January 17, 2010
The Law Degree as "Golden Ticket"
Posted by Christine Hurt

In the NYT today an article appeared about the downturn in the legal services market entitled "No Longer Their Golden Ticket."  (A fairly uninspired headline, but that's beside the point.)  The article points out that law firms have shed associates and even partners in this recent downturn, so a law degree, even from a prestigious law school, is no longer a golden ticket.  My first reaction was wow, we have a short memory if anyone thought a law degree was a golden ticket anymore.

I took the LSAT in June 1989 in anticipation of starting law school in the Fall of 1990.  When I was in college, it was fairly well-known that students at my preferred school, the University of Texas, wrapped up their entire careers by the end of their first year.  (In fact, this assumption was not limited to UT, but extended to other Texas law schools.)  Big law firms had first-year summer programs in which summer associates who didn't you-know-what on anyone's pantleg were given offers to return the next summer, and then after another summer of restaurants, opera and major-league baseball games, second-year summer associates were given permanent offers.  These offer letters would get you letters of credit, mortgages, anything you wanted.  By the time I showed up to law school in 1990, most law firms had scrapped their first-year programs in what was proving to be an economic downturn in Texas.  These programs never returned to their earlier strength.  Firms realized they were expensive and didn't have great yields.  In the summer of 1992, law firms that usually gave offers to 90% of their class gave offers to 50%, or even less. 

But, we all figured that once you were in the door as a permanent associate, you were there for a good long time.  You might not make partner, but you had job security for the foreseeable future, and what 24 year-old can fathom seven years down the road anyway?  My fellow associates and I often would joke about how long a person could stay employed, taking home great money, and not do a darned thing.  We all agreed it was at least three or four years.  A story of mythological proportions was told to us about a senior partner in our section of an associate who was down right horrible.  At a partners' meeting, it was all agreed that he should be fired, but a year later, every partner was waiting for someone else to do it.  In my partner's words, "No one likes to tell someone they should be in a different line of work."  Even if associates were fired, they were usually given 6-12 months to vacate, which often became extended.  But then came the next downturn, beginning in 2000.  All of a sudden, associates got one year at the same law firm.  If your billables were low after one year, you were out and no 6-12 month hanging around, either.  Suddenly, billable benchmarks became billable minimums.  Law firms that had increased salaries twice or three times in the late 1990s were suddenly saying that the pay required performance, and there is nothing more stressful than trying to spin billable hours when there isn't any work.  (I was pretty good at going up and down the halls in 1994 like a beggar, asking partners and senior associates if they needed help.)

So in 2007, did no one remember 2001, much less 1993?  Yes, this is a brave new world now, and associates won't get a golden ticket, but I think some great marketing must have been going on if anyone believed they were still printing those.  However, this downturn does seem worse than earlier times, and so the expectations that are being lowered so dramatically may not bounce back so quickly.

One final note, the article seemed to emphasize as a horrible product of the downturn how stressful it is to be a junior associate these days, with a lot of pressure to bill, less perks and both too much/not enough hours to go around.  However, surely the worst consequence of the downturn is that fewer and fewer graduates are getting the opportunity to be so stressed out and oppressed.  (If readers didn't hate attorneys already, reading about these young people griping because they have to work so much and they aren't even getting the $160k they thought they would will probably recruit some new members of the lawyer-hating crowd.)  I suppose it was easier for a reporter to find junior associates listed in the Martindale-Hubbell (or whatever it's called these days) than to find the phone numbers of those still pounding the pavement.

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