Graduating into a recession

It’s rare that a reader asks me to write something on a specific topic, rarer still that multiple requests for the same subject come in. So the fact that a few people have now asked for a post about law students and the recession indicates just how much anxiety is rising in law schools and among new lawyers.

It really is amazing how fast everything changed. When the classes of 2009 and 2010 entered law school, the economy was booming (or more accurately, bubbling) and some big law firms were seriously contemplating $200,000 annual salaries for first-year associates. Now those same firms are rushing to cut salaries, while the economy, though probably past full-scale crisis, isn’t as strong as the markets would have you believe and likely is set for several years of mediocrity. So you can kind of see where young lawyers’ anxiety is coming from.

Not that everyone is sympathetic to their plight. But if you think they’re overreacting to the recession, try to remember how you saw the world in your twenties, and that no law school generation has ever graduated this deeply in debt. And try to remember, too, that our whole industry, from educators to employers, told these young people that the professional cow was full of cash and would only grow fatter. The growing ranks of unemployed young lawyers and frightened law students out there should remind us how poorly we’ve managed the business of law for years now. We raised their expectations too high and made promises we couldn’t keep, and it seems to me we bear at least some responsibility for helping them get through this.

I first wrote about graduating into a recession last January, and most of what I said then still applies. But in the intervening  months, it’s become clearer that this isn’t just another cyclical downturn. Economically, it’s all bad enough: many banks are still on life-support, people are still paying off or defaulting on various types of debt, and government spending can’t replace consumer spending indefinitely. These problems aren’t going away anytime soon. In the legal industry, the financial crisis has accelerated already-existing trends towards more power in the hands of clients and more downward pressures on lawyers’ fees — major change should now arrive ahead of schedule.

Most of all, though, the crisis has triggered upheaval for large law firms, which for years have been providing the profession with on-the-job training for its new law graduates. The newest trend is toward what NALP’s James Leipold refers to as the “collision of classes” — all those retracted job offers and deferred starting dates for 2009 graduates are leading towards their logical conclusion: no new hires from the class of 2010 (here are recent examples from the US and the UK). Granted, hiring untrained law grads and paying them scads of money to fill out dockets is a recruitment model long overdue for replacement; but for the purposes of new law grads, it means one of the tightest job markets in memory.

So what would I recommend? Well, students currently in law school need to ask themselves a tough question and come up with an honest answer: why am I here? It might well be that you’re a law student because you’re bright, well-meaning and helpful, and the law seemed like an interesting, prestigious and financially reliable career path — that pretty much describes my route. But if that’s all that brought you here, then I think you should give some serious consideration to quitting.

I know how harsh that sounds, especially since a lot of great lawyers went into law school not fully certain if this was their calling. But this is not the same profession that your parents or older siblings entered, where entry barriers were relatively low,  learning curves were pretty gentle, and steady employment was more of a question of “where” than “if.” Law is becoming a tougher profession for new entrants — standards are higher, footholds are fewer, breaks and opportunities are disappearing. It used to be that you could spend the first few years of your career learning the ins and outs of practice from large-firm employers — they’d work you hard and train you poorly, but they’d pay you well because they made money off you no matter how long it took you to get the hang of things.

Those days are ending. The vaunted law firm pyramid is being replaced by the law firm diamond — few partners at the top, few trainees at the bottom, a lot of experienced workers in the middle. Because of the economy, and because technology and outsourcing are taking away new lawyers’ traditional tasks, there just won’t be as many opportunities to get your professional sea legs in a law firm. It’s going to be a lot harder for you to gain work experience — and that’s a real problem, because these same firms, perversely enough, are also narrowing their hiring criteria to lawyers with  experience and skills. I need hardly point out that most law schools provide no training in lawyering skills, client relationships or anything else that firms are suddenly deciding they value.

Many of you, then, will find yourselves standing in front of the profession’s gates with a key issued by your law school, only to find they’ve changed the locks. And since most schools don’t seem ready to issue a new set of keys, you’ll need to find another way inside. You’re going to have to develop the necessary skills and gain the requisite experience on your own. That might take several years, during which you’re not going to earn much or make much of a dent in your student debts, and at the end of the process there’s still no guarantee of a job. So unless you’re driven to be a lawyer, unless this really feels like a calling and you’re prepared for a north-face assault on this mountain, you owe it to yourself to think about suspending or abandoning your law degree. I don’t say this lightly or happily, but I do think it needs to be said.

