Casualties of the salary war

Dan Hull at What About Clients has stirred the smouldering embers of the associate salary debate with a post suggesting that new lawyers should pay law firms to apprentice with them. It’s a provocative idea, and while I voiced my disagreement with it in a comment there, I do appreciate the frustration he and other legal employers feel when the marketplace requires salaries that don’t correlate to the value they can realistically expect from rookie practitioners.

The problem, though, is that new lawyers don’t generally leave law school primed to deliver serious value to employers, and the largest law firms don’t have a lot of economic incentive to provide them with any real training — what they want are billable drones. So let’s be clear: it’s no accident that our current system delivers this result — it’s exactly what we should expect. It’s a problem we could ignore when times were good, but not anymore.

This is going to come to a head sooner rather than later, and it’s going to be the new lawyers themselves leading the charge, as this article in The Recorder about the tough lateral marketplace demonstrates: “[F]or a partner who isn’t holding a big book of business, moving may not be so easy — and for associates it may be impossible — as firms increasingly look only at the most productive partners.” [Emphasis added]

When large firms’ profitability is threatened, associates are the first ones cut loose and the last ones picked up elsewhere, and a lot of them are finding to their dismay that they’re simply not that employable. Their primary skill — a willingness to work long hours on middling-level tasks — isn’t in huge demand by large firms right now and is never of any use to smaller ones. These new lawyers are going to be squeezed hard, and they’re going to start asking hard questions: why are we left holding the bag? How is it that the law schools and the large firms, to which we had entrusted our development as lawyers, are sitting pretty, and we’re left banging on doors trying to get work?

In point of fact, it isn’t fair — and it’s no way to introduce the next generation of practitioners to our profession. A few of us have been saying for a while that the lawyer education and training system needs a massive overhaul. Expect to hear many more voices join that chorus over the next several months — those of the thousands of stranded new lawyers who are starting to pay the price of our cavalier approach to bar admission.


  1. Dan Hull

    Thanks, Jordan. If there is a way to make new lawyers genuinely valuable to clients and firms–rather than uninspired drones and money losers–I am open to that idea.

  2. Sue Roz Baker

    Here’s an idea:

    Cut law school down to 2 years. Let’s face it, 3rd year is a cruise. At least it was for me.

    Instead, add a year or two of some sort of college-type practical program that teaches young lawyers the practical skills that they need to succeed. It has the added bonus of punting off of their high horses as well and grounding them in reality.

    Then do a Bar Admissions program that tests lawyers not just on legal principles but on practical job-related skills that they need to more immediately add value to a large firm or to practice on your own.

    Or you could look at a certification program above and beyond law school to keep lawyers current and ensure that they are competent in their chosen field. The Certifications can focus on certain niche areas such as Real Estate or Trusts etc… These certifications can focus on more practical and cutting edge areas of interest. Having worked on a Certification program for a massive IT company I know that these certification programs are relatively easy to keep up to date and can flexibly change with the times.

    Let’s face it. Despite the pontificating on lawyers’ very real fiduciary obligations to their clients, the practice of Law is a business just like anything else.

    Having been through the traditional Legal education and then subsequently moving into a new career in IT, I can tell you that the traditional Legal education did nothing to prepare me for the workforce and for running a business.

    Looking back, had I actually had a different sort of legal education, I may have actually stuck with the profession instead of losing interest and going off to chase bits and bytes for a living :)

    Another model that is worth looking at is the process that is followed to certify as an accountant. But I’m no accountant and dare not speak authoritatively on that.

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