This tenth and final instalment in what became a “pandemic series” of posts isn’t a standalone entry so much as an epilogue to what I’ve written over these past six weeks. Mostly, it’s a message to the graduating law class of 2020, although it also applies to the subsequent cohorts of 2021 and 2022, and to recently called lawyers as well.
This pandemic will be a turning point for all of us, but especially for you. A new set of external conditions beyond our control now governs everyone’s day-to-day lives and will do so for the foreseeable future. That’s the backdrop against which the first years of your legal careers will unfold. Let’s talk about what that means for you and what you can do about it.
Law Firm Jobs
The most obvious disruption for the class of 2020 (and those that follow in its wake) will be your post-graduate employment. Midsize and large law firms, which account for roughly half of all first-year lawyer hiring in the US and Canada, are laying people off, reducing partner draws and cutting employee salaries. Summer and associate programs are being postponed, cancelled, or converted on the fly into remote onboarding.
It’s not hard to see why. The prospect of a global economy destabilized for at least two years, as a virus tears through populations and severely constrains economic activity, is making law firms deeply concerned about their future. They are going to sharply reduce what they regard as non-essential activities — and you should be aware that in most law firms, the only essential activity is keeping partners happy and well-paid. Law firms’ lawyer population is therefore going to take a significant hit over the next couple of years.
I’ve been warning for awhile now that law firms will hire ever-fewer new associates, as more entry-level client work normally assigned to inexperienced junior lawyers stays in-house, is redirected to specialized law companies, or is given over to software programs. Our current and coming economic seizures will likely compress years of this gradual reduction into several months of substantial cutbacks in lawyer employment.
So one outcome on the other side of the pandemic will be that larger law firms will no longer be the default career starting point for tens of thousands of new lawyers every year. On balance, this isn’t entirely a bad thing.
Working as an associate in a law firm is excellent training for continuing to work as an associate in a law firm and, if that’s your dream, someday working as a partner in a law firm. But “law firm lawyer” is only a plurality of all law jobs today and will be a minority of law jobs throughout your career, and it doesn’t prepare you especially well for the other options.
There are obviously financial and brand-association advantages to starting out with a well-known law firm — but there are steep costs as well, and risks to your personal well-being. Ultimately, there’s nothing magical or inherently meritorious about working in a law firm, and it shouldn’t be your default entry point into the law.
Your Next Jobs
What should be your entry point? During this crisis, it should be anywhere you can rack up some experience, build some skills, and add some contacts to your network while pulling down enough to pay your bills another month. Let’s dive into that.
● What kind of experience? Ideally, it will include on-the-ground problem-solving, as you help individuals and organizations move from a problem to a remedy in real time, learning as you go how to handle people in crisis. It will include opportunities to look outside “the law” for solutions, working with people from other technical and professional backgrounds and appreciating just how much they know. It will include occasions where you have to make the best call you can with limited information, hopefully with colleagues and supervisors to help you deal with the inevitable times when you get it wrong. This is exactly the kind of experience your future employers, colleagues and clients will prize.
● What kinds of skills? In addition to the triage responsiveness described above, there is an almost overwhelming array of “future lawyer skills” to choose from, any of which will make you a more valuable and effective lawyer. I’ve written extensively about these skills. Researchers have studied them. Law schools are offering graduate certificates in them. Regulators are starting to provide and require them. Legal operations professionals, whose ranks will expand significantly this coming decade, have provided extensive resources for them. Review these lists, identify the skills that attract you the most, and look for opportunities (paid, if possible) to develop them first-hand.
● What kinds of contacts? There are almost no bad contacts to make in the legal world, and I hold out hope that the legal profession’s traditional helpfulness towards new practitioners will survive the pandemic. But I say again: Break out of the lawyer bubble. Connect and collaborate with other service providers and technical experts. In particular, build out your demand-side networks, from in-house counsel to legal operations professionals to small businesses to community organizers to advocates for the marginalized to government officials. Use Twitter to find people and LinkedIn to connect with them, or more modern platforms better suited to your demography.
There will be some full-time jobs out there to be had, but I suspect that most of the opportunities that surface in the coming months will be shorter-term, project, flex-time, and informal. If that’s what’s available, grab it and use it to get experience, develop skills, and/or make new contacts. Push your law school’s career services people to point you in promising directions here, and don’t hesitate to draw on every contact you’ve made during your brief time in the legal community for help.
You could also form “search parties” with your law school friends and classmates to hunt for opportunities, pooling your findings in a spreadsheet or Google Doc and meeting online once a week to compare notes. Think of it as study group for legal employment — each member contributes some research and benefits from everyone else’s efforts. You might uncover an ideal opportunity for someone else, and they for you. (No better way to develop your collaboration skills, too.)
The bottom line is, if you can wrangle some paying work that allows you to survive these next few years while ticking even two of the foregoing three sets of boxes, you’ve done really well for yourself. And if you can land something steadier and more structured that delivers these benefits, that’s even better.
But many new lawyers won’t be fortunate enough to fall into either of these categories, and the reality is that you might be among them for awhile. If so, then the only other point I can make, and I want to make it very strongly, is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with you if that turns out to be the case. None of this is your fault. You and your cohort drew the short straw. History found you. It’s not right, and it’s not fair — but it’s not your fault. I’m not sure if enough people have told you that.
That’s as much as I can usefully tell you about dealing with this tsunami and learning to tread water as it continues to surge inland. So I want to take the balance of this post to talk about what it means to launch a legal career in tandem with a global health crisis and severe recession. In order to do that, we need to understand as clearly as we can what’s really happening out there.
