This was first posted January 10, 2011.
The Millennials, and others in their 20’s or 30’s, go to law school hoping to win the big prize of a job on graduation with a six-figure starting salary at a large prestigious law firm. Big Law, as it’s called, is said to be offering starting salaries of $160,000. Well, that’s outdated news. Big Law is now shedding more young lawyers than it’s hiring. The other reality is that even during the hey day of Big Law only one in twenty (or even fewer) law graduates won that prize. The cliche used as the title of this post is a simple reminder that even for those who win the prize, they are entering a world that may give them the indigestion from hell. The others might spend months after graduation looking for some sort of law-related employment, while waiting tables or stocking shelves at a big box store to pay the rent. If they financed their law-school education with student loans, as most probably did, then they have to deal with being heavily burdened with a ton of non-dischargeable debt and poor job prospects. It’s just not possible to repay $250,000 on a ten-dollar-an-hour job at Applebees or Home Depot.
Law school itself is a frantic three years of unbelievable mountains of reading and writing and thinking and arguing. Some thrive under that but nearly everyone looks forward to a slower pace after graduation. Those who win the contest and land a Big Law job may be surprised to find they will be expected to gorge down even more the same pie. Free time? Leisure time? Forget it.
In order to pay a new associate $160,000 a year the firm needs for that associate to bring in at least three times that amount for the firm. Thus an associate’s hourly billings must first of all be collectible by the firm and amount to at least $480,000. Even assuming the firm can persuade its clients to pay $200 and hour for the work of a brand new law graduate, that will require 2,400 billable hours a year. A normal 40-hour work week of 50 weeks a year equals 2,000 working hours. But the firm doesn’t care how many hours the new associate is in the office, only how many of those hours are billable to a paying client. Even if every minute in the office were billable that’s still a 48-hour work week. Since every minute is not billable the new associate can look forward to endless 60-70 hour weeks for at least 7 years before…what? “Up or out” is what they usually call it. “Up” used to mean becoming a partner in the firm. Nowadays it might be just an extension of time for a particularly valuable associate who is never going to be a partner. A permanent grunt is a more apt description. “Out” still means the same thing. It means you are no longer wanted, you have to look for a new job as a lawyer who was passed over for partner.
There is a third possibility that might be the worst of all. Many who make “partner” find out that just because you are called a partner doesn’t have to mean very much. It may just be a way for the firm to put you on a draw that has to be justified by the firm’s profits. Since you are now a “partner” you share in the risks and fortunes of the firm, supposedly. In reality, a new partner may find herself doing the same work for the same 60-70 hour weeks, and making even less money that when she was an associate. [notice how I used the feminine pronoun following the now required PC format that dominates the legal world].
There is a long article in the New York Times today with much more for anyone planning to go to law school. It’s an eye opener, a must read for anyone planning a legal career. No one is glad to be old but it made me thankful that part of my life is behind me.