A close friend’s father passed away. He was 71, a retired school teacher and a great man. A man dying at 71 used to seem far off in my comprehension of time, but as I get older, it’s really not. I learned of his death the day after ATL had posted a story about a Morgan Lewis partner who died at his desk. That same night, Joe Paterno was fired, rightfully so, and part of a campus rioted.
All three men leave tremendous legacies in their own way. They worked diligently at their chosen careers, were long-time employees, and outwardly, at least, left behind loving families, students, mentees, and friends. (I know, Paterno isn’t dead, but he is finished). I was scanning through the comments following that ATL story, and was quite frankly amazed by how “gentle” the majority of the opinions were. Something about one of “us” dying at our desks just wasn’t worthy of snark. It was worthy of reflection….
Many of you, especially in the Comments, are still in law school, and about to enter a legal profession that is suffering through an awful employment phase. I left law school when one of these “phases” was coming to an end. Believe it or not, annual “market” salaries in New York City went from 85,000 for first year associates to 125,000 in my first month as a lawyer. Young associates began demanding — and getting — perks like massages, soda machines, cappuccino makers, office fans, plants, and free dinners. OCIs were riddled with cocky 2Ls who felt entitled to interview the firms, rather than simply hoping for a callback.
Some of you may remember “Greedy Associates,” a site devoted to gossip about which firm was paying what, and when bonuses would hit and for how much. There were charts delineating the pay scales by class year, and few firms wanted to be at the bottom. “GA” became so popular that there were sub-sites devoted to different metro areas and regions of the country. It was a bizarro world of legal hiring compared with today. And it was a wild time to be young and single in New York City.
But there was a price for those salary hikes and “perks.” Partners were bitter at having their PPP downsized to accommodate young lawyers who knew nothing. Those young associates would pay, but with their time. Billable hours expectations went through the roof; I don’t know what the market bears for billables these days. The billable minimum at my first firm was 2,000 hours, with bonuses starting at each increment of 100 thereafter. And merit bonuses were not guaranteed at many firms, mine included.
We looked with envy at our non-peer colleagues who received five-figure bonuses just for being employed, and that was in addition to signing bonuses and hours-based bonuses. This doesn’t consider the folks who left to join start-ups and seemingly became rich overnight, just for having the courage to walk out the door and work crazy hours for an “Internet” company.
Today is vastly different, of course. The bubbles popped, both Internet-based and hiring-based. Legal hiring is an anomaly, with hundreds — even thousands — of applicants for the paltry number of legal jobs available. Constriction of the market has taken hold, and the career landscape resembles the “depths of Mordor.” I am well aware that those of us with jobs are quite fortunate, and long gone are the days of salary wars and perks. Lawyering has become a “job” like any other. It isn’t rocket science, and it doesn’t save lives, but those are rarified careers in any event, and someone has to push and argue about the paper.
I am largely proud of my profession. Even with all of its negatives, it is, at base, a noble profession. We are fortunate to live in a society ruled by words and not weaponry. Those of us who have been through legal training have the opportunity to come out of school (albeit likely heavily indebted) and enter a profession where knowledge is an attribute and can be rewarded handsomely. I disagree with the argument that the legal profession has become more adversarial and “ugly.” This may have been the case a decade or so ago, but my experiences with other counsel of late have been much more collegial and understanding of the employment situation that we all share. No one has job security these days, but we’ll always need lawyers.
Many of the letters I receive in response to this column detail the various struggles that attorneys are suffering through. I strongly believe that only other attorneys really understand the psychological toll that this profession demands. Perfection is unobtainable, yet, we insist upon it in our work each day, every day, so much so that we tend to pounce upon those who appear weak, or who produce what we deride as “lesser” work product. It’s also why so many attorneys are depressed and turn to drugs or drink to take the edge off. Reading and responding to those letters is quite rewarding. They let me know that others are in boat(s) that I may have been in, and that I may have something to offer in return for having been there.
As a clerk, I learned that a brief is a brief is a brief, but generally speaking, someone is right and someone is wrong; you just have to figure out the question and you’ll get to the answer. It’s the same with so much of what we do. But there are the times where we are able to shine as individuals, and not automatons. Moments occur when a success is directly tied to knowing what we’re doing. Those are the best days of being an attorney. I won’t mind dying in my office so much if I could go on one of those days.
So to Jim, I say farewell, old friend. To those folks at Morgan Lewis, I am sorry for your loss. And to Joe Pa, I hope your true legacy will be a lesson learned for folks in your position in the future.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.