ASSOCIATE PAY AND PARTNER MALFEASANCE

Cravath, Swaine & Moore raised first-year associate salaries from $160,000 to $180,000 — the first increase since January 2007. As most law firms followed suit, some clients pushed back.

“While we respect the firms’ judgment about what best serves their long-term competitive interests,” wrote a big bank’s global general counsel, “we are aware of no market-driven basis for such an increase and do not expect to bear the costs of the firms’ decisions.”

Corporate clients truly worried about the long-run might want to spend less time obsessing over young associates’ starting salaries and more time focusing on the behavior of older attorneys at their outside firms. In the end, clients will bear the costs of short-term thinking that pervades the ranks of big firm leaders. Some already are.

Historical Perspective

Well-paid lawyers never generate sympathy. Nor should they. All attorneys in big firms earn far more than most American workers. But justice in big law firms is a relative concept.

Back in 2007 when associate salaries first “jumped” to $160,000, average profits per equity partner for the Am Law 100 were $1.3 million. After a slight dip to $1.26 million in 2008, average partner profits rose every year thereafter — even during the Great Recession. In 2015, they were $1.6 million — a 27 percent increase from seven years earlier.

In 2007, only 19 firms had average partner profits exceeding $2 million; in 2015 that group had grown to 29. But the average doesn’t convey the real story. Throughout big law, senior partners have concentrated power and wealth at the top. As a result, the internal compensation spread within most equity partnerships has exploded.

Twenty years ago, the highest-paid equity partner earned four or five times more than those at the bottom. Today, some Am Law 200 partners are making more than 20 times their lowest paid fellow equity partners in the same firm.

It Gets Worse

Meanwhile, through the recent prolonged period of stagnant demand for sophisticated legal services, firm leaders fueled the revolution of partners’ rising profits expectations by boosting hourly rates and doubling leverage ratios. That’s another way of saying that they’ve adhered stubbornly to the billable hours model while making it twice as difficult for young attorneys to become equity partners compared to 25 years ago.

The class of victims becomes the entire next generation of attorneys. Short-term financial success is producing costly long-term casualties. But those injuries won’t land on the leaders making today’s decisions. By then, they’ll be long gone.

So What?

Why should clients concern themselves with the culture of the big firms they hire? For one answer, consider two young attorneys.

Associate A joins a big firm that pays well enough to make a dent in six-figure law school loans. But Associate A understands the billable hour regime and the concept of leverage ratios. Associate attrition after five years will exceed 80 percent. Fewer than ten percent of the starting class will survive to become equity partners. Employment at the firm is an arduous, short-term gig. In return for long-hours that overwhelm any effort to achieve a balanced life, Associate A gets decent money but no realistic opportunity for a career at the firm.

Associate B joins one of the few firms that have responded to clients demanding change away from a system that rewards inefficiency. Because billable hours aren’t the lifeblood of partner profits, the firm can afford to promote more associates to equity partner. Associate B joins with a reasonable expectation of a lengthy career at the same firm. Continuity is valued. Senior partners have a stake in mentoring. The prevailing culture encourages clients to develop confidence in younger lawyers. Intergenerational transitions become seamless.

Associate A tolerates the job as a short-term burden from which escape is the goal; Associate B is an enthusiastic participant for the long haul. If you’re a client, who would you want working on your matter?

The Same Old, Same Old

As clients have talked about refusing to pay for first-year associate time on their matters, big firms’ upward profit trends continue. But the real danger for firms and their clients is a big law business model that collapses under its own weight.

As it has for the past eight years, Altman-Weil’s recently released 2016 “Law Firms In Transition” survey confirms again the failure of leadership at the highest levels of the profession. Responses come from almost half of the largest 350 firms in the country. It’s a significant sample size that provides meaningful insight into the combination of incompetence and cognitive dissonance afflicting those at the top of many big firms.

