Eyes wide open

Over at the Wall Street Journal‘s Law Blog, they’ve published a Q-and-A with a young New York law grad named Kirsten Wolf. She graduated from Boston University Law School in 2002 right into the dot-com collapse and couldn’t find work, even though she was a B+ student. She has the courage and grace to admit that she went into law school not really knowing what else to do, and that when it became clear halfway through her degree that there wouldn’t be a job for her, she found she didn’t really have a passion for the law after all. Today, she works at a job she loves for a New York publishing company, but she has $87,000 in debt, which will take her about 30 years to repay.

This is what Ms. Wolf is currently up to:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

I think she’s exactly right. Continue Reading

Large firms and law schools

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.

Mom and Dad, Esq.

Somebody asked me, after I returned to the office following three months’ parental leave, “Did you enjoy your time off?”

“I enjoyed the last three months immensely,” I said. “But trust me, ‘time off’ does not in any way describe it.”

If you’ve spent more than a few weeks raising a child hands-on, you’ll probably get that. If you haven’t, you might have a hard time understanding how parenting can be more work than the toughest law job — and can be more rewarding than the greatest law job, too. Similarly, I think most legal employers these days are either clued in to helping their lawyers be parents, or they’re not.

It’s been heartening to hear and read the stories of law firms that do get it: they accommodate within their work structures lawyers’ decisions to have kids. They understand not only the business advantages to that approach — retention, recruitment, and more (set out below) — but also that a law firm community that respects its employees’ personal lives is a triumph of professionalism.

And some firms don’t get it. Their business models can’t maximize production from young parents, and so they accept high turnover rates and the exodus of women lawyers as a tolerable cost of success. What strikes me, even more so than before I spent three months as a full-time dad, is how it’s the firms who are missing out here, not the lawyers. What sensible law firm wouldn’t want to employ a parent?

Parents are the ultimate multi-taskers, simultaneously juggling numerous duties — all urgent priorities and all mandatory — through hard work, organization and efficiency. That’s not valuable to firms trying to leverage the most work out of the fewest professionals?

Parents are tremendous dispute resolvers, balancing both the short-term demands and long-term interests of parties with deeply self-interested viewpoints, usually in high-stress situations. That’s not useful for clients who need conflicts settled quickly and calmly?

Parents are great listeners, reading between the lines of what they’re told and figuring out what someone really needs, earning their trust in the process. That’s not the very heart of effective client relations and marketing?

Parents function on much less sleep than they need. That’s not a survival skill in the modern law firm?

The business case for law firms to recruit and retain lawyers who are parents is clear. The business case for the billable-hour regime and the work-‘em-till-they-drop culture of many firms, which drive away these valuable professionals, remains a mystery to me.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the July/August 2007 issue of National magazine.

Going to town

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the numerous factors leading to the continuing contraction of the legal profession in smaller urban centers and in rural outposts. Here’s another one: competition for legal talent. Large-center practice is operating at unprecedented levels of profitability these days; even if small-center practices were still reasonably feasible, large-center practices are now so lucrative that it’s hard for any but the most diehard devotees of small-town life to pass up the opportunities in urban Canada.

The law societies of British Columbia and Ontario have produced reports on this subject, and both identify it as a serious matter for the profession. I’m not entirely sure that it is, for a couple of reasons.

First, that belief presumes that a shortage or absence of lawyers in small centers results in reduced access to justice in those locations. Lawyers have long believed that only they can really provide legal services competently, even as the alternative legal services market (primarily paralegals, but also including title insurers and do-it-yourself will CDs) continues to flourish every year. It would hardly behoove the LSUC, for instance, to maintain that lawyers are a sine qua non for access to justice when the LSUC itself has battled successfully to gain the right to regulate paralegals.

Before we decide that only lawyers’ services pass the threshold of providing access to justice, maybe we ought to let someone else try. If lawyers really want to ensure the best possible world for access to justice, they should help throw open the legal-services marketplace to as many competitors as the market will allow, and let clients sort the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps needless to say, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Continue Reading

Don’t believe the hype

Whenever I drop by a law school campus, I’m reminded of one tremendous difference from 10 or 15 years ago: the near omni-presence of the practising bar. Back then, you noticed the profession on Careers Day (no OCIs back then) and maybe when the CBA President came to speak; otherwise, law practice might as well have been on another planet. Legal periodicals didn’t bother going into the schools at all, and of course there was no Internet.

Today, you’re deluged with news, information and opinions about practice. It’s not only from the law firms, which have had a huge impact on many faculties through sponsorships, donations, lectures and marketing efforts. It’s also through legal magazines and newspapers, which provide pipelines of impressions about life at the bar, and websites like Lawbuzz, which provide pipelines with fewer facts but more interactivity.

The multiplicity of information sources available today could lead you to believe you’re getting a broad cross-section of legal life. But I don’t actually think that’s the case. What you’re really getting is an intense sales pitch from numerous directions. Every element of the legal profession with a law school presence is there for a reason: you’re a valuable demographic, and they’re trying to sell you something.

What you’ll often find offered to you is an image or a model of the profession. You’re already familiar, for example, with magazines that promote a certain type of career and lifestyle as the norm, when in fact the profession is far too fragmented and diverse for any one style to be predominant. Buy into that image if you want, but don’t mistake it for the mainstream of Canadian law practice.

There are other sales pitches going on, too: consider this or that law firm for your summer and articling positions. That’s your call — in fact, it’s all your call, in fact. It’s not always easy, but try to remember that the practising profession is far more diverse, nuanced and complex than the images pitched to you can express. Don’t feel boxed in by an illusion of limited choice.

There are as many different legal lives as there are lawyers, and you can choose any one of them — or reject them all and create your own. It’s your career, not theirs.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the 2006 law student issue of National magazine.