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.