When asked about the willingness of partners within ten years of retirement to “make long-term investments in the firm that will take five years or more to pay off,” fewer than six percent reported their partners’ “high” willingness to make such investments. But at most firms, partners within ten years of retirement are running the place, so the investments aren’t occurring.

Almost 60 percent of firm leaders reported moderate or high concern about their law firms’ “preparedness to deal with retirement and succession of Baby Boomers.” Meanwhile, they resolve to continue pulling up the ladder, observing that “fewer equity partners will be a permanent trend going forward” as “growth in lawyer headcount’ remains a “requirement for their firms’ success.”

Do law firm leaders think they are losing business to non-traditional sources and that the trend will continue? Survey says yes.

Do law firm leaders think clients will continue to demand fundamental change in the delivery of legal services? Survey says yes. (56 percent)

Do law firm leaders think firms “are serious about changing their legal service delivery model to provide greater value to clients (as opposed to simply reducing rates)”? Survey says no. (66 percent)

Do clients think law firms are responding to demands for change? Survey says most emphatically no! (86 percent)

But do law firm leaders have confidence that their firms are “fully prepared to keep pace with the challenges of the new legal marketplace”? Survey says yes! (77 percent)

If cognitive dissonance describes a person who tries to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously, what do you call someone who has three, four or five such irreconcilable notions?

At too many big law firms the answer is managing partner.

LAW SCHOOLS AND THE NEW YORK TIMES

On June 17, Noam Scheiber’s article, “An Expensive Law Degree and No Place to Use It,” appeared in The New York Times. He focused on individual human tragedies resulting from the legal education bubble.

Four days later, Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon countered with his Times column, “Law School Still a Solid Investment, Despite Pay Discrepancies.” Notwithstanding the title, he’s moving in Scheiber’s direction.

Learning from Mistakes

Professor Solomon’s prior ventures into legal education haven’t gone particularly well. In November 2014, he wrote “[T]he decline in enrollment could lead to a shortage of lawyers five years from now.” Highlighting Thomas Jefferson School of Law as one of the marginal schools fighting to remain alive, Solomon suggested, “It may be tempting to shut them in these difficult times, but it can cost tens of millions to open a new one. Better to invest and cut back on expenses for a while and see what happens.”

Consistent with his area of expertise — financial and securities regulation — Professor Solomon was relying on the market to work. But in legal education, it never gets a chance. Bankruptcy laws and the federal student loan program insulate law schools from accountability for their graduates’ poor employment outcomes.

Waiting to “see what happens” became a triumph of hope over reality. For the Thomas Jefferson class of 2013, the full-time long-term JD-required employment rate nine months after graduation was 29 percent. For the class of 2014, it was 30 percent. Even with an additional month for the class of 2015 to find jobs, the ten-month FTLT-JD-required employment rate was 24 percent. But the school did win that nagging fraud case brought by a recent graduate.

In April 2015, Solomon’s column on legal education and the profession was so riddled with errors that I climbed out of a hospital bed to write a responsive post culminating in this question, “Whatever happened to The New York Times fact-checker?”

Almost There

With all of that carnage in the rearview mirror, Professor Solomon’s June 21 article assumes a more moderate tone. Most importantly, he acknowledges the different legal education markets that exist for new graduates: “[I]t is clear that it is harder out there for the lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

Noting that some big firms announced starting salary increases to $180,000 for the class of 2016, he cautions, “Only the lucky 17 percent of graduates earn salaries this high. To be in this group, you needed to go to a top 10 school or graduate in the higher ranks of the top quartile of law schools. Things are harder for every other law graduate.”

Solomon also accepts the bimodal distribution of starting salaries that results from the different markets for law graduates: “[W]hile 17 percent of graduates earned median salary of $160,000 in 2014, about half had a median starting salary of $40,000 to $65,000.”

The article could and should have ended with this: “Either way, it is clear that it is harder out there for lower-tier law schools and their graduates.”