What if you’re among the committed, or you’ve already graduated, or you’re so close to your degree that, even taking account of the sunk costs fallacy, you might as well finish it off? To start with, you’ll need to reorient your expectations along the lines of what I’ve just mentioned, accepting that the rules changed on you mid-way through the game and that there’s nothing to be done about it. Don’t underestimate the importance of attitude: the faster you can readjust your mindset from disappointment or victimhood to determination and opportunity, the wider a gap you can create between you and your classmates-turned-competitors. Take all the time you need to fully make this transition, but don’t take a minute longer.

The next thing to understand is that it’s time for some career triage.  You might not yet be sure what type of law you really want to do, but you no longer have the option of  browsing through the racks and trying things on. Pick something you think you can do and where you already have some experience or contacts — if you DJ’ed in college, think about entertainment law; if you majored in engineering, think about IP; if you worked at a nursing home, think about elder law. This isn’t about making career choices that will bind you for decades; this is about finding a door to put your foot into, an area where you already come with some valuable attributes. You need a place to start, so choose one in familiar territory.

Next, start building networks and skills. Which networks to construct depends on where and what you want to practise. If you’re settling or setting up shop in a given jurisdiction, join the bar association of that state or province (new lawyer fees are generally low) and go to as many meetings of your local chapter and area-of-practice section as reasonably possible. Meet people, introduce yourself, ask questions, follow up. At the same time, investigate your industry: join trade groups, read industry newsletters and websites, get to know the issues facing your future clients.  And get involved in online networks: join LinkedIn and start making contacts. Join Legal OnRamp and make your mark in the groups, conversations and debates there. If it’s at all feasible, blog.

Skills, of course, are the hardest thing to acquire, part of the “how do I get experience/skills without skills/experience” vicious circle. If you’re lucky, you’re with a law firm that will actually pay you while it trains you in the lawyering skills you need. If you have the luxury of volunteer time, identify an organization (preferably in your chosen area) that needs and accepts unpaid legal help and use that opportunity to acquire skills and make personal connections. If you can afford to pay for an associate position, Dan Hull would be happy to hear from you (it would be a pretty good investment, actually).

But maybe your best immediate investment might be Solo Practice University, an online legal learning and networking institution that fills in the many practical gaps in your law school education. At SPU, lawyer faculty teach real-world skills required in numerous areas of practice as well as marketing, management and technology know-how. I received a guided tour the other day and came away impressed. Even if you don’t intend to go solo, you could learn a tremendous amount (inside and outside class) from some very knowledgeable people at your own pace for about 1/20th the cost of the average American law degree — give it a look.

Really, it might help to think of yourself as a start-up — because in a  lot of ways, you’re a start-up law business. You have a law degree, which is far from worthless; it’s now just a piece of the puzzle, not the whole thing. You also have talent, drive and dedication, which is pretty much all that most startups ever set out with, along with your own unique life experiences. Now you need to build your personal law business, from the ground up.

Like other start-ups, it might have to be a part-time effort, since you’ll likely need to take a non-lawyer position (or even one outside the profession altogether) to pay the bills. But that full-time  job is just a source of income; your part-time start-up is your calling and your passion, and it will occupy your nights and weekends. If you think that sounds like a lot of work and not much life, you’re absolutely right. Don’t leave your student lifestyle behind yet: the long hours and tight budgets will probably continue for a while, and the discipline they impose, while absolutely a short-term pain, will prove to be a long-term benefit.

A good book to read right now might be Seth Godin’s The Dip: it’s about the importance of quitting the wrong things at the right time, sticking out the right things for as long as it takes, and knowing the difference between them. The most important lesson I took from it was that every worthwhile path has numerous barriers designed to do nothing else except winnow down the number of users. These barriers are what cause the dry spells, frustration, and pain that drive many people to pursue other paths that are easier or better for them — they constitute The Dip, and they separate the curious from the committed.

For a long time, law didn’t have much of a Dip, didn’t have many barriers — most everyone who acquired a law degree ended up with a law job if they wanted it. Now there is one — a law degree has become the start of your legal training, not the end of it. If you’re in law school or just emerging from it, you need to decide whether you can and want to make it through these barriers, the ones that right now are winnowing out thousands of people from this profession. If not, there’s no harm and no foul — life is long, and there’s a new century of opportunities opening up for you.

If you do decide to go for it, get ready for a long and often difficult haul, early-morning work and late-night second-guessing. And you still might not make it. But as that wise man Tom Waits once said: if it’s worth the going, it’s worth the ride. Good luck.



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