The good, the bad, and the fired: something of a weekly round-up of law industry news

2009 the worst year for layoffs

First “the fired:” last year, according to LawShucks, over 12,000 people in the legal services industry were laid off, which includes over four thousand lawyers.

This year’s story was largely written by the end of March, when 73% of the year’s total layoffs had happened, as we noted in our mid-year review. The pace has slowed even further since. Eighty-eight percent had been done by mid-year, leaving “just” 1,473 layoffs for the last six months of the year –four fewer than in a single week in March.

Most of the layoffs by March?  No wonder I couldn’t get an interview at a firm to save my life.  (And even more amazing that I landed in the great position I did.)

As if it isn’t bad enough that the legal industry went through the worst year ever for layoffs, budding young lawyers can expect to come into that market with well over $100k in debt.  Nearly a  third of students expect to carry over $120,000 in loans by graduation.  If my debt is any indication of the average debt load of graduating lawyers, then that one-third is right on target.  Unfortunately, this kind of debt load limits choices.  The same report indicates that nearly a third of those with a $120k loan balance plan on careers in public interest.  Although there are new federal programs designed to relieve the debt load of attorneys in public interest, your living standards or compensation aren’t anything like what the private sector offers.  I wonder how many students end up readjusting their career expectations based on the cost of school.  The upside?  At least the majority of students still believe that going to law school “substantially contributes to their acquisition of job or work-related knowledge or skills.”

Unbundling and practical skills trump school rank

I’ve heard that the word of ‘crisis’ in Mandarin is the same as the word for ‘opportunity.’  (I’m working my way through Rosetta Stone’s Mandarin, but I haven’t come across that word, yet.) And we’ve all heard anecdotally that the Obama Administration doesn’t want to waste a good crisis.  For the young lawyers coming into the legal industry in 2009 and this year, the good news is that the economic crisis is opening doors for those of us who weren’t at the top five schools or in the top ten percent of our class.  Some of the ways we can are in unbundling and in practical skills.

On unbundling, recently a couple of state supreme court justices, John Broderick Jr. of New Hampshire and Ronald George of California, have suggested that unbundling legal services–that is, offering to do just part of the legal representation, but not the full panoply of services, might give more people access to our services, especially those who otherwise might not be able to afford full representation.  Quoted in the ABA Journal:

With proper ethical safeguards, lawyers offering unbundled legal services—particularly solo practitioners–may be able to help some people who would otherwise have never hired a lawyer, they say. “For those whose only option is to go it alone, at least some limited, affordable time with a lawyer is a valuable option we should all encourage,” they write.

“We need members of the legal profession to join with us, as many have done, in meeting this challenge by making unbundled legal services and other innovative solutions—like self-help websites, online assistance programs and court self-help centers—work for all who need them.”

There are a lot of young solo practitioners out there, many not by choice.  It seems like providing services a la carte might be a way to get more business than might otherwise have been available to the new members of the bar.

On that note, practical skills are also going to become more valuable than rank.  As few bigger firms hire, or wait for the economy to pick up before returning to pre-2009 levels, it will be less important what your abilities were in law school relative to your piers and more important to lawyering skills, rainmaking, and practical ability.

“Firms are going to focus on what lawyers can actually do as opposed to what they should be doing at a particular level, class year or school they are coming from,” Beth Woods, managing director at legal recruiter Major Lindsey & Africa, told the ABA Journal.

At the very least, this levels the playing field.  Practical skills are going to bring the  best lawyers to the forefront.  My experience in law school was that the academic distinctions, generally, between the top and the bottom of the class were few, where as the ability to hustle, persuade, write, and network were greater.  However, law school doesn’t really test these skills, except in a few competitions such as moot court.  As a result, the spoils go to the winners, despite the fact that the winners are determined by a criteria that may not be completely reflective of the real world.  With the economy in the dumps, though, more of us have had to enter the real world (in contrast to the lockstep of the firm) and are facing the reality of actually having to work.  I guess we’ll see?

I’m not the only one wondering this.  Inside counsel, who often hire the firm to manage their litigation, have begun to question the value of the untrained associates employed by the firms.

Corporate counsel say they see the point of paying top dollar for law firm partners, but openly wonder whether first-year associates at major law firms, in particular, are worth what they cost.

Worth it? or not?

The Bad: judges with too much of the wrong experience a bad thing, says Scalia

One of my favorite members of the SCOTUS to follow is Antonin Scalia.  Whether I agree with him or not, he always has something interesting, insightful, inflammatory, or refreshing to say.

From the ABA Journal:

When he was nominated to the bench, Scalia said in a Monday speech, there were three justices with no prior judicial experience, the Associated Press reports. He told a luncheon sponsored by the Mississippi College School of Law that he’s worried about the trend to nominate only justices with prior judicial experience.

A varied career brings additional insights, Scalia said. “That’s why I think it’s good for the court to have people of varying backgrounds.”

Scalia said he is worried the trend is leading to the European system, where law graduates choose whether to become lawyers or judges, and stay in that position their entire careers.

People with only judicial experience “come to think the government is always right,” he said. “Now you contrast that with the Anglo-Saxon system where, in the most important courts, the judges not only have not been spending their whole lives with their snout in the public trough, they’ve been suing the government. They’ve been defending their clients against the government. [It’s] a different mindset.”

What do you think? Too much experience a bad thing?  Should more private practitioners be appointed the bench?


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