In fact, “The Deep End” was conceived in 2007, that halcyon era of $160,000 starting salaries and full employment even for law grads who had scored in the 150s on their LSAT’s.
Those days are over. As the profession lurches through its worst slump in decades, with jobs and bonuses cut and internal pressures to perform rising, associates do not just feel as if they are diving into the deep end, but rather, drowning.
Lawyers who entered the field as recently as a few years ago could reasonably expect a life of comfort, security and social esteem. Many are now faced with a different landscape. Firms shed more than 4,600 lawyers last year, according to a blog that tracks the legal industry, Law Shucks. Bonuses for those who survive are shriveling, and an increasing number of firms now compensate associates based on grades for performance — shades of law school — rather than automatically advancing them on the salary scale.
Below is the first-year salary distribution for the class of 2008. The whole article is focused on the mode, the $160,000 salaries of top-tier graduates and top-flight law firms. In other words, not the typical lawyer (the distribution is likely somewhat different now that the mode is collapsing in the current economic climate).
And here’s a chart of unemployment by education from Calculated Risk:
Y-axis is the unemployment rate and the X-axis is the year. All lines represent those 25 years and older.
Red = less than high school
Purple = high school
Green = some college or associates
Blue = bachelor’s or above
I know that the nth story on laid off blue-collar workers is probably boring. But I suspect part of the attraction of the perils of professional & white collar work in the present economic climate is that these are the people who reporters for The New York Times might actually know personally, and also are the target audience of the paper.
Some partners say that the next generation may have to expect less from a legal career. “What has come to pass is that a law degree is not a ticket to a six-figure salary and a six-figure bonus,” said Matthew A. Feldman, a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York.
Smart, talented people will still find advancement within firms, he said. But “speaking candidly,” he added, “in the past, associates were a little oblivious” in presuming that if they “simply showed up every day and didn’t offend anyone, they were there indefinitely.They have had a wake-up call.”
It is more than dips in income that are reshaping the law firm culture. The prestige and self-identity of being a lawyer are in play. Pre-shakeout, lawyers could tell themselves that they were, if not exactly Masters of the Universe like investment bankers, perhaps Major-Domos of a Mid-Size Galaxy.
As a young lawyer, you could get through 1 a.m. due-diligence sessions by reminding yourself that you were following in the tradition of Louis Brandeis, Clarence Darrow or, at least, Ally McBeal.
It is harder to maintain that sense of esteem now that your contract work is being farmed out to low-cost lawyers in Bangalore, and your client who is splitting up with her spouse can handle it herself with a $31.99 do-it-yourself divorce kit from Office Depot, said David Lat, the managing editor of Above the Law, a well-read blog about the legal industry.
Welcome to globalization and productivity gains rendering you redundant. At least you have a licensing which might be able to staunch the bleeding by fiat if you have the will to go there.