Editor’s note: Earlier this year, Vivia Chen — a reporter with
The American Lawyer, a National Law Journal affiliate — launched The Careerist, a blog that takes a provocative inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. We asked Chen for her predictions on the state of lawyering in the year ahead.

Hey, wasn’t 2010 supposed to be the year of reckoning for the legal industry? Chastened by the economic downturn, big-firm partners were practically on their knees just a year ago, swearing to clients — and anyone else who’d listen — that they’d change their antiquated, prodigal ways. Remember that mantra of efficiency and rationality they were all chanting?

Well, there’s nothing like the penance of the condemned — until he’s spared from the gallows. Fact is, the fundamentals of the legal biz are pretty much the same — and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Why? Because the economy, while still shaky, has stabilized for big-firm lawyers — at least for those lucky enough to hold on to their partnership seats during the turbulence — and they like the return to the old ways.

But who can really return to those innocent prerecession days? And though firms are hiring and throwing out bonuses again (and associates are griping again that the bonuses are only $30,000 tops), the legal market has shrunk — and not expected to rebound to its old levels anytime soon.

So what to make of this confusing state of affairs? Well, let’s see what the Careerist’s crystal ball has to say:

First, what won’t happen in 2011:

1. Billable hours won’t die. “Alternative billing” might be the buzz term du jour, but billable hours still reign supreme — certainly at the top firms. Remember when Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s presiding partner Evan Chesler made front-page news in The New York Times by declaring, “This is the time to get rid of the billable hour?” And how much do you want to bet that Cravath lawyers are still filling out time sheets?

2. Efficiency and competency won’t determine compensation. Yes, firms will pressure lawyers to be more productive, but they also want lots of hours. So here’s the new drill: Bill those 2,500 hours, but do it more efficiently.

3. The pay gap between female and male partners won’t close. Women equity partners earned only 85% of what their male counterparts took home, reports the National Association of Women Lawyers in 2010. It’ll take awhile to bridge that 15% gap, so what’s the hurry?

4. The new generation of law school graduates won’t thumb their noses at high-paying, prestigious jobs just because their quality of life will be dismal. Sorry, work/life balance advocates, but I don’t think Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz is hurting for candidates.

5. Male lawyers won’t put work/life balance on top of their priority lists. Look around you at the next work/life balance meeting. How many men do you see there who aren’t working the event or related to one of the presenters?

6. There won’t be a shortage of suckers who aspire to be lawyers. According to a study by DiscoverReady (a discovery service) reported on by the NLJ, people will go into debt for law school because they “sincerely believe they will graduate in the top 10 percent of the class” and are just “naive consumers of debt.”

7. Law schools won’t be releasing employment statistics about their graduates. It doesn’t matter how hard much a group like the Law School Transparency Project pushes; it’s not in the self-interest of law schools to release this kind of information.

8. Lawyers won’t be happy. Law schools like Duke can offer a smorgasbord of courses on lawyer happiness, but lawyers will always be a miserable, hard-working lot.

Second, what certainly will happen in 2011:

1. There will be more chest-beating about the changing legal profession. Expect leaders of the profession to hold powwows, conferences and seances about the future of alternative billing, competency models, career tracks, et cetera.

2. Partnership structures will become more Byzantine. Law firms will introduce more layers in the firm structure. One-tier partnerships will quietly go to a two-tier system; two-tier firms will create more tiers. Soon, equity partner positions will become as rare as black diamonds.

3. Firms will continue to talk about work/life balance issues and lawyer morale. There will be committees devoted to exploring “best practices” and the business case for family-friendly policies — but few firms will take them seriously.

4. Big corporate clients will demand that firms staff more women and minorities on their deals and cases. But few will actually reprimand outside counsel for their bad statistics. And none will fire them for bet-the-company type of litigation or deals.

5. Consultants will have a busy year advising law firms on all of the above. And they’ll make a mint.

6. New law schools will continue to proliferate like puppy mills. Some recent additions: the University of Massachusetts Law School, the University of California, Irvine School of Law, Phoenix School of Law and the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law. Could a Church of Scientology law school be far behind?

7. Attractive people will always have an edge in the legal profession — and everywhere else in life. Need evidence? See Deborah Rhode’s book, The Beauty Bias.

8. White men will continue to rule. But you knew that already.

Vivia Chen is chief blogger at The Careerist. Updates appear daily at thecareerist.typepad.com. She can be contacted at vchen@alm.com.