The Law Firm Bubble Bursts

by Conor Friedersdorf

The New York Times chronicles the terrible job prospects at big law firms. I feel for this year's graduates, especially folks like this guy:

After he lost his job as a television reporter two years ago, Derek Fanciullo considered law school, thinking it was a historically sure bet. He took out “a ferocious amount of debt,” he said $210,000, to be exact and enrolled last September in the School of Law at New York University.

“It was thought to be this green pasture of stability, a more comfortable life,” said Mr. Fanciullo, who had heard that 90 percent of N.Y.U. law graduates land jobs at firms, and counted on that to repay his loans. “It was almost written in stone that you’ll end up in a law firm, almost like a birthright.”

Despite my empathy for people whose plans were ruined by changing economic circumstances, however, I cannot help but think that overall the decline of big law firms is a great thing for society. It is perverse that every year America sends thousands of its brightest young people to be paid six figures to pore over discovery documents in lawsuits between big corporations. The billable hour is itself an absurd method for determining the price tag of legal services in many situations where it is used.

And the lavish spending law firms rain down on summer associates is basically a status game where everyone invests lots of resources to convince people with degrees from prestigious schools that theirs is the best wood paneled office in which to be miserable in subsequent years, a transaction that somehow allows the firm to charge a client $500 an hour for a Harvard graduate to do highlighting that any halfway intelligent paralegal could manage if only American lawyering weren't a risk-averse, liability obsessed cartel.