Generation eXit

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This, I’m reasonably certain, is the first Law21 post to start with: Spoiler Warning. It’s only fair to advise that if you haven’t seen the Joss Whedon horror thriller The Cabin In The Woods, and you plan to do so, then you should skip the rest of this post, because I’m about to give away the plot and the ending. (Mind you, I haven’t seen it either — horror’s not my thing, so I went and read a complete summary of the movie online. Yes, that’s cheating.)

The Cabin In The Woods is a darkly comic post-modern take on the traditional slasher film, in which attractive young people in a remote location are hunted down and killed by a mysterious or supernatural predator. The twist is that this longstanding horror trope actually turns out to be a worldwide government program in which real monsters that would otherwise devour humanity, familiar to us through legend, are kept at bay by offering up young sacrificial victims in an ancient rite. Things go wrong, however, and by the end of the movie, the program has failed and the monsters are breaking loose. The two surviving teenagers are told that unless they agree to be ritually sacrificed as originally intended, the pact with the monsters will be broken and the whole world will be destroyed.

Here what’s really interesting: the teenagers, after trading swift glances, respond: No. If this is what is required to save the world, they reason, then the world isn’t worth saving. And, they might have added: if we need to die because of the bad bargains you made to stay alive, then we’re bringing you down with us.

The Cabin In The Woods is an original take on horror movies; but if you view it through a generational lens, it becomes highly illuminating in other ways. An older generation that preserves its safety and well-being by sacrificing its children’s future is a concept with a lot of traction for Millennials right now, and the film did extremely brisk business with young moviegoers (as did The Hunger Games and Snow White And The Huntsman, other movies in which the old survive only at the expense of the young).

Unemployed and underemployed in the highest numbers in recent memory, Millennials are doubly embittered because the generation that raised them to follow their dreams and believe anything was possible is the same generation that has left their playing field in ruins. Millennials have no doubt whatsoever about who’s to blame for their predicament. Many Boomers might find their reasoning defective or their conclusion unfair; Generation Y, like its favourite meme the honey badger, don’t care (if you’re not familiar with the link, be advised that it’s rather NSFW).

For an especially acute rendering of this generational bitterness, read this acidic manifesto from a Millennial to Boomers and Gen-Xers alike: “Quit Telling Us We’re Not Special — We Know We’re Not.” You don’t have to agree with the entire blistering arsenal unleashed in that article. But I would still suggest that you give it a serious look — and specifically, that you note the labels used by older generations to describe this young one. They strongly echo those that established members of the legal profession like to rain down on the most recent cohort of new lawyers: Lazy. Pampered. Entitled. Unwilling To Work Hard. If you borrowed heavily to obtain an impotent law degree, You Should Have Known Better. If you can’t find a job, it’s because You Haven’t Tried Hard Enough. Sound familiar?

I don’t know if you’ve spoken recently with many young lawyers, especially the ones struggling to find legal work (45% of the American class of 2010, for example). But they’ve heard those sentiments from veteran lawyers, they’ve seen how the legal profession is treating its young, and they are extremely unhappy about the profession they longed to join but that has no place for them.

That’s got me kind of worried. I’m concerned not just that we’re about to lose part of this generation of lawyers, but also that we might not recover that loss in the future. We’re watching an economic scalpel carve a permanent chunk out of the profession’s demographic profile several years wide, which is all bad enough. But in the process, we’re also risking our profession’s reputation with future cohorts of intelligent, creative and caring would-be lawyers, those who were once drawn to a legal career but who might now look elsewhere. We could be poisoning our own brand.

The statistical evidence of unprecedented unemployment among heavily indebted new lawyers has been widely documented; less well-publicized has been the nearly one-quarter drop in applicants to US law schools in the past two years. That’s a problem for the American legal profession, because that’s its talent pool for the years 2020-2060, and a drop like that is a sign of potential drought. I’m not aware of similarly acute declines in other countries’ law school application rates, but the same threat exists and could easily materialize.

