by Patrick Appel
A reader writes:
I can't understand Conor's contempt for us recent law school graduates. Sure, it's easy to make fun of the stereotypical corporate attorney who gets paid $500 dollar an hour to pick his nose, but most of us don't fit that bill. I recently graduated from a private law school and put myself six figures in debt to do it. I spent my time in law school doing legal aid work. All of my clients were poor; most were elderly and/or veterans. I defended them against criminal charges, against predatory landlords, and helped them fight through government red tape.
The economy being what it is, only the top five in my graduating class had what you would consider "big law firm" jobs waiting for them after they graduated. Most of my class is struggling to find jobs that will pay us enough to live on while paying off our loans. One of my classmates left a $120K a year job to go to law school, and now after three years, he can't find a job that pays more than $50K a year.
I'm interviewing for those misery-inducing summer associateships right now and share some of Conor's sentiments. But it is a tad reductionist to portray all expensive legal work as highlighting discovery documents for mergers and acquisitions. I am looking to practice in the tax and bankruptcy fields, and the level of study, hard work, and attention to detail required is NOT something I could have mustered as a paralegal. Granted that the example cited was meant to illustrate how far goes the absurdity that is the legal hiring process. But it is only fair to note that, for many firms, the summer hiring is not just to show gunners the nicest wood-paneled office in which to be miserable - it is to get the jump on those attorneys capable of developing genuine expertise in difficult - and socially necessary - fields of law.
The bubble has been bursting for awhile now. Personally, I passed the bar exam a few years ago and have yet to land an actual job. Instead I've been a legal temp working when I can. When I'm lucky the gig lasts for a few months. When I'm not so lucky there is no paycheck for a couple months. The legal temp industry has mushroomed in the past 10 years. What is it that we temps do? We are the ones doing the work described in Conor's post. Pretty much every gig is poring over discovery documents in lawsuits between major corporations. In some places the newer associates do take on that work, but the work now largely falls onto teams of temp attorneys. If the newer associates are involved they are usually supervising.
We make far from six figures. Instead the going rate here in the midwest is $19 an hour, with no benefits, overtime pay only if we are lucky, and it doesn't add anything to the resume that would benefit in finding permanent work. It is a lot less that the associates make, usually less that the paralegals earn and sometimes even less than the firm's secretaries. You can make more on the coast, but that usually tops out at around $30 something an hour. I can't claim it is hard work, often a trained monkey could do it, and there are certainly a lot of things we could do that would pay less, but it doesn't do much to put a dent in the six figure student loans many attorneys end school with. Finally, despite licensed attorneys and having 7+ years of college, temp attorneys are more treated like school children than professional employees in many places with timed bathroom breaks, no phone use allowed, and divulging as little information on the project status as possible. As the number of law schools grow and churn out far more attorneys than there are positions available this underclass of attorneys is growing and being exploited by the big law firms.
I'll end with a link to the main blog covering the temp attorney world. The blog can be rather nasty, but so can the working conditions at times.
Conor is so right on here. I'm blessed to work for a small firm that bills on a fixed fee basis. The billable hour is Satan incarnate and has sucked the souls right out of countless eager associates and grizzled partners. I don't make as much money as the associates at the big firms do, but the quality of my life is immeasurably better than theirs.