Junior associates

My first job out of law school was at a five-lawyer employment-law boutique: two partners, two other associates, and me. (OK, it was my only job out of law school; I started my firm after four years at this boutique.) The other two associates were third-years when I started. To be sure, they were both excellent lawyers and had already gained much experience working in a small firm with top-quality partners.

(I’ve often said that I’d take a third-year small-firm associate over a Biglaw third-year any day. The Biglaw associates have spent two years reading cases and writing memos; the small-firm lawyers have actually been doing, you know, lawyer work.)

I got along well with both associates, but one of them had more of a hierarchical view of the firm. One day, after I’d been there a couple months, that associate said to me, “I have an assignment for you.”

Being the new kid at the firm, the proper and deferential response might have been “Great. Thanks. Happy to help.” But my answer was less proper and by no means deferential.

And even though it ruffled some feathers, I’d recommend it to any new associate at a small firm. What I said was …

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s new column for in-house counsel.

When I moved in-house ten months ago, my phone started to ring off the hook — and not just from folks I hadn’t spoken to in years, who thought that I’d now be itching to retain them. I also got a few calls from people who were simply curious about the difference between working in-house and working at a law firm.

One of the differences is self-evident: You arrive at work on your first day at a corporation, and you devote that day entirely to ministerial crap. You spend an hour completing immigration forms, spend an hour having your photograph taken for various ID cards, fill out your health insurance and retirement benefit forms, create passwords for a dizzying array of computer databases, set up your computer to receive corporate training, and then realize that everyone is heading home.

Ouch! Another wasted day! You didn’t do a minute of billable work. You might as well have been on vacation today, because you did nothing that could legitimately be charged to a client.

But wait….

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Members of the “lost generation” who managed to snag those elusive Biglaw offers are generally being viewed as welcome additions to their firms.  According to our survey results, the majority of respondents report that Class of 2009 and 2010 associates started on time, and have enough billable work.

Although most of the more senior associates think the first-year associates will be cut first if the economy heads south again, a number of newbies are actually very confident about their job security. (That’s especially true of first-years at this New York firm.)

What are some of the other survey findings?

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David Levi

Dean David Levi of Duke Law School

Law schools — as Elie likes to remind readers on a frequent basis — are businesses. Like any good CEO should, Duke Law School dean David Levi has written an editorial defending his product: young lawyers.

In the National Law Journal, he starts off by acknowledging that the legal market for young lawyers is in worse shape than Duke’s reputation after the lacrosse scandal, and that this is “understandable” given the laws of supply and demand. (A subtle acknowledgment of there being too many law schools?) He then writes:

What is not understandable is the surprising amount of criticism heaped upon younger lawyers, offered as if to justify placing a disproportionate share of the economic downturn on their shoulders.

The criticism comes from law firm managers, in-house counsel and former lawyers who now comment on the legal profession…

Ahem. *Uncomfortable pause.*

They most likely represent a minority view, but they are vocal. They say that clients are no longer willing to pay for the work of young associates because their work is “worthless.” We might expect clients to make any argument that could lead to a lower bill, particularly during an economic downturn. But it is wrong and surprising for experienced lawyers inside and outside of firms to acquiesce in, even reinforce, this line of argument.

So how does Dean Levi undermine the argument?

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It’s pretty tough being a first-year associate these days. You’re working hard, you’re terrified of getting Lathamed, and you can’t even complain, because everybody thinks you should be grateful to have a job.

But at least you don’t have to deal with bright and unbroken summer associates, rolling through your office with smoke billowing up their asses at every point. The recession has taken its toll on summer associate programs too.

At Sheppard Mullin, however, summer associates are actually making more money (per paycheck) than first-year associates. In fact, the summers are even making more than some second-year associates.

How did this happen?

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In the movie The Untouchables, Sean Connery counsels Kevin Costner: “If you don’t want to get a rotten apple, pick one fresh off the tree.” Apparently, Hewlett-Packard is taking the same advice; instead of hiring in-house attorneys seasoned in Biglaw firms, HP is getting its next crop of legal help directly from the nation’s top law schools. The Recorder reports (gavel bang: ABA Journal):

This fall, Hewlett-Packard is going where few corporate law departments have gone before: hiring fresh graduates for full-time in-house positions.

Four first-year associates will join HP in Palo Alto, Calif., in September — one from Harvard, two from Northwestern and one from UC-Berkeley. The associates will earn $115,000 per year plus a $15,000 signing bonus and undergo a training program similar to the type installed recently at firms like Howrey and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

We just did a report about how the lawyer training programs offered by firms like Howrey weren’t catching on. But perhaps HP can offer the renowned better lifestyle of in-house attorneys to buttress their below Biglaw market salary?

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There’s a reason why our weekly column by Law Shucks has been retitled from “This Week in Layoffs” to “This Week in Biglaw.” The pace of law firm layoffs has slowed dramatically. They haven’t stopped completely, and we suspect that many firms are still conducting “stealth layoffs” (which we welcome tips about — just email us). But many firms have stopped cutting, and some are even hiring again. Last month the legal sector added 300 jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In terms of the bigger picture, we’re not out of the economic woods just yet — Europe’s economic troubles have led to increased chatter about a possible double-dip recession — but things are definitely improving. Here’s one sign, reported earlier this week by the Associated Press:

One sign of better economic times is when more people start finding jobs. Another is when they feel confident enough to quit them. More people quit their jobs in the past three months than were laid off — a sharp reversal after 15 straight months in which layoffs exceeded voluntary departures, suggesting the job market is finally thawing.

In addition to the strengthening job market, there’s another reason for increased voluntary movement: overwork and discontent among those who managed to hang on to their jobs in the recession….

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It’s been a while since we checked in with the coming junior associate apocalypse that is legal outsourcing. Rest assured, LPOs around the globe are working hard to make sure that the Biglaw junior associate becomes extinct — at least as we know it.

There’s a fascinating article on Law21 that discusses the evolution of legal process outsourcing — and what LPOs need to do next:

Still in its relative infancy, legal process outsourcing has already had a huge impact on the legal services marketplace: scoring major deals with the likes of Microsoft and Rio Tinto, garnering the attention of private-equity investors, and helping to expose the degree to which law firms have overcharged for the simplest legal work, among other accomplishments. But this impact has set off two important chains of events.

The first affects LPOs themselves: they now need to move their value proposition beyond cost savings in a market they helped to make more sophisticated. The second affects everyone: the legal profession’s response to LPO is having an unexpected effect on how legal work is distributed and how legal resources are allocated.

Some law firms still seem to be fighting the last war and are committed to fending off outsourcing until the bitter end. But other firms are preparing themselves for the next war: remaining the primary legal advisor to their clients in a world where the clients themselves can go to a number of providers to get the work done…

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