Did you read it? Did you read Noam Scheiber’s New Republic article: The Last Days of Big Law: You can’t imagine the terror when the money dries up ?
The article addresses how law firms have fallen from the golden age and how this generation of law firm partners have been driven by greed. It all started when The American Lawyer started publishing the Profits-Per-Partner of law firms.
The article focuses primarily on Mayer Brown law firm, but as I read it, I thought it was written about my old law firm. When you read the article you might think it is describing your law firm.
At the risk of reminiscing about law firm life in the Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver days, I have to say that when I started practicing law in 1971, lawyers were not driven by greed. When I was an associate, I was never told I needed to bill more hours. I was never rewarded because I had X number of billable hours.
I thought I was being paid a decent amount of money ($14,000 my first year). My focus was on my work and clients, not on my hours. I loved practicing law back then. But, I also realized early in my career that my happiness and future security depended on my ability to attract, retain and expand relationships with clients.
A partner for whom I did work (a mentor) once told me:
As a lawyer you will likely never be poor, but you will also likely never be rich. After all, you can’t make money practicing law while you are sleeping.
The partner who shared that advice is still alive. I am sure when he gave me the advice, he had never heard of “profits-per-partner.”
I wonder what he would say about firms with average profits-per-partner well over $1 million dollars, and associates required to bill so many hours that you wonder when they get a chance to sleep. Since he has a daughter, I am sure my partner mentor never dreamed that young women lawyers in some big law firms are now being encouraged to outsource their personal life and let their husbands stay at home to take care of the children.
You and I recognize that the legal profession has changed, and it will continue to change. The focus is increasingly on money, partners leave firms to join other firms where they can make more money. Partners in some firms not only compete against other firms, but also compete against partners in their own firm.
As the New Republic article points out, there is not enough corporate legal work to go around to maintain those $ Million plus profits-per-partner. Associates in big law firms no longer have any security. Interestingly, at least since 2008, partners in big law firms who do not bring in clients also have no security.
One thing made clear from the New Republic article is the only security any law firm lawyer has in 2013 is attracting clients and generating revenue. The problem is the best and the brightest young lawyers are not equipped to meet that requirement.
Even lawyers with a dedicated mentor have trouble making equity partner unless they meet a second criterion: demonstrating a potential for attracting clients…When, somewhere between the second and fifth year of their legal careers, they discover that brainpower is only incidental to their professional advancement—that the real key is an aptitude for schmoozing—it can be a rude awakening.
I disagree with Scheiber’s assertion that schmoozing is the aptitude that produces clients and revenue. But, he correctly points out that brainpower alone is not enough to survive in a law firm today. I wonder how many young lawyers were told not to worry about client development and later learned not worrying about it caused them to not be promoted, or worse, cost them their job?
By now, young lawyers must realize they need to learn how to attract, retain and expand relationships with clients. For some of you this may seem daunting. It doesn’t have to be. I enjoyed learning those skills long ago and many young lawyers enjoy learning those skills in 2013.
I wish we could bring back law firm life in those Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver days. But, you and I know those days are gone and are not coming back.
I believe learning and becoming successful in attracting, retaining and expanding relationships with clients is one of the only ways to change the Forbes finding: No. 1 Unhappiest Job: Associate Attorney. I was both happy and secure when I was able to attract clients. Unless you become a lawyer driven by greed you will be also.