But, at the end of the day, the story that lorded over the legal week was Noam Scheiber’s piece in The New Republic about the decline of Biglaw. So let’s talk about why most lawyers drink themselves asleep in dark rooms and how attorneys are a lot like professional athletes.
Oh, and Justice Scalia called people Nazis, and the royal baby proved how awful punditry can be…
1. Let’s talk about what the New Republic article wasn’t.
Despite the buzz it generated, the New Republic article wasn’t really news. If you’ve been reading ATL for any length of time, the decline of Biglaw is old news. To some extent, the article brought this story to a wider audience, but the sort of person reading the New Republic is likely to have seen any number of news items over the last five years profiling an industry in trouble. The only trend piece more done to death is “Hey everybody! Look at Brooklyn!” This latter piece gave rise to this clip, which confirms that Brian Williams is awesome:
But back to the TNR article. Basically, the article explains that lawyers are sad pandas.
On the one hand, Biglaw attorneys come off as narcissistic complainers. In an economy where people are begging for scraps, it’s hard for normal folks to sympathize when Biglaw attorneys kvetch about how hard their lives are while making well over six figures and rue the fact that it might take them 12 years to become millionaires instead of eight. And even then they might just be kind of millionaires while someone else is a bigger millionaire. Life’s hard all over.
On the other hand, the article does try to bring out the most misunderstood aspect of working in Biglaw, which I call the “professional athlete effect.” I often argue with people saying “professional athletes make so much money” by pointing out that, beyond the superstars, you have to look at their salaries and recognize that they will only earn them for a finite period. If an athlete makes $1 million a year for three years, it’s nothing to sneeze at, but after taxes and divided out over the athlete’s life, it’s really not a ton. Sure they can go out and get another job, but the point remains those three years don’t really leave them set for life.
The same is true of Biglaw:
Helen’s son was born on March 19, 2010. Just before he turned three weeks old, she received the call she’d been dreading. Mayer Brown gave her the rest of her maternity leave, plus another three months pay as severance. It was, under most circumstances, a fair offer. But Helen was in a bind. Her husband was a stay-at-home dad, and the couple owned a condominium in downtown Chicago. “I sent out a ridiculous number of resumés,” she says. “If I didn’t have a job lined up by time the time the severance ended, I didn’t have a way to make payments on my house.” She landed two or three interviews and no offers. “The market was so bad in the spring of 2010. Not a single law firm was hiring.”
Inevitably, the bank foreclosed on her condo. She and her husband relocated to the Michigan town where he grew up, and she eventually joined a local firm. Her annual salary when she left Mayer Brown was $230,000. Last year she made $40,000. It was barely enough to put food on the table and clothe her children, much less keep up with tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt. “There’s probably a bankruptcy in our future. I don’t think there’s a way out of it,” Helen told me. “In ten years, hopefully we’ll be financially recovered, we can buy a house, have a credit card again.”
A short score doesn’t mean much if you overextend yourself and work in an industry where almost everyone has a short employment lifespan. Add to lawyers the obscene student loan debt that professional athletes don’t have to deal with and you see why Biglaw lawyers get depressed: their situation is horrible, but not horrible enough that normal people will give them any credit for complaining.
And it’s even hard to be a partner, as David explained, though partners are more analogous to superstar athletes — no matter how bad it gets, they can probably get another job, even if it requires playing in the Canadian Football League. I tend to think Helen in that story proves Staci’s point.
Biglaw might not die off entirely, but this was one piece explaining that this is more than a slump, no matter what the law school advocates proclaim.
So that’s kind of what the article wasn’t. What the article was was a little over 7000 words of “Mayer Brown sucks,” which was interesting in its own right. Or more specifically, Mayer Brown sucked, because the article lays a lot of the blame on the firm’s former London leader, Paul Maher. Maher now heads up the London office of Greenberg Traurig, whose attorneys are no doubt overjoyed to see a major magazine piece suggesting their guy ruined a venerable law firm.
The article was also — due to the cover photo of Bob Odenkirk — an excellent commercial for the impending return of Breaking Bad.
Next, Justice Scalia calls his colleagues Nazis…