"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Going in Circles

TaxProfBlog cites two recent studies of the legal profession that are somewhat depressing, less for me, but certainly for young people entering the profession.   The first is a study from the Georgetown Center for the Study of the Legal Profession called Report on the State of the Legal Market:
As we enter 2013, the legal market continues in the fifth year of an unprecedented economic downturn that began in the third quarter of 2008. At this point, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the market for legal services in the United States and throughout the world has changed in fundamental ways and that, even as we work our way out of the economic doldrums, the practice of law going forward is likely to be starkly different than in the pre-2008 period....  
The second is a study from Ohio State called Inside Report:
Law firms do find one bright spot in today's legal market: it is the oversupply of lawyers. The Georgetown report recognizes this quite candidly: "While excess capacity in the market is certainly not good news for young lawyers or, for that matter, law schools, it provides an environment in which law firms should have the flexibility to redesign their staffing models to respond to client demands. By embracing alternative approaches to staffing--including increased use of staff attorneys and non-partner track associates, contract lawyers, and part-time attorneys--firms can create more efficient and cost effective ways to deliver legal services." (p. 17)
This all sounds painfully familiar to me.   In my twenties and part of my thirties I was a teaching assistant, then a post-doctoral fellow, then an untenured adjust assistant professor, teaching English at universities. I had a Ph.D., but no benefits, and I was at the mercy of the Department head, who could make me more or less indigent by the simple expedient of giving me two sections a semester to teach rather than three or four, or by not hiring me for the following year. There were many of us like that (and still are), existing on the fringes of academia, while the few who were on the tenure-track or who had already gotten tenure had a comparatively easy and secure lifestyle. The economics of it were obvious -- there were simply too many young people who had been romanced by the idea of being an English professor in college chasing too few jobs.

Bailing out of academia in my mid-thirties (in the mid-1990s), I went to law school, then became an associate in a big law firm, then a partner. Life has been very good for the past fifteen years.

Now I see a future for the practice of law that looks an awful lot like what universities have looked like for a long time -- a caste system where there are a few partners who make a lot of money, a small track of associates who might become partners, and then a lot of part-time, no benefits, contract lawyers or "piece-work" lawyers hired to help out on particular tasks on particular cases. It's a pretty dismal prospect, but it's what happens when too many lawyers chase too few jobs (and, in fact, when too many lawyers and law firms are chasing too little legal work).

One aspect of legal practice is marginally better than academia -- you can hang out your own shingle as a lawyer, but you can't hang out your own shingle as an English professor. But that's a dog-eat-dog world, and one that is a far cry from the image of ten years ago of a 25 year-old getting out of law school and getting a $100k plus job right off the bat.

1 comment:

  1. I worked more than two jobs at times so that my kid could have the opportunity to "make it" doing whatever they desired. May graduation is now coming and I hold my breath and pray that somehow it'll all work out.