The Big Firm


My oldest daughter recently graduated from college, where she has long considered a career in law. I have (at least) two persons I know well who have pursued legal careers: one a long-time friend dating back to college days, and the other my brother-in-law. The former practiced briefly on the 67th floor of a major, big city firm before he quickly wearied of it, picked up stakes, moved to a small northern town, set up his own shop, where he has flourished helping people in genuine need. The latter went to a top law school, took a job at a major firm in a big city, and has spent his life wondering whether he made a good choice. When my daughter was considering whether to go to law school my friend encouraged her with great enthusiasm while my brother-in-law asked me if I had talked her out of it yet, grousing that he would “never allow” one of his kids to get into the practice of law.

Comes now this interesting read at The New Republic on the fate of big law firms. (I should note that Mayer Brown, the firm examined in the article, is the one at which my brother-in-law works). My guess is that few will lament the passing, or at least winnowing, of these firms. But there’s a lot of human capital being wasted, as well as imagination. The path most students seem to want to take is to get into the most prestigious school they can, take on tons of debt, and lock themselves into a partnership track in a big city firm, where they have to navigate the machinations of their co-workers and the soullessness of much of their work. But they’d be well advised to take something akin to my friend’s path: go to a school where you take on no debt, which will create different options for you, including the ability to transplant to smaller towns or rural areas, which still need lawyers to do important work such as personal injury claims.

I was especially struck by this in the story:

In May, I spoke to a former Mayer Brown associate who joined the firm’s finance group out of law school in 2001 before transferring to the pensions department so she could work saner hours. The associate, call her Helen (not her real name), survived two rounds of layoffs, then got pregnant in 2009. Helen had previously felt she was on track to make partner—her performance reviews were consistently strong—but she began to worry as she was preparing to go on maternity leave. “We would have these group meetings where we’d talk about billable hours, how down they were for our group. I knew that, if there was another layoff, we were going to be hit.”

Helen’s son was born on March 19, 2010. Just before he turned three weeks old, she received the call she’d been dreading. Mayer Brown gave her the rest of her maternity leave, plus another three months pay as severance. It was, under most circumstances, a fair offer. But Helen was in a bind. Her husband was a stay-at-home dad, and the couple owned a condominium in downtown Chicago. “I sent out a ridiculous number of resumés,” she says. “If I didn’t have a job lined up by time the time the severance ended, I didn’t have a way to make payments on my house.” She landed two or three interviews and no offers. “The market was so bad in the spring of 2010. Not a single law firm was hiring.”

Inevitably, the bank foreclosed on her condo. She and her husband relocated to the Michigan town where he grew up, and she eventually joined a local firm. Her annual salary when she left Mayer Brown was $230,000. Last year she made $40,000. It was barely enough to put food on the table and clothe her children, much less keep up with tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt. “There’s probably a bankruptcy in our future. I don’t think there’s a way out of it,” Helen told me. “In ten years, hopefully we’ll be financially recovered, we can buy a house, have a credit card again.” Before we hung up, I pointed out that the legal market had improved since 2010. Why not look for another fancy job in Chicago? “There’s no way I would go back to Big Law,” she said. “I’m doing a lot of criminal law now. I love it. It’s originally what I’d intended to do when I went to law school.”

Imagine that: doing satisfying work in the town where you grew up.

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