WHEN IS BAD NEWS REALLY GOOD NEWS IN DISGUISE?

One of my former undergraduate students sent me a link to a WSJ.com article on the dismal job market for graduating law students. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704866204575224350917718446.html)

Of course, the focus is where it always is: on reduced hiring at the nation’s largest firms.

This is not news to most of us in the profession. Big firms started laying off associates in big numbers shortly after the financial collapse in the fall of 2008. Last year, the Am Law 100 saw its first year-over-year reduction in attorney headcount since 1993. (http://www.law.com/jsp/tal/PubArticleTAL.jsp?id=1202448340864&Lessons_of_The_Am_Law_&hbxlogin=1)

Large firms always get the editorial lead on this subject, in part because that’s where most top students in the best law schools seek to begin their careers. Why they flock in that direction is a complicated question. Herd behavior accounts for some of it, but one factor has assumed overwhelming power in their decision-making calculus: When law degrees come with six-figure student loan debt, financial reality pushes graduates toward biglaw, which shows them the money.

Here’s the hitch. Few know what awaits them if they land one of those increasingly elusive starting positions. For some, the fit works. But for too many, the surprise turns out to be unpleasant.

In its 2007 “Pulse of the Profession” survey, the ABA found that big firm attorneys were unhappier with their careers than any lawyer group. Only 44% gave a positive response to the statement: “I am satisfied with my career.”  (http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/pulse_of_the_legal_professionunhappiest)

In contrast, lawyers working in the public sector reported an overall satisfaction rate of 68%.

Getting a public sector law job isn’t easy, either. But it’s curious that the nation’s largest firms continue to dominate the discussion, even though the biggest 250 firms employ fewer than 15% of all attorneys. When you consider associate and non-equity partner attrition rates from those places, the myopia becomes even more puzzling. Very few graduates who begin their careers in such places will stay for more than a few years.

So for current and prospective law students (and attorneys who have lost their jobs), short-term unemployment could become a catalyst for reassessment that leads to longer-term personal rewards.

But I also understand human nature. In the end, the shiny brass ring will continue to blind many people. American Lawyer recently reported that as headcount and average gross revenues declined in 2009 for the Am Law 100, average equity profits per partner increased — to $1.26 million.

How, you might ask, could that happen and what does it mean for those on the inside? I have my own views; they’re in my new novel, The Partnership. (http://www.amazon.com/Partnership-Novel-Steven-J-Harper/dp/0984369104/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273000077&sr=1-1)

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