Working For Free

Biglaw competition is getting intense. Everyone is chasing the same clients, while also deploying rearguard actions to protect institutional clients from being poached. Forget about lateral partners taking clients for a moment. I am talking about overt approaches from competing firms regarding existing matters, bearing promises of handling things more cheaply and more efficiently. In-house lawyers, under pressure to contain costs, almost have to listen. They may not act right away, but with each such approach another dent has been made in the Biglaw client-maintenance bumper.

It is no secret that in the face of declining overall demand (especially for the profit-pumping activities like mega-document reviews that were Biglaw’s joy to perform in the past), firms need to aggressively protect market share. While also seeking to grow market share. In an environment where more and more large clients are either (1) reducing the number of firms that they are willing to assign work to or (2) embracing an approach that finds no beauty contest too distasteful to engage in. So partners, at least those tasked with finding work for everyone to do, are falling back on a tried-and-true “sales approach” — putting things on sale.

How bad has it gotten?

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First, because it’s required, Happy New Year. I don’t really care whether you had a nice holiday or New Year’s Eve, neither do the others that ask you and feign concern.

Now let’s move on to more important topics, like working for free.

We all do it. We all have the friend, the family member, the downtrodden college buddy out of work or just broke, or the person we owe a favor or for whom we want to do a favor because we just “feel bad,” or worse — we think something will come of it.

This week, a stat came out that there are 21,880 legal careers available for 44,000 law school graduates. I read it on the internet, so it must be true. If it is, it looks like there will be plenty of lawyers doing free work out of necessity, boredom, or as a marketing tactic.

For this discussion, actually, for most of the discussions here, I have to put in the “I know, moron” disclaimer. I know, moron, that there is no way to handle these situations with a bright line policy. For example, moron, I understand that pro bono work that you do to help the needy is not something for which you should consider charging a fee. But whenever someone writes anything on the internet, there is some moron out there who says, “But but but, what about the situation where… see, you’re wrong, you’re just wrong wrong wrong.”

So I will say this, most (he said “most”) of the time, doing work for free is a mistake….

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Despite the media echo chamber saying that the economy is improving, it’s obviously still tough to find work. Especially for lawyers. Everyone says you’re supposed to have a can-do attitude, but we sometimes prefer to think about all the things that you can’t do as an attorney.

Included in that list is getting a paying job at the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ has had a hiring freeze in place for a year now. We’ve heard reports of some thawing — i.e., selected parts of the DOJ receiving authorization to fill a handful of priority positions — but, for the most part, there are hardly any paying lawyer jobs to be had in that division of government.

Instead, U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country have been posting unpaid Special Assistant United States Attorney positions for some time now. We covered them last May. My colleague (and former assistant U.S. attorney) David Lat defended the SAUSA gigs somewhat, arguing that the nonpaying jobs might not be as bad as they seem. It’s fun, exciting work, and it provides valuable experience and serious professional credibility.

There is a crucial, ominous difference between then and now, though. Previous SAUSA jobs were generally aimed at entry-level or fairly junior attorneys. Now we’ve got a recent opening that’s asking for more.…

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Tom Wallerstein

When I started my firm, several mentors gave me the same advice: Don’t work for free. It’s easy to see the problem with working for free. Giving away what you’re trying to sell isn’t exactly in the business plan. Unfortunately, this sage advice can only really be learned the hard way, through experience.

Working for free can arise in many different ways. The most obvious example is a client who wants you to represent him but can only promise to pay you later.

Even if your gut tells you that taking on that client is a bad idea, this can be surprisingly tempting to a new firm or solo practice. For starters, there is such a thrill with getting your first client, or your first “real” client, or your first big client, or your first whatever client, that the excitement can cloud your better judgment. You will be tempted to overlook the red flags that you will not be paid for your work….

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Being a federal prosecutor, an assistant United States attorney (AUSA), is a great legal job. The work is interesting and challenging, you’re serving the public, and you’re paid decently — maybe not Biglaw bucks, but reasonably well when compared to many state government or public interest positions. And if you want to earn more money later, perhaps as your kids approach college age, you can walk through the revolving door into the world of private practice, which values AUSA experience.

I worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in my home state of New Jersey from 2003 to 2006 (under then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie). My colleagues enjoyed their work. I remember that when I interviewed for my position, I met one AUSA who told me, “I love my job so much, I’d do it for free!”

Well… would you? Because that’s what some U.S. attorney’s offices are offering: the opportunity to work there, for no pay, with a minimum commitment as to time period.

And apparently lawyers are lining up for the opportunity….

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