In Defense of Fellow Professors?

Four days before Solomon’s article, Noam Scheiber’s Times piece profiled once-hopeful students at Valparaiso University School of Law. They’d incurred massive debt for a JD degree, but couldn’t find jobs requiring one. Scheiber also quoted a professor who recently headed the school’s admissions committee: “If we could go back, I think we should have erred a little more on the side of turning people down.”

Immediately after the publication of Scheiber’s article, social media took over when a law professor complained in an open letter to Scheiber: “Have you seen this line of peer-reviewed research, which estimates the boost to earning from a law degree including the substantial proportion of law graduates who do not practice law?”

The cited “line of peer-reviewed research” consisted of one study, co-authored by that professor in 2013. When Scheiber invited the professor to identify any factual errors in his article, the professor provided six alleged mistakes. For anyone interested in diving into those weeds, Scheiber posted the six items and his response on his Facebook page, including this:

“It’s not worth reviewing the controversy about your work on law graduate earnings here, since the criticisms are well-established. But suffice it to say, I think it’s strange to respond to a claim that the economic prospects of people graduating after the recession have fundamentally changed relative to those who graduated before the recession with a study that only includes people who graduated prior to 2009.”

(UPDATE: On Friday, June 24, the professor responded to Scheiber’s response.)

Among the many other criticisms to which Scheiber refers is the 2013 study’s failure to consider differences among law schools in their graduates’ incomes. In other words, it ignored the actual law school markets.

Nearing the Finish Line

Professor Solomon’s latest article centers on the importance of recognizing those different markets. But he still cites the 2013 study for the proposition that “most law students earned a premium of hundreds of thousands of dollars over what they would have earned had they not gone to law school, even taking into account the debt they accrue.”

Even so, Solomon’s slow walk away from the 2013 study improves on his April 2015 column. There, he relied on it to suggest that an “acceleration in compensation results in a premium of $1 million for lawyers over their lifetime compared with those who did not go to law school.” Now he’s down to “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for “most law students.”

Professor Solomon teaches at a top school, UC-Berkeley. He knows that plenty of students at other schools have a tough road ahead. Solomon no longer refers to an overly broad $1 million lifetime premium. He has also added a qualifier (“most law students” — meaning a mere 51 percent) — to whatever he thinks the study proves about the economic benefit of a JD. In other words, he has rendered the 2013 study meaningless to anyone considering law school today.

So why does Professor Solomon continue to cite the study at all? Better not to ask. Accept progress wherever you find it.

 

THE DANGEROUS MILLION-DOLLAR DISTRACTION

A new study, renamed “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” is the latest effort to defend a troubled model of legal education. It’s especially disheartening because, before joining Seton Hall University School of Law in 2010, co-author Michael Simkovic was an associate at Davis, Polk & Wardwell in 2009-2010. At some level, he must be aware of the difficulties confronting so many young law graduates.

Nevertheless, Simkovic and co-author Frank McIntyre (Rutgers Business School) “reject the claim that law degrees are priced above their value” (p. 41) and “estimate the mean pre-tax lifetime value of a law degree as approximately $1,000,000 (p. 1).”

As the academic debate over data and methodology continues, some professors are already relying on the study to resist necessary change. That’s bad enough. But my concern is for the most vulnerable potential victims caught in the crosshairs of the “Million Dollar Law Degree” media headlines taken from the article’s original title: today’s prelaw students. If they rely on an incomplete understanding of the study’s limitations to reinforce their own confirmation bias in favor of pursuing a legal career primarily for financial reasons, they make a serious mistake.

The naysayers are wrong?

The study targets respected academics (including Professors Herwig Schlunk, Bill Henderson, Jim Chen, Brian Tamanaha, and Paul Campos), along with “scambloggers” and anyone else arguing that legal education has become too expensive while failing to respond to a transformation of the profession that is reducing the value of young lawyers in particular. Professors Campos and Tamanaha have begun responses that are continuing. [UPDATE: Tamanaha’s latest is here.] Professor Brian Leiter’s blog has become the vehicle for Simkovic’s answers.

