When Bloomberg Businessweek’s cover asks “What do you call 176,000 lawyers lying at the bottom of the ocean?” it gets my attention. This month’s lead article explores the dwindling growth of Big Law through the lens of recent implosions at Howrey, Dewey & LeBoeuf, and my own ex-firm, Heller Ehrman. The 176,000 figure is meant to be the “excess” number of JDs minted compared with law jobs created between 2010 and 2020. The legal employment prospects for new JDs are grim – pretty much the opposite of a good start.
It’s no secret that many large firms are struggling, although I’m thrilled when a general audience rag brings it to the fore. But what is really changing for lawyers in those firms? This, to me, is where the real drama lies. I don’t care so much about the firms themselves; I care about the lawyers who literally billed their lives away in the now-questionable expectation that, if they worked well and long enough, and they found the right sponsors, or they were male, they would make partner.
One of the reasons so many lawyers change their career strategy is that they have to. The old model of success in private practice doesn’t work anymore. For graduates of elite law schools, Big Law used to be the auto-pilot route to financial reward. As Elie Mystal, the Harvard Law alum who now edits Above the Law, explained to me, “I got a very high score on the LSAT, and I didn’t look up again until I was leaving my law firm.” I did that too. My competitive nature, combined with my lower-income background, led me straight to on-campus recruiting. I didn’t really think about what I wanted to do with my life until I was miserable. By then, I was billing too many hours to think about anything but my cases and where to get take-out on the way home.
Now that the Big Law model is broken, many JDs have to think more creatively about using their skills and talents. Ex-lawyers usually find greater joy in alternative careers – once they work out the kinks – than they did in law school or practice, although it can be harder to pay down debt. Fortunately, an increasing number of successful ex-lawyers can serve as role models for others considering a major shift. I profile 3o of them in Life After Law. And I have never met an ex-lawyer who regretted leaving the law. Have you?
Attending a pricier law school won’t necessarily improve your legal job prospects, by the way. As an Edward Tufte fan, I liked this graphic (scroll down) showing the lack of correlation between what various law schools cost and their unemployment rates. The most expensive schools have the same range of underemployment rates as the cheapest ones. If you’re going to pay under $100k for your JD, you might as well do it at LSU (less than 10% underemployment) instead of CUNY (about 37% underemployment). And if you’re paying closer to $300k, you’re better off at Columbia than Cardozo (but you knew that, right?). In fact, you might be better off not practicing law at all.
Here’s what I want to know: can we reduce the number of unhappy lawyers before their firms or careers implode? How do we encourage people to think differently about their career options before and after they go to law school? I like the idea of mandatory Myers-Briggs testing along with the SAT, but that hasn’t gotten much traction yet. What do you think?