The Nature of This Crisis
Many people have correctly observed that we can’t “go back to normal,” that the post-pandemic world will be fundamentally different from the one we left behind in March. That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story: that the “normal” world we left behind was an unsustainable, slowly collapsing mess.
We all saw the same things: political dysfunction and xenophobic tribalism, loss of faith in institutions and social norms, decaying physical and societal infrastructure, staggering inequality and the shredding of the social contract, accelerating environmental breakdown, and widespread addiction and loneliness. So many problems, so few solutions and a dwindling capacity or inclination to seek them out. Why would we want to go back to that?
We need to appreciate that COVID-19 isn’t only, or even primarily, a public health crisis. It’s a political system crisis, in which a serious threat to public health fully reveals and further exacerbates the failure of disintegrating political systems, public institutions, and social norms. COVID-19 is not “merely” a crisis like the 2007-08 recession — it’s a catalyst, perfectly timed both to signal and to bring about the end of one era and the beginning, for better or worse, of another. The old world is passing away, mostly because it was time for it to pass away and to be replaced by something else.
The same can be said for the pandemic’s impact on law. You’re probably aware that the legal system’s failure to provide adequate access to justice has massively worsened over this past decade. You might have heard that lawyers are overworked, overstressed, and more prone than most to depression, substance abuse, and suicide. You know only too well that your own path into this profession has driven you hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt while giving you little preparation to deliver legal services. Some of you might even live in a place where you have to show up in person during a pandemic to write a bar exam.
All of this is “normal.” None of it is right. The gap between what we’ve been doing in the law, and what we should be doing, has grown too large. The pandemic is now forcing us to reckon with that gap, to come to grips with how it developed and to deal with it once and for all.
Here’s how the gap developed: Over the last 40 years, demand for legal services exploded in terms of both volume and complexity. But supply failed to keep pace — although the number of lawyers increased, our service delivery remained narrowly simplistic, our justice infrastructure became dangerously archaic, and our legal institutions stubbornly refused to adapt to changing needs. We could never have produced enough lawyers and built enough courthouses to meet the surge in demand, but we went the opposite way — lawyers blocked the entry of new providers, judges rejected the use of technology in courts, and both stood by while governments eviscerated justice system funding. The resulting scarcity of authorized providers and the absence of robust systems drove the price of legal services beyond the reach of all but the rich and the corporate, creating massive backlogs that delayed and denied justice while preserving the profitable status quo for a select few.
This was just not sustainable. Our old legal institutions — judicial, regulatory, educational, private-sector — have been worn down to exhaustion trying to serve new legal needs they were never designed or updated to meet. Now comes the pandemic, to present us with the bill for our neglect and to ring down the curtain on this turbulent era in the legal services sector.
And now come the people who will lead us into the next era in legal services. Now comes you.
The Part You Will Play
It’s very important to me that you understand this fact: Your legal career will outlast this pandemic. Your legal career, in fact, is going to bury this pandemic — you will be sailing along as a happy, successful, fulfilled lawyer when COVID-19 has long been just a bitter memory. You’ll be active in the law, or in business or in your community, well into the 2050s and 2060s. “I started practising law in a pandemic” will be how you begin a familiar story to your grandchildren.
You will not be defined by this pandemic. Lawyers who entered the practice of law in 1929 are not known today as the Stock Market Crash Generation. Those who entered it in 1933 are not remembered as the Depression Generation. They are all collectively known as the Greatest Generation. They are remembered not by what was done to them, but by what they did. The same will apply to you.
You will be defined by, and remembered gratefully for, the mandate you accepted to renew the law and build a better legal system. You responded to an unexpected change of plans, and an unfair burden placed on your shoulders, with courage, compassion, and creativity. You recognized that the law was trying to solve complex new challenges with old worn-out institutions, so you kept the finest principles underlying those institutions and threw out the junk and wreckage that had accumulated around their foundations.
You entered the law encumbered with debt and anxiety, but unencumbered by the cultural baggage of “the way we’ve always done things” or by allegiance to self-preserving barriers to change. You decided that law firms ought to be smart businesses where a diversity of ethical professionals solved law-related problems and provided good counsel at a fair and predictable price to clients who trusted them. You decided that legal needs could be met by a wide range of trustworthy providers at different price and complexity points, or by free automated systems for the simplest matters. You decided that civil justice should be a universal public utility and the court system should only manage conflicts between the state and its people.
Or maybe you didn’t do any of these things, but you did an array of others. It doesn’t matter what your accomplishments ultimately end up being — it matters that you entered a legal system in desperate need of revitalization and renewal, and you took on the job, because it needed to be done and it was worth doing. And because you’re a lawyer, and that’s what you do.
I have immense confidence in both your willingness to take on this role and in your ability to absolutely crush it. I said earlier in this post that “history found you” — but in truth, you are exactly who we needed history to find. You are smarter and more capable than any generation of lawyers who came before you, and you will prove your resilience, your reliability, and ultimately your wisdom throughout this crisis. You will lead.
We all need to buckle up for the roughest ride of our lives. We’ll all play our part in the dismantling of a broken legal system and the design and construction of a new one. You’ll have plenty of help along the way, probably more than you’ll know what to do with. But most of us will be stepping off this bus in the coming years and decades, whereas you’re going to be here for the whole trip. The first problem you’re going to solve as lawyers is the legal system itself — and believe me, after that, everything else is going to feel like a walk in the park on a sunny day.
This pandemic, and the legal system crisis it’s catalyzing, are going to be incredibly tough. But you’re tougher, and you’ll win. Go get it.