The Legal Profession: No Longer A Safe Haven

Over the years I’ve known a good many college English majors who graduated without a career plan and then went “Hmmm…I can always just become a lawyer.” Many adults who were unhappy with their first job out of college also drifted into law school, for lack of a better plan. Quite a few of them enjoyed success – and one of the great things about being an attorney was that the job seemed relatively recession proof. No matter what the economy did, the cliche remained “the lawyers always make money.”

Big Changes
Then came the mother of all recessions in 2008. I remember visiting a friend who was the managing partner of one of New York’s largest real estate firms late that year, and walking down a hallway past empty office after empty office to reach him. They had laid off 35% of their attorneys – a painful process for my friend. “These guys – their careers are over” he said, looking blankly out his window across the Manhattan skyline.

I’m not sure that the law has really died as a profession, but there are lots of trends that point to it being much less of a sure thing than it was just five years ago. Many companies that hired expensive private practice attorneys like my friend have taken their legal work in-house. That means that they still need to hire lawyers – they just don’t pay them anywhere near what they used to pay outside attorneys. Still, it’s a job that pays more than many others, and you get to wear a nice suit.

Not My Grandchildren
The darker side of this picture was outlined in a New York Times interview today with Michael Trotter, an Atlanta attorney who has been in the business since the early sixties and has written several books about the practice of law. In his view, there are now simply “far more capable lawyers and law firms than there is work for them to do.” He outlines a situation where lawyers face more and more pressure to work long hours, but big fees become scarce. The market for associates, likewise, has grown tighter. Asked if he would encourage a grandchild to go to law school, Trotter replies bluntly “I would not,” adding that even a graduate of an elite law school today probably has less than a 10% chance of ever becomming a partner in a top firm.