That rate of decline can’t and won’t be sustained, of course; but I also don’t think it’s going to reverse and return to previous levels all of a sudden. In a fully connected world where aspiring professionals have extraordinary access to information about career prospects in various fields, hard facts about legal jobs are easier than ever to come by. Law’s reputation as a relatively safe and remunerative career, one in which new entrants could expect to be helped out by older colleagues and brought along by law firms, has been damaged. The bloom is coming off our rose.

This is an issue that goes beyond individual law firms’ profits or even regulatory concerns; this is about law’s ability to be competitive with other careers. We can argue all day about what constitutes “the best and the brightest” of each new generation; but however you define the best and brightest, we want them in the law. We want the legal profession to attract and retain individuals of the highest intellectual, creative and ethical character. We want the cream of every year’s crop. We’ve succeeded in attracting those candidates for many years, including over this past decade, and good for us. But we’re currently failing to retain those lawyers, to shelter them in difficult times, or to help them stay the course. And we’re sending a clear signal to those who might follow this unlucky generation: if you struggle starting out in the law, and you very well might, you’ll be on your own.

Many people will still strive to be lawyers, of course — I can’t foresee any future in which hardly anyone wants to practise law. But many other people who would normally pursue the law will have second thoughts, and they will act on those misgivings. They’ll look for different careers, ones without reputations for unstable employers, brutal facetime expectations, and widespread unhappiness. They’ll be like star athletes who could choose any sport — but who will look at short careers, excruciating injuries, debilitating concussions, and institutional apathy and decide that they can do better than football. Law does not want to become the NFL of professions — but that’s where we might be headed.

You could raise any number of reasonable objections to my concerns. Most law schools experiencing drops in applications can simply dig deeper into their waiting lists. Every profession goes through down cycles: who would have wanted to be an accountant in the wake of Andersen Consulting? And wasn’t I saying just the other day that the legal profession is shrinking and we won’t need so many lawyers in future anyway?

All true. But law schools with fewer applicants find that the quality of candidates gets shallower along with the pool itself. Accounting’s image is still bruised from the scandals of the late 1990s, and accounting hasn’t relied on the prestige factor as heavily as law. And while yes, I don’t think we’ll have as many lawyer “jobs” to fill in future, there’ll still be a great need for lawyer “employment,” and we’ll still need good people to fill both kinds of roles.

More important, I think, is that we want law to continue to be a destination career, one to which as many people as possible aspire. It’s been our incredibly good fortune, reinforced by our commendable historical efforts, to have maintained a strong professional brand for many decades. But no prior decade has been like this most recent one, and no living generation of lawyers has gone through what this one is experiencing. My concern is that they’re not going to keep going through it much longer: they’ll give up on the law and encourage others not to make their “mistakes.” (That process is already well underway: Google “law school scam” for the evidence.)

The end of The Cabin In The Woods stays with me because of the teenagers’ choice: rather than help prolong a world whose rules require their sacrifice, they simply decide to quit the game altogether (dooming the world in the process). This is the first generation of lawyers that might decide, even in part, to do the same: simply exit the profession altogether, give up on the game as not worth the candle.

We’ve long assumed there’ll always be more lawyers coming through the system, always more young minds willing to pay the price of admission. What if that supply slows down or stalls out? What arguments could we muster to coax them back, or their younger brothers and sisters, or their children? Having shown our willingness and ability to sacrifice them, what could we possibly have to say to them after that?

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.

 

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3 Responses to “Generation eXit”

  1. shg

    But for the fact that the entitlement issues relating to Millennials (or the Slackoisie, to be more specific) preceded the current recession and downturn in legal employment, and the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, this would have been a somewhat persuasive post.

    Of course, you may not be as concerned with logical arguments as some other folk.

  2. Fred Kruck

    I usually find thought-provoking posts, but somehow this one ignores a basic concept: the law of supply and demand.

  3. Jonathan W

    New graduates are not just ‘struggling’, as you put it – a very great number of them are assuming crippling student debt, undischargeable in bankruptcy, and have no chance whatsoever of finding any sort of legal work whatever. The problem is that US law schools have continued to generate approximately twice as many graduates as the market can absorb, year after year, while increasing their tuition to unheard of levels. This is simply not sustainable. A large number of US law schools are going to have to close their doors – there is no other alternative. The profession, in my view, fully deserves all the oppobrium and contempt that will be coming its way.

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