Large firms and law schools

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Law students seem to believe in a hierarchy of legal job options: large law firms #1, small law firms #1A, everything else #2 and lower. One of the main reasons for this is that the legal profession believes in it, too.

You don’t have to buy your average private-firm lawyer too many drinks before they’ll tell you that in-house lawyers “couldn’t cut it” in the trenches, that law professors are afraid of “the real world,” and that public-sector lawyers are basically civil servants with a law degree. It’s an asinine chauvinism, but one that’s still quietly held by too many private-practice lawyers (and that still resonates too much with some in-house/government/academia/NGO lawyers). That’s changing, but it’ll still be a while before our profession’s system is flushed of it completely.

Considering the broad range of legal careers out there, private firms (especially the large national and most prominent local firms) do have a disproportionately large footprint at law schools. These firms throw a lot of money, time and effort into branding themselves at the schools, resources that smaller firms and non-firm employers simply don’t have. You won’t see the Sierra Legal Defence Fund at too many OCIs. Little wonder that students assume law firms represent the be-all and end-all of legal careers, and focus their efforts accordingly.

But it’s also a fact that large firms are disproportionately represented in the pool of “employers willing to hire new lawyers.” Many large firms will hire two dozen or more articling students a year in one office alone — there are smaller and even midsize firms out there that won’t take on that many articling students in their lifetime. The associate pool at many large firms is larger than the full lawyer complement at most Canadian law firms.

Law firms are, effectively, the engine of post-call new lawyer training in Canada. A lawyer at one large firm in Alberta related that right before the firm announces which articling students will be hired back, she gets calls from other firms and legal employers inquiring about the ones who won’t make the cut. She’ll soon see those lawyers, whom her firm has spent a lot of money feeding, clothing and training, opposing them in court. That happens across the country.

How long firms are willing to subsidize post-call legal training in Canada is an open question – I keep thinking they’ll eventually run the cost/benefit analysis and rethink their policy. But for the time being, the legal profession requires these firms’ annual willingness to hire a lot of graduates who will eventually turn into few senior associates and even fewer partners. And all the students graduating with $50,000 in debt — which they won’t pay off with a job at the Ministry of the Environment — require it too.

All that said, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the excellent legal employers outside the law firm community who have little or no profile among law schools. But their day will come. When third-year students and young associates talk longingly about “alternative careers,” they’re belatedly turning their attention to the other 90% of the legal profession outside of large law firms. I’m a ‘95 call, and I and many of my friends articled and “associated” (is that a verb?) with law firms. Today, the great majority of us work for government, corporate law departments, or NGOs.

Law schools ought to do a better job informing students of the wide world of legal careers. But that’s encompassed by the much larger and more significant question of the relationship between law schools and law firms – a relationship in need of some serious work.

This post originally appeared at Slaw on November 13, 2007.

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One Response to “Large firms and law schools”

  1. Tybalt

    Law students seem to believe in a hierarchy of legal job options: large law firms #1, small law firms #1A, everything else #2 and lower. One of the main reasons for this is that the legal profession believes in it, too.

    I think you are grasping for a unified concept under which you can put this generalized sense in the profession that some careers or organizations have more value, or more to offer, or are the goal to which students (or even young lawyers) should strive.

    The concept, the word, I think, is “prestige”. And of course, as well all know, even within those large firms, there are gradations of prestige.

    Just as there are gradations of prestige within each market, and within each sector. Federal government lawyers do look down on municipal government lawyers, after all (once you get those couple of beers in them), and don’t pretend they don’t.

    I do think that prestige one of the main reasons why students buy into a hierarchy of law firms with the big firms at the top. It’s probably about #6 in the list. The top five are money, money, money, money, and money. Of course, the prestige largely comes from the look and scent of money that these firms exude, so it’s hard in many cases to separate the two.

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