Author’s note: In my April 13 column, "Five Sobering Trends Could Impact Younger Lawyers," I offered five predictions as to how the recession might affect younger lawyers. In this column, those predictions will be assessed. Next month, I will offer five more projections, which are more global and, thankfully, more positive.
The five earlier predictions were that law schools would focus more heavily on providing practice-based education; law firms, especially the so-called megafirms, would decrease their entry-level hiring; starting law firm salaries would decline or at least stay flat; small and midsized law firms would have a deeper pool of lawyers available for direct hiring from law schools; and the death or decline of traditional (and expensive) summer programs would be on the horizon.
With all due apologies for the self-congratulatory nature of this comment, all of these predictions are coming to fruition, even though only four months have passed. As some of these changes were slipping out of their embryonic states at the time of the article, Nostradamus can rest assured that there is no threat to his seat on the throne of prognostication. There also has been no translation of this forecasting success to predicting the stock market or even the fortunes of my favorite sports teams. I will briefly review what has transpired as to each of these points and adjust the forecasts as appropriate.
Law schools seem to be responding quickly to the seismic changes in the profession. For example, Santa Clara University School of law is one such school that has developed some new course offerings that are designed to better prepare students for real-life practice. (See www.law.com/jsp/LawArticlePC.jsp?id=1202432701720.) Law schools must adapt because if firms, and especially their clients, feel that newly minted lawyers don’t justify their hourly rates, they are not going to be hired (or at least not at the level of the past). If the placement rates for law schools decline, this is likely to directly affect enrollment. While the most diehard lawyer aspirants will still enroll, parents who are footing the bill for children who are not as fully committed to a long career in the law or such students who would pay for their own tuition through loans, may decide that the financial investment is not worth it if a high-paying job is not waiting after graduation.
I have received e-mails from several law school professors who have noted that their respective institutions have offered some practice-based courses, which they believe are helpful in preparing students for full-time practice. Their lament, though, is that most large law firms focus almost exclusively on class rank and law review/journal membership in determining what lawyers they want to interview and ultimately hire. They contend that this tends to de-emphasize the practice-based courses, especially if they only receive pass/fail grades.
I think these professors raise a fair point. If firms want their new lawyers to be better prepared, then they would be well advised to place greater weight on the practice-oriented courses. In order to help them in that regard, schools may have to award numeric grades for such courses as well. Firms may find that in this more skill-driven world, some of those at the top of the class, who may truly have the brightest minds, may not necessarily be the best equipped to slog it out in the trenches in the new world law firm order. This could result in changed hiring criteria going forward.
The decrease in entry-level hiring at the large firm level and projected decline of summer programs are moving even quicker than anticipated. Six-month and even one-year delays in September 2009 start dates were popping up in April. Today, those changes seem ancient, as even longer delays, and outright cancellations of 2010 starts, are rolling in (including some deferments until 2012). Similarly, 2010 summer programs have been canceled at several firms — I fully expect we will see more firms that will follow. A partial list of such developments (which, again, I think will be dwarfed by what will happen in the next few months) follows at http://theshark.typepad.com/weblog/2009/07/2010-table-of-doom-start-date-deferrals-summer-program-cancelations-other-perks-of-biglaw.html.
I believe that the largest firms will continue to foist entry-level training off on law schools and small to midsized firms that do hire new graduates. This is a reasoned and cost-effective approach, especially if those firms cannot bill out first-year lawyers at desired rates. This will save large firms a significant amount of money in compensation dollars for first- and second-year lawyers, particularly when one considers that firms normally lose money on these lawyers anyway. The challenge for these firms will be to successfully poach these lawyers in their third and fourth year of practice and to then effectively, and quickly, "retrain" them to their way of doing business.
The economic downturn may have had a salutary impact in at least curtailing, if not ending, some of the largest scale summer programs. Well-run programs that offer students good work and an opportunity to experience the culture of the firm and what it may mean to be a lawyer there will always have value. They may not be cost effective, but they will still be beneficial. Some of the more profligate programs of the past in which students were jetted overseas and saw firms engage in a seemingly endless quest to outdo each other in party-planning paloozas are hopefully gone forever. Even the students who enjoyed such perks often opined that they left such programs with little practical experience, which, today, is quite important.
Starting salaries at the largest firms have continued to decline in the past four months and, at best, have stayed flat. I do not foresee any change in those trends, as there are no current or looming market forces that would compel increases. This, of course, is not to suggest that if the market comes roaring back, there would not be a few outlier firms that may try to distinguish themselves by increasing first-year salaries. I suspect, though, even if that were to happen, that one would see a marked decrease in the number of firms that would automatically (as in years past) join that chase to the top of the market.
Finally, small and midsized firms that are or will be in the market to hire should find a deeper pool of talent. Not everyone will be on the sidelines with a stipend and the competition for clerkships will be hotter than ever. Those facts, when coupled with the reality that most new graduates need to work to pay off loans and support themselves, mean that they will look anew at small to midsized firms. Starting salaries will not compare to those offered by megafirms in boom times, but compensation will surely surpass being a barista at a coffee shop. More importantly, these firms can offer invaluable hands-on experience that can lay the foundation for a long career.
The challenge for the small and midsized firms will be to fully integrate these lawyers quickly, provide good work and generally create a positive and enriching environment. Those factors will be crucial, as the larger firms are quite likely to go hunting in a few years in an effort to recruit these lawyers once they reach their third or fourth year. If there are wide variances in salaries, there may be little that these firms can do to forestall exits. However, for those lawyers for whom money is not the sole driver, working in a firm where they are happy may just be enough to forestall such recruitment efforts. •
Frank M. D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.