One obvious problem with touting the $1 million average is that, for the bimodal distribution of lawyer incomes, any average is meaningless. Professor Stephen Diamond offered a rebuttal to Campos that Simkovic endorsed, calculating the net lifetime premium at the median (midpoint) to be $330,000 over a 40-year career. That might be closer to reality. But a degree that returns, at most, a lifetime average of $687 a month in added value for half of the people who get it isn’t much of an attention-getter. As noted below, even that number depends on some questionable assumptions and, at the 25th percentile, the economic prospects are far bleaker.

Causation

In the haze of statistical jargon and the illusory objectivity of numbers, it’s tempting to forget a fundamental point: statisticians investigate correlations. Even sophisticated regression analysis can’t prove causation. Every morning, the rooster crows when the sun rises. After isolating all observable variables, that correlation may be nearly perfect, but the crowing of the rooster still doesn’t cause the sun to rise.

Statistical inference can be a useful tool. But it can’t bridge the many leaps of faith involved in taking a non-random sample of 1,382 JD-degree holders — the most recent of whom graduated in 2008 (before the Great Recession) and 40 percent of whom have jobs that don’t require a JD — and concluding that it should guide the future of legal education in a 1.5 million-member profession. (p. 13 and n. 31)

Caveats

Simkovic and McIntyre provide necessary caveats throughout their analysis, but potential prelaw students (and their parents) aren’t likely to focus on them. For example, with respect to JD-degree holders with jobs that don’t require a JD, they “suggest” causation between the degree and lifetime income premiums, but admit they can’t prove it. (p. 25)

Likewise, they use recessions in the late 1990s and early 2000s as proxies for the impact of the Great Recession on current law graduates (compared to bachelor’s degree holders) (p. 32), minimizing the importance of recent seismic shifts in the legal profession and the impact on students graduating after 2008. (Simkovic graduated in 2007.)

This brings to mind the joke about a law professor who offers his rescue plan to others stranded on a deserted island: “First, assume we have a boat…” The study finesses that issue with this qualification: “[P]ast performance does not guarantee future returns. The return to a law degree in 2020 can only be known in 2020.” (p. 38)

Similarly, the results assume: 1) total tuition expense of $90,000 (presumably including the present value cost of law school loan interest repayments; otherwise, that number is too low and the resulting calculated premium too high); 2) student earnings during law school of $24,000; 3) graduation from law school at age 25 (no break after college); and 4) employment that continues to age 65. (pp. 39-41) More pessimistic assumptions would reduce the study’s calculated premiums at all income levels. At some point below even the Simkovic-McIntyre 25th percentile, there’s no lifetime premium for a JD.

Conclusions

After a long list of their study’s “important limitations” — including my personal favorite, the inability to “determine the earnings premium associated with attending any specific law school” — the authors conclude: “In sum, a law degree is often a good investment.” (p. 50) I agree. The more important inquiry is: When isn’t it?

In his Simkovic-endorsed defense of the study, Professor Diamond offers a basic management principle: any positive net present value means the project should be a go. But attending law school isn’t an aggregate “project.” It’s an individual undertaking for each student. After they graduate, half of them will remain below the median income level — some of them far below it.

The authors dismiss Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections (pp. 6-7), but it’s difficult to ignore current reality. In 2012 alone, law schools graduated 46,000 new attorneys. For that class, nine months out only 10 percent of law schools (20 out of 200) had long-term full-time JD-required job placement rates exceeding 75 percent. The overall JD-job placement average for all law schools was 56 percent.

Some of the remaining 44 percent will do other things because they have no realistic opportunity for legal careers. Financially, it could even turn out okay for a lot of them. (In that respect, you have to admire the boldness of the authors’ footnote 8, citing the percentage of Senators and CEOs with JDs.)

