provide pro bono work. He cited Hogan & Hartson as among the first firms to do so. Speaking to the students, Nader was not generous with the praise for large law firm operations today. “There is no major law firm in the country that doesn’t repeatedly engage in grand larceny,” Nader said, referring to inefficiencies and overcharging within the billable hour model. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1958. Also speaking at the event was Shinyung Oh, a former associate at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker who gained attention from legal bloggers when the law firm laid her off last year. Following her dismissal, she sent an e-mail to the firm’s lawyers criticizing their decision to let her go days after she had suffered a miscarriage. Oh cautioned students at the event that hard work and a passion for the profession do not guarantee continued employment. “Sometimes, it’s not enough,” she said. Building a Better Legal Profession’s first student leadership conference comes at a time of massive layoffs of associates at law firms. In March alone, law firms shed some 1,334 attorneys, according to layoff tracker Lawshucks.com.
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