But with better information about their actual prospects as practicing attorneys, how many would have skipped their three-year investments in a JD and taken the alternative path at the outset? That’s the question that the Simkovic/McIntyre study doesn’t pose and that every prospective law student should consider.

More elephants in the room 

Notwithstanding the economic benefits of a JD that many graduates certainly enjoy, attorney career dissatisfaction remains pervasive, even among the “winners” who land the most lucrative big firm jobs. That leads to the most important point of all. Anyone desiring to become an attorney shouldn’t do it for the money. Even the Simkovic/Mcntyre study with its many questionable assumptions proves that for thousands of graduates every year the money will never be there.

But the authors are undoubtedly correct about one thing: “The data suggests [sic] that law school loans are profitable for the federal government.” (p. 46) Law schools like them, too.

It doesn’t take a multiple regression analysis to see the problems confronting the legal profession — but it can be used to obscure them.

BONUS TIME – 2012

It’s always interesting when two respected legal writers approach the same story in different ways. That happened in the coverage of recently announced associate bonuses.

Ashby Jones at the Wall Street Journal penned an article in the November 27 print edition of the paper that ran under this headline:

“Cravath Sends Cheer — Law Firm Lifts Bonuses for Some Associates as Much as 60%”

As always, Jones accurately reports what is true, namely, that Cravath, Swaine & Moore led this year’s associate bonus announcements with an increase over last year’s base bonus levels. Five paragraphs in, he acknowledges that this significant bump still leaves associates well below the 2007 pay scale. The highest associate bonuses this year are $60,000, compared to $110,000 for combined regular and special bonuses in 2007.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times…

On the same day that Ashby Jones’s article ran in the WSJ, Peter Lattman at the New York Times was a bit more circumspect. In that paper’s print edition, the bold line that ran in the middle of the story reads:

“[Cravath’s] year-end awards set the bar for others, and the payouts are up a bit in 2012.”

Like Jones, Lattman observes that base bonus amounts are substantially higher than previously. But he correctly notes that “when spring bonuses are added to the equation, there has been little increase for Cravath’s associates over the last two years. The law firm did not award spring bonuses in 2012, but last year paid its associates a small stipend in addition to a year-end award. When 2011’s spring bonuses and year-end bonuses are added together, total bonus compensation actually exceeds this year’s level.”

Both Jones and Lattman report that Cravath had $3.1 million in average partner profits for 2011. For perspective, that’s slightly above the $3.05 average for 2006, and not all that far from the $3.3 million all-time high in 2007. Needless to say, associate bonuses haven’t enjoyed a similar recovery. But depending on what happens in the spring, they still could, which leads to a final point.

Who’s right?

The answer is Elie Mystal over at Above the Law. Mystal observes that spring bonuses more properly belong in the analysis of total compensation for the immediately preceding calendar year. That is, a bonus paid in early 2011 is really compensation for 2010.

The analysis is straightforward. Big law firms waiting for more complete information on how the fiscal year will end preserve flexibility by lowballing the November bonus numbers. Evidently, Cravath concluded that its $3.1 million average partner profits for 2011 were inadequate to justify any significant spring bonus for associates in early 2012.

The fate of the “special” bonus

The question now is whether spring bonuses are gone forever. After all, they first appeared as “special bonuses” — meaning that they came with this implied caveat: don’t build those dollars into next year’s expectations. Of course, that message has landed on deaf ears. But it gives firm leaders a way to convince themselves that it’s fair to leave associate compensation far below 2007 levels, even though average partner profits have recovered almost completely to those lofty heights. Indeed, some firms have even bested their pre-recession records.

In all of this, two things are working against associates who dream of a return to the good old days (of 2007). First, the glut of attorneys grows as the demand for new associates shrinks. Second, most law firm leaders are dealing with a revolution of rising expectations among senior equity partners. The potential loss of a rainmaker strikes fear in the hearts of many firm leaders.

But here’s a reason to hope. True visionaries seeking long-term institutional stability let such troublemakers walk. They promote cultural values that transcend the impact on the current year’s income statement. They let resulting gains in client service and attorney morale produce ample financial and non-financial rewards for all.

And all of this reveals itself in how partners at the top of a firm treat associates at the bottom — a place where too many seem to have forgotten that they themselves once stood.

BAD NUMBERS REVEALING WORSE TRENDS

By now, everyone interested in the job prospects for new lawyers has seen two recent headline items:

— Nine months after graduation, only 55 percent of the class of 2011 had full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree, and

— The median starting salary for all employed attorneys in the class of 2011 has dropped to $60,000 — from $72,000 only two years earlier.

The New York City Bar Association just formed a task force to wring its hands over the lawyer oversupply crisis — as if it were something new. A closer analysis of the salary data reveals several underlying realities that are even worse than that declining number suggests.

Digging deeper

For example, NALP’s press release about the median salary number came with this concluding sentence: “Salary information was reported for 65% of graduates reported to be working full-time in a position lasting at least one year.” If that means 35 percent of such workers with full-time jobs didn’t report their salary information, then the published median probably overstates the actual number — perhaps by a lot.

more detailed breakdown reveals that for the class of 2011, the $40,000 to $65,000 category accounted for 52 percent of all reported salaries. Compare that to the class of 2009: Two years ago, starting salaries of between $40,000 and $65,000 accounted for 42 percent of reported salaries. Today, more new lawyers are working for less money, but they’re still the lucky ones — law graduates who got full-time jobs.

The trend in law firm starting salaries is more dramatic: The median starting salary for law firms of all sizes dropped from $130,000 in 2009 to $85,000 in 2011.

Whither big law?

Two more bits of information offer some insight into what’s happening in the biggest law firms:

Only eight percent of 2011 graduates landed jobs in big firms of more than 250 attorneys.

— Entry level jobs that paid $160,000 a year accounted for only 16 percent of reported salaries in 2011. Even for the class of 2009 — graduating into the teeth of the Great Recession and widespread big firm layoffs — the $160,000 category accounted for 25 percent of reported salaries. And the 2009 denominator was bigger: 19,513 reported salaries v. 18,630 salaries in 2011. Importantly, the decline hasn’t resulted because big law firms have reduced their starting salaries; most haven’t.

Rather, as NALP’s Executive Director James Leipold explains, “[T]he downward shift in salaries is not, for the most part, the result of individual legal employers paying new graduates less than they paid them in the past. Although some firms have lowered their starting salaries, and we are starting to see a measurable impact from lower-paying non-partnership track lawyer jobs at large law firms, aggregate starting salaries have fallen over the last two years because graduates found fewer jobs with the highest-paying large law firms and many more jobs with lower-paying small law firms.”

Big law firms’ self-inflicted wounds

Surely, things are better than they were during the cataclysmic days of early 2009; equity partner profits have returned to pre-2008 peaks. So what’s happening? One answer is that large firms are increasing the ranks of non-equity partners. According to The American Lawyerthe number of non-equity partners grew by almost six percent in 2011. They now comprise fifteen percent of all attorneys in Am Law 100 firms.

As The American Lawyer’s editor in chief Robin Sparkman explains, “Some firms deequitized partners and pushed them into this holding pen. Other firms expanded the practice of moving potential equity partners (either homegrown or laterals) into this category — both to keep their PPP high and to give the lawyers a little breathing room before they face the rainmaking pressures of equity partnership.” I’d add one more category: some firms have increased the ranks of permanent non-equity partners.

Perilous short-termism

Edwin Reeser and Patrick McKenna have described how non-equity partners are profit centers. Keeping them around longer makes more money for equity partners, but creating that non-equity partner bubble comes at significant institutional costs. One is blockage.

For any firm, there’s only so much work to go around. Ultimately, the burgeoning ranks of non-equity partners has an adverse trickle down impact on those seeking to enter the big firm pipeline. Whether new graduates should have that aspiration is a different question, but the larger implications for the affected firms are clear: There’s less room for today’s brightest young law graduates.

Some leaders have decided that maximizing current equity partner profits is more important than securing, training and developing a future generation of talent for their law firms. Sooner than they realize, their firms will suffer the tragic consequences of that mistake.

BONUS TIME — AND ANOTHER UNFORTUNATE COMMENT AWARD

Above the Law’s David Lat wins my Unfortunate Comment Award with this assessment of Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s recent 2011 bonus announcement:

“My own take: these amounts — which are the same as the 2010 and 2009 bonus scales at CSM, except for the most-senior associates — are fair. The past three years — 2009, 2010, and 2011 — have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing. To the extent that firms are treading water a bit, it’s reasonable for them to keep associate compensation at the same levels.”

“Treading water a bit”?

Let’s start with the suggestion that “the past three years have been fine for Biglaw, but not amazing.” According to The American Lawyer, Cravath’s 2008 average equity partner profits were $2.5 million — admittedly a sharp decline from 2007. But it’s still pretty good and, since then, equity partner profit trees have resumed their growth to the sky.

As the economy struggled, Cravath’s average partner profits increased to $2.7 million in 2009 and to $3.17 million in 2010, according to the Am Law 100 surveys. That’s not “treading water.” It’s returning to 2007 profit levels — the height of “amazing” boom years that most observers had declared gone forever. Watch for 2011 profits to be even higher.

It’s fair [and] reasonable to keep associate compensation at the same levels as 2009 and 2010″

If Lat’s comparative baseline is the American labor force generally, his view of fairness has superficial appeal. To most people, Cravath’s bonuses atop base salaries starting at $160,000 are impressive — ranging from $7,500 (first-year associates) to $37,500 (seventh-year associates). Couple those numbers with big firm partner complaints that law schools fail to train lawyers for tasks in the big law world and perhaps associates should consider themselves fortunate that they’re not being asked to rebate a portion of their pay for the privilege billing long hours.

(There are problems with current legal education in America, but the critique that graduates aren’t prepared for big law practice misses several key points, including: Eighty-five percent of lawyers will never have big firm jobs, the vast majority of those who do won’t keep them for more than a few years, and most of the remaining survivors will find their careers surprisingly unsatisfying. For more, take a look at “A New Law School Mission.”)

But I digress. For now, the question is fairness. In law firms, it’s a relative concept — a point that causes Lat’s analysis to miss the mark badly.

As Cravath’s 2010 average equity partner profits have been returning to their 2007 high-water mark, compare them to associate bonuses, which haven’t:

Associate bonus after first full year

2007: $35,000, special $10,000

2011: $7,500

Second-year

2007: $40,000, special $15,000

2011: $10,000

Third-year

2007: $45,000, special $20,000

2011: $15,000

Fourth-year

2007: $50,000, special $30,000

2011: $20,000

Fifth-year

2007: $55,000, special $40,000

2011: $25,000

Sixth-year

2007: $60,000, special $50,000

2011: $30,000

Seventh-year

2007: $60,000, special $50,000

2011: $37,500

Earlier this year, Sullivan & Cromwell offered spring associate bonuses for 2010 ranging from $2,500 (first-year) to $20,000 (seventh-year). Cravath and others then followed suit. Even if that happens again this year, recent classes will still be far worse off than their 2007-era predecessors.

Meanwhile, law school tuition has continued to rise, so the newest associates have the biggest educational loans to repay. In the current buyer’s market for young attorneys, that’s more good news for big firms. Their associates — whose average billables are back over 2,000 hours again — won’t be going anywhere. Unless, of course, the staggering attrition rates needed to sustain the leveraged big law pyramid push them out the door. Viewed as an integrated system, the prevailing model functions effectively to produce and exploit an oversupply of lawyers.

Most big firms will follow Cravath’s lead. But they can afford to do better — a lot better — and they should. As associate bonuses have stagnated, the overall average equity partner profits for the Am Law 100 have returned to pre-recession levels — reaching almost $1.4 million in 2010.

How much is enough? More, apparently. According to the latest survey of Am Law 200 firm leaders currently appearing in the The American Lawyer, managing partners expect the upward profits trend to continue. Keeping the lid on associate compensation is a key to that strategy. It hasn’t been a great ride for the non-lawyer support staff, either.

Now you know why my next post will be titled, “Occupy Big Law.” I’m not kidding.

FROM THE SPORTS PAGE

Subtle clues revealing the cause of a fundamental problem confronting the legal profession are everywhere, even in the sports section.

Recently, the New York Times wrote about 26-year-old Josh Satin, who made his major league debut for the New York Mets on Sunday, September 4. This time of year, such stories about minor league ballplayers getting a chance to play for out-of-contention major league teams are common. Regrettably, one of my hometown franchises — the Cubs — affords such opportunities almost every year.

This line of the Satin article caught my eye:

“After graduating as a political science major from Cal, Satin was selected by the Mets in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. And like any number of 20-somethings with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects, he kept law school applications at the ready.”

Satin was drafted the  same year I began offering an advanced undergraduate course that targeted students like him. For many juniors and seniors who can’t decide what to do next, law school becomes a default solution that buys them more time. Sometimes it works out okay; for too many others, it’s a place where dreams go to die.

Bad information bears much of the blame for the problem of poor career choices that, in turn, contribute to widespread attorney dissatisfaction. Law schools skirting the outer limits of candor to fill their classrooms have made the problem worse. So has the transformation of big firms from a profession to a collection of short-term profit-maximizing businesses that use misguided metrics to drive decisions.

As a consequence, some not-so-funny things happened to many of those who went to law school for the wrong reasons. For starters, the promise of a secure future at a well-paying job turned out to be illusory. The persistent problem of lawyer oversupply rose to crisis levels during what would have been Satin’s first year of law school, if he’d gone. Since then, the market for new talent has gotten worse.

But even many who found decent legal jobs have been unpleasantly surprised. Popular images of dynamic lawyers engaged in courtroom battles widen the gap between student expectations and the reality they’ll encounter; that eventually makes for some very unhappy attorneys. By the time the truth hits, many find themselves burdened with educational debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the house.

That doesn’t mean no one should go to law school. The law is a great and noble pursuit in many ways. In fact, even the most pessimistic assessments suggest that about half of all attorneys enjoy satisfying careers. I sure did.

Nor does it mean that everyone who dreams of playing major league baseball — or any other high-profile job that the media infuses with irresistible glamour — should give it a shot. Everyone enjoys watching extraordinarily talented celebrities ply their trades, but for most of us, being a spectator is our highest and best use at such events. In his address to the Northwestern graduating class of 2011, Stephen Colbert referred to commencement speakers who tell college graduates to follow their dreams and asked, “What if it’s a stupid dream?”

But acknowledging the stupidity of a dream shouldn’t make law school the fallback answer to one of life’s most important questions, “Now what?”

I don’t know if Josh Satin will remain a major league ballplayer. If he doesn’t, I don’t know what he’ll do after that. But meanwhile, give him credit for having the courage to pursue passions for which he obviously has talent. It’s a safe bet that he’s happier than his college classmates “with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects [who] kept law school applications at the ready,” sent them in, and pursued legal careers for which they had incomplete knowledge, limited enthusiasm, or both. Compounding the difficulties with which they began law school, they’re now having trouble finding the secure, well-paying and exciting work that they thought would be waiting for them when they graduated.

It turns out that for most of the nation’s 50,000 annual graduates, those particular jobs